John Ratzenberger Sailing

John Ratzenberger interview by Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD

Raised in a blue-collar neighborhood with traditional values and a strong work ethic, John Ratzenberger has soaked up the best of a classic American upbringing—he knows how to work, and he’s not afraid to do it. From factory work, to building sets at the Woodstock music festival, to life in the big city, to a rustic rural existence, to two near-death experiences, he’s conquered it all.
Everything seems to come easily to this quintessential do-it-yourselfer. His career reflects his versatility, taking him from his start in a comedy troupe traipsing through Europe, to improvising his role as the bar know-it-all in the award-winning Cheers, to the fine art of carpentry as he retreated from the demands of Hollywood to a picturesque island in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children with the great American values instilled in him since his own childhood.

Ratzenberger now hosts the hit Travel Channel series John Ratzenberger’s Made in America, which embraces all the things he loves about America but many people often forget. He joins the American men and women who invent and build the goods that are the backbone of our economy, traveling through the U.S. to factories like Wonder Bread, Gibson Guitar, Harley Davidson, Chevrolet, Gatorade, Crayola, John Deere, Craftsman and Goodyear Tire. And the show has struck a chord with viewers. People approach him more often in public now—to say how much they love Made in America—than they did at the height of Cheers. As he always has, Ratzenberger strives to give back to his community as much as it has given him.

Recently, ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, joined the tireless adventurer as he discussed life in the country, in the city and on the road; his experience with his son’s diabetes; and the efforts he has taken to increase diabetes awareness and to help other families of children with diabetes, across America and beyond.

Chet Cooper: When did you know you wanted to become an actor?

John Ratzenberger: I laughed my way through high school, and by the end I was really only eligible to be a carpenter, a marine or an actor. I wasn’t interested in acting at all then, but in college I got into it.

Gillian Friedman, MD: Where did you attend college?

Ratzenberger: I went to Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Friedman: And your major?

Ratzenberger: English. That’s why I speak the language so gooder. So much gooder than before anyway.

Cooper: (laughs) I think ABILITY may have found its next editor!

Ratzenberger: (laughs)I was an English major, and a fellow came up to me and said, “You really have a gift as an improviser.” I didn’t know what that was, so he started me off, and I formed a troupe called Sal’s Meat Market. Years later, I met up with another member of the troupe again in England. We toured Europe for six years just doing improvised comedy.

Friedman: What was the comedy show like?

Ratzenberger: We would use different topics and different stories for every show. There was a backdrop behind us with different hats, props and paraphernalia that we’d collected—sometimes on the way to the theater that night. One night in Holland we passed an alley and I saw an old derelict bicycle, so I picked it up and threw it on my shoulder; I put it backstage and actually used it during that show. The audience knew our shows changed almost 90 percent every night, so we would get repeat audiences. By our second year of doing it we were standing room only all through Europe. In Holland, they called us the American theater freaks.

For six or seven years we toured Europe, and then I started doing movies. I did about 25 films and started writing for the BBC and Grenada TV. And actually, it was a writing job that brought me to Los Angeles for CBS. That was about the time the Cheers audition came up.

Cooper [to Friedman]: See, I told you he was in Cheers.

Ratzenberger: (laughs) I didn’t say Cheers, I said Cheese. It took place in Wisconsin.


Friedman: I read that you actually invented the role of Cliff Claven on Cheers.

Ratzenberger: Yeah—I had originally come out to audition for another part, but as I was leaving the office after the audition, I turned around and asked them, “Do you have a bar know-it-all?” None of the creators was from New England. They were all Hollywood-centered. And I said, “Well, every local bar in New England has got a know-it-all—someone who pretends to have the knowledge of all mankind between his ears and is not shy about sharing it. All questions are deferred to this know-it-all, but there are never two in a bar. They are kind of like gun-slingers. If a new one comes in, then over a period of two or three days, I would imagine they would grind the bar to dust in their hands.”

Cooper: They are the alpha know-it-alls.

Ratzenberger: (laughs) You would have to be an alpha. There are no beta know-it-alls. You can always tell the know-it-alls by the amount of keys they have hanging from their belts. They are saying to you, the general public, Look how many things I know about; look how many things I’m in charge of; look at all my responsibilities. When you meet someone with a lot of keys on their belt, ask them a question—there is never a time when they don’t know the answer. Ask them, “What’s the largest selling bicycle in the United States?” Boom, right away, even if they don’t know if it’s true or not, they will say, “Schwinn.” That type of character always fascinates me.

Friedman: Do you know any personally?

Ratzenberger: Oh, sure.

Cooper: I’m trying to think if I know one. Maybe I didn’t go to enough bars when I was younger.

Ratzenberger: They say everyone knows one. You see, if you don’t know one, that means you are one.

Cooper: Let me re-think my answer. I’m sure I know at least one…

Ratzenberger: (laughs) I’m sure you do…Every neighborhood has one or two pubs. A pub is really just a meeting place; it’s where people go to discuss the problems of the world and attempt to solve them.

Cooper: Then, the Cheers theme song applies.

Ratzenberger: Sure—Where Everybody Knows Your Name. Pubs offer a comfort zone. I think that is what the church used to be before the church started getting attacked. Every Sunday people gathered. If there was a disability in your family, if your husband was out of work because of a back injury—well, the rest of the people in the congregation would get together and groceries would just show up on your doorstep. People actually took care of each other. Regardless of the philosophy or the theology, that function of meeting and gathering and checking in with each other was very, very important. And now it is less and less and so. Social services have had to take over what private organizations used to do.

Changing subjects, I’m familiar with ABILITY Magazine, but what is the main goal of the publication?

Cooper: Wait a minute…who’s leading this interview?


Friedman: We use engaging stories, like celebrity interviews, to promote health literacy, which is the concept of trying to educate as many people as possible about the health issues that affect us all, and the misconceptions and stigmas that sometimes surround them.

Ratzenberger: I have spent the last 14 years of my life doing that for diabetes—my son has it.

Cooper: He has type 1 diabetes?

Ratzenberger: Yes, he’s had it since he was three or four. There are two major types of diabetes, and I think they should actually be different diseases with different names. Type 1, also called juvenile diabetes because it is the type that kids get, is where your antibodies—your immune system—actually attack your pancreas and shut down insulin production. Even well-honed athletes can get it. Gary Hall, the Olympic swimmer—one day he just got it. He was diagnosed two or three years ago with type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 is called adult-onset because it usually occurs later in life. It involves a disruption in the delivery of insulin within your body and your body’s use of the insulin it gets, and it’s a whole different ballgame.
In both types, insulin doesn’t get to the cells the way it needs to. What insulin does is act as a gatekeeper. It opens the gate so the glucose or the sugars from your blood system can get into the cells that need it for energy. Without that gate opened, the sugar builds up in your blood and you go into a coma. If the levels get high enough, you die.

Cooper: In dealing with your son’s diabetes, have you found that the Internet has facilitated some of that sense of community that you reminisce about?

Ratzenberger: I don’t see the Internet as beneficial to our physically helping each other. But it is still helpful. I actually helped start a website called ChildrenWithDiabetes.com. The parents have really utilized the site to talk and connect with each other. We have in-person meetings as well; the last meeting was in Orlando, Florida, and had 5,000 attendees.

Cooper: Impressive. Is it an annual event?

Ratzenberger: Yes it is. The website has grown, and now there are medical personnel available online to answer specific questions. Let’s say you are a mom in North Dakota raising a child who has type 1 diabetes, and all of the sudden your kid comes down with the flu. Because blood sugar is affected by the fever, you have to make an awful lot of mathematical adjustments—what your child eats, the amount of insulin and so on—and you are miles and miles away from any help. What you really need is to speak to an endocrinologist, so here is a place that you can go and ask the questions. Within hours, if not minutes, somebody will get back to you.

Friedman: I don’t think most of the general public is aware how serious an illness diabetes is.

Ratzenberger: I go to Washington DC yearly to shake the money tree. They don’t understand. Diabetes kills four times as many people as breast cancer and AIDS combined—four times. It costs us $92 billion every single year in after-care costs: dialysis, blindness, amputations, prosthetics. When a person passes away the doctor will put something like kidney failure on the death certificate, which is actually the final cause of death. But what isn’t said is that the kidney failure was caused by diabetes.

Friedman: Diabetes affects every major organ and is one of the largest risk factors for stroke and heart attack.

Ratzenberger: If people understood, they would be in the streets with pitchforks and torches.

Cooper: How common is misdiagnosis?

Ratzenberger: You could have diabetes and not know it. You might think, I’m just a little tired. Some people cruise through it for 10 to 15 years without knowing they have it. They say, “Geez, my fingers are a little numb,” or, “I can’t see all that well,” or, “I can’t feel my toes.” Unless they specialize in endocrinology, a lot of doctors commonly misdiagnose, especially with children. I actually know a doctor who misdiagnosed his own child.
Luckily, I caught it with my son. I just noticed the symptoms—excessive thirst, frequent urination and a sweet, almond-type smell to the breath—because I had been familiar with diabetes through a friend in England.

Friedman: What did happen with your son?

Ratzenberger: We were out looking for pianos. Every time we went into a store he would have to get some water, and before we left the store he would have to use the toilet. So I got him checked out and he was diagnosed. For the parent of any child who is diagnosed with something, it’s out of your comprehension. The earth just opens up and swallows you whole. It’s tough, but it’s tougher for the child because it’s going to be lifelong for them.

Cooper: You recently hosted your annual Newport Under the Stars event in Newport, Rhode Island, to benefit the Joslin Diabetes Center. How did it go?

Ratzenberger: The golf tournament raised close to a million dollars for the Elliott P. Joslin Camp in Massachusetts, which helps kids tend to their own diabetes. Whether you are six years old or two years old, your blood sugar has to be checked with a finger prick four or five or six or seven times a day. So these kids are taught how to take care of themselves instead of always having a parent or a guardian doing everything.

Another aspect of juvenile diabetes is that you often have a child who at one, two or three years of age has not yet reached the age of logic or comprehension—like my son—and you walk in the room and the kid starts screaming because you are there to hurt him. How can you explain to a one-year-old that you are saving his life? It has a significant psychological effect on the parents.

Friedman: It is really a problem with kids who have any serious illness, but the classic one is diabetes because it involves management so many times a day.

Ratzenberger: Management meaning being stuck with needles.

Friedman: Right.

Ratzenberger: It’s not just your finger pricks or the arm pricks, but also the syringes for the insulin injection afterward. When children are young, they can’t have an insulin pump because they don’t know how to operate it.

Friedman: There are other dynamics also. As children learn to care for themselves, it’s normal for them to mess things up a little; they learn by experiencing consequences from their mistakes. But when they have an illness such as diabetes, where the consequences of messing up can be fatal, then their parents can’t afford for the child to experience the normal developmental processes of separation and learning from adverse consequences. Those kids can sometimes have a hard time during that adolescent period where their drive is for independence. Did your son go through that?

Ratzenberger: Sure. And I don’t know what age that ends. It can be complicated. Some children understand the care their parents give them is created with love. So to the child, having them take over their own care may mean to them, “Oh, you don’t love me anymore.” There is a way of doing it, like at camps, where friends who also have diabetes can help each other learn to manage their care.

Cooper: I’m sure the peer interaction can be incredibly beneficial.

Ratzenberger: Sure, and all of the counselors at the camp have type 1 diabetes. My son was a counselor at the camp. I’m lucky. My son is doing real well. He is a big, strong, smart, good-looking kid.

Friedman: It must be therapeutic for the kids to get support from other children and adults who understand what they’re going through, especially if they don’t know very many other kids with diabetes. I’ve seen families encounter a lot of ignorance about diabetes.

Ratzenberger: There are schools that won’t let kids have a snack, won’t let them bring their insulin and syringes to school because of the idiocy of this over-reaction to weapons. Luckily, I could afford good schools, so it was different for my son, but some kids aren’t so fortunate. We work with children where we have to go and sit down with teachers and say, “Listen, this is a life-and-death issue.” So, the education is not all the same—the health literacy, I guess, is the term you used. We try to improve that with the teachers.

And people, you think, would know better. My son was in the middle of a high school basketball game and the ref stopped it because he thought my son had a beeper. It was his insulin pump. The guy stopped the game and grabbed it. My son grabbed it back from him, explained what it was, stuck it in his pocket and said, “Now let’s get back to the game.”.…Continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the John Ratzenberger issue include Letter from the Editor — Breast Cancer; Screening; Letter from Congressman RamstadTelehealth Technology; HeadlinesAFB, IBM and Technology Innovators; HumorEverybody is Somebody; Etiquette of GriefHelpful Tips on How to Respond; Mary Jo CodeyNew Jersey First Lady Speaks Out on Postpartum Depression; Paralympic Military ProgramCalifornia Clinic; Braille InstituteSeeing Life Through the Camera; RecipesDesserts to Feel Good About; Univ. Design/VisitabilityBuilding Neighborhoods; EmploymentNo Hands? No Problem; Events and Conferences... subscribe

More excerpts from the John Ratzenberger issue:

John Ratzenberger — Comic Roots, Cheers, and His Call to Action

Ben Vereen — A Wicked Interview with the Broadway Star

Diabetes — What Everyone Should Know

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome What You Didnít Know

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