John Ratzenberger searches his memory - he's probably been asked this question a hundred times - but can't remember anything special about his audition or voice-over sessions for the original "Toy Story."
"It was a job," Ratzenberger says. "I believe in taking every job seriously, and doing my best work. But I didn't feel anything different. I definitely didn't know I'd be back."
Since that voice-over session for the 1995 movie "Toy Story," the company has grown tenfold, moved to a huge campus in Emeryville, Calif., and released six of the 10 top-grossing animated films of all time. But one thing has remained the same: Ratzenberger. He's returned to provide a voice for every one of Pixar's features - "Toy Story 3" makes 11.
Pixar filmmakers refer to Ratzenberger as their "good-luck charm." After voicing Hamm the piggy bank in "Toy Story," he was cast three years later as the ringmaster P.T. Flea in "A Bug's Life." The roles since then have been seemingly random: an abominable snowman, a school of moonfish, a super-villain, an anthropomorphic Mack truck, a waiter, a space traveler and a construction worker.
Ratzenberger says the Pixar tradition is one of several fortuitous events in his career. He was a carpenter at the 1969 concert at Woodstock, had a cameo in "The Empire Strikes Back," received a career-defining role as Cliff Clavin in "Cheers" and was a last-minute replacement in 2007 on "Dancing With the Stars."
"You will never hear me complain about the wonderful things that have happened to me," Ratzenberger says.
Both sides have a hard time explaining at what point Ratzenberger and the studio became permanently intertwined - it seems to be one of those things that just sort of happened. The actor has never lived anywhere near Pixar, and his politics are far to the right of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. But the Connecticut native, who once worked as a house framer, appreciates the studio's strong work ethic - and feels at home in the halls of Pixar, where the quality of the finished product is more important than the bottom line.
"It's not a mistake that they've had the success that they've had," Ratzenberger says. "They don't make a movie until they're satisfied with every aspect of the production. When you look at the old Disney films, you see the similarities. They both make movies with a lot of heart, and they don't rush anything out until it's ready."
The actor generally does his voice-over work alone - "Up" was the only movie where another actor (Ed Asner) was in the booth with him - and records mostly in Los Angeles, with occasional trips to the Pixar campus. He doesn't see his script until minutes before he starts working, and doesn't see any film until a month or two before its release.
Ratzenberger says working with the makers of "Cheers" and working with Pixar filmmakers are actually very similar experiences. In both cases, the artists are in control. And he says the approach to humor is similar. The characters are unpredictable, and it's rare that the audience can see the joke coming a mile away.
His favorite character is P.T. Flea, the ringmaster from "A Bug's Life," arguably Pixar's least-celebrated film. ("I like him because he's so unbalanced. He'll go into a rage for no reason. I've always found that kind of humor funny.") And he didn't mind playing Hamm - his Pixar character that's probably the closest to Clavin - for a third time.
Next year, he returns as Mack for "Cars 2." He likes that role a lot, too. Since he became a regular at Pixar, the writers seem to be finding roles that fit his working-class roots. Ratzenberger hosted and produced a reality series called "Made in America" for five years that was a tribute to the working man, and his Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation - www.nutsandboltsfoundation.org - was set up to "nurture the tinkering spirit" in kids.
His repeat performances at Pixar definitely couldn't have hurt that foundation. And there are other strange perks. His Pixar appearances, along with cameos in "Empire" and "Superman," have vaulted the one-time struggling actor into the Top 10 top-grossing movie actors of all time.
Still, he doesn't assume he'll be in the next movie - even if everyone else on the planet does. Ratzenberger doesn't have to audition anymore, but he says the process for "Toy Story 3" was pretty much the way it was for the first film.
"They call me and say, ‘Hey, we have a character we want you to play,' " Ratzenberger says. "I ask when and where, and then I show up."