Survival Guide: Former "Cheers" actor John Ratzenberger

John Ratzenberger, former "Cheers" actor, now host of Travel Channel's "Made in America".

Rick Friedman

On the television show "Cheers," John Ratzenberger portrayed a know-it-all mailman whose commitment to the American work ethic was often undermined by the barstool. But don't confuse the Bridgeport, Conn., native with Cliff Clavin, the character he played for 11 years on the situation comedy. Ratzenberger is very serious about working hard.

This TV season, he launched a series on the Travel Channel called "Made in America," where he travels around the country exploring some of the best products made in the United States, including Sikorsky helicopters, Gibson guitars, Airstream trailers and Campbell's soup.

Ratzenberger spoke with Senior Editor Nick Wakeman about what goes into the making of great products, as well as great companies.

WT: What makes a great product?

Ratzenberger: Have you ever looked closely at an Airstream trailer? I was so impressed, I bought one. Or Sturm Ruger rifles. They have their own foundry, and they work in tolerances of 1/6000th of an inch. They work at it with such pride that you'd think the fate of western civilization hinges on them getting it just right.

It all comes down to pride. That's what was common in all of the companies we've done on the show. Pride. The people had a palpable pride in what they did.

WT: What attracted you to this show?

Ratzenberger: When I was approached about this show, I jumped at the chance, because I grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., and Bridgeport was the industrial gem of the Northeast when I was growing up. We made sewing machines. Remington Arms was there. We made the bead chains for light-bulb fixtures. Sikorsky helicopters is there. Now, just Sikorsky and a very few others are left.

WT: What is lost when companies leave a community?

Ratzenberger: I noticed that pride also leaves when companies leave. It is very important to have pride to hand down to the next generation. Without that pride, what are we left with?

When we were doing our show on John Deere, a fellow on the assembly line told me that anytime he and his family pass a John Deere harvester -- and he knows his kids are getting sick of it -- he stops and points and says, "Your dad helped build that." The kids get the message: Dad helps feed the world.

WT: Where does that pride come from?

Ratzenberger: It's exactly what built our civilization, the Judeo-Christian work ethic. You get up in the morning and put your hand to something useful. You take responsibility for yourself and your family. It's simple and it's direct, but it works.

In Bridgeport, there were a lot of races and ethnicities: Italians, Poles, Germans, Africans, Portuguese. We were bonded by the fact that our parents worked hard, they made things.

Little League uniforms said things like Al's Tire Repair, Lou's Hardware and Angelo's Italian Restaurant. Those stores were all kept in business by the people who worked in the factories. When the factories leave, all those other businesses go. You're never going to see the name of a Chinese T-shirt factory on your kid's Little League uniform.

WT: When putting together this show, what did you have in mind?

Ratzenberger: I wanted to remind people who we are and what built this civilization. And to show children that there is a process, that things just don't pop up out of the earth already shrink-wrapped and on your shelf. There is a process, and that process starts with a work ethic and a lot of pride.

WT: What was it about Airstream that made you buy one?

Ratzenberger: The way it was built, the care that goes into building each and every one of them. They are all handmade. There is no automation. Every single rivet, nut and bolt and piece of finished wood is installed and done by hand.

Again, it goes back to pride. [Airstream employees] actually look forward to going to work, and they have a lot of bragging rights at the end of the day.

WT: What have you learned in doing this show?

Ratzenberger: There are tens of millions of people out there that want these companies to stay. Because of "Cheers," people think they know me, so they come up and talk to me, and they all say the same thing -- that's the lifeblood of who they are. Without that, who are we?

You can't have a rock star unless somebody builds that guitar. American made products were and are the best made products in the world, simply because of that work ethic.

WT: Anything you learned that surprised you?

Ratzenberger: Yeah. Campbell's soup is cooked in the can. That was a big surprise. *John Ratzenberger, host of Travel Channel's "Made in America"

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above.

WT Daily

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.