The first time Tom Hanks nearly destroyed Connor Ratliff’s career was on June 12, 2000. The Missouri-born Ratliff, then an aspiring actor in his mid-twenties living in England, landed what he hoped would be a life-changing role in HBO’s World War II epic Band of Brothers, playing Private Zielinski, the aide to the show’s central character, the stoic officer Dick Winters (a young Damian Lewis). The day before he was set to begin filming, he learned that America’s most iconic actor-slash-good-guy — who had developed the miniseries and was directing the episode that featured Zielinski, aptly titled “Crossroads” — wanted him to come back in, essentially to audition again. Worse, Ratliff’s agent’s assistant told him that Hanks felt Ratliff had “dead eyes.”
The re-audition went by in a blur — by this point, most of the Zielinski dialogue had been cut, leading a puzzled Hanks to ask “Oh, is that it? I wish there was more!” — and moments later, Ratliff’s worst fears were realized: Hanks had decided to replace him. In a state of shock, he spent the afternoon wandering the streets of London. When he came across a poster of Hanks’ most recent hit,The Green Mile, in Picadilly Circus, it was a personal rock-bottom.
“I just remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to forget this. I’m going to be constantly reminded of this experience,’” Ratliff says now. “A lot of bad experiences in life, you can get away from. But when an aspect of that experience is so ingrained in the popular culture, that was when I realized this thing I thought was going to be so great was now a huge bummer for me.”
Ratliff was right: Losing the job was a huge bummer. It triggered a series of events that drove him out of acting for the better part of a decade. And even 20 years later, after working his way back into showbiz through improv comedy, he is constantly reminded of the experience, just as he knew he would be. But that’s because he’s turned it into a hugely successful podcast, Dead Eyes (Season Three premieres Oct. 28), which rehashes the event of his firing in minute detail, interrogating the very concept of disappointment along the way. During the pandemic, the series reached new heights of popularity, bringing in prominent guest stars like Seth Rogen and Elijah Wood, as well as several key Band of Brothers contributors. So, too, did Ratliff’s long-running parody The George Lucas Talk Show, in which he frosts his hair and beard to play the notoriously self-aggrandizing Star Wars director, forever defending the prequel films and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Normally a live show that ran at the Upright Citizens Brigade theaters in New York City, it went virtual during quarantine, with live-streaming episodes raising nearly $200,000 for various charitable causes.
Both shows hinge to some degree on Ratliff’s ability to pathologically commit to a bit, a quality his George Lucas co-host, Griffin Newman (who plays Watto, the junk trader who kept young Anakin Skywalker and his mother as slaves in The Phantom Menace), compares to Andy Kaufman. “The defining thing that makes him funnier than anyone else, in my opinion,” Newman says, “is he is more patient than any other comedian I know. He will wait longer in a show for a bit to pay off. He will wait for a bit that did not work to find a new life. But he will also commit to something for years until it ends up producing anything. At a certain point, once it becomes funny, the fact that it took two years to become funny makes it even funnier.”
Ratliff as George Lucas
Sitting across from me at a hi-top table at the Caveat club on the Lower East side in early August, Ratliff looks happy, his eyes very much alive. It was here, only a few days earlier, that he’d had his first in-person improv show since before the pandemic began. As we talk, he’s still basking in the glow of being on stage in front of live humans again, even if, as usual, he remembers almost nothing of what he and his fellow performers did that night.
“I’ve spent so much of the last decade doing things that are completely impermanent and ephemeral,” he says. “You do a show and it’s over and there’s no record of that. And there’s no legacy. There’s just the feeling that you had in the room and in that moment.”
This is not the version of the career he envisioned for himself when he was growing up in the Midwest. “My fantasies were all about creating a body of work,” he says, recalling how his childhood bedroom was overflowing with Star Wars memorabilia and bound volumes of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. Even as an adult, his apartment is filled with posters and DVDs and toys celebrating the work he loves best. “No one ever says, ‘Can you sign my podcast?’” he says with a shrug.
Ratliff’s father Bill was a local TV weatherman and kids’ show host in Connor’s native Jefferson City, and both Bill and Connor’s mother Gretta encouraged him to perform. In high school, he played the Timothy Hutton role in a local production of Ordinary People, and, for a while, the guy who played his therapist was a University of Missouri college student named Jon Hamm. The future Mad Men star was instantly impressed with his younger co-star.
“When you’re with somebody who is very secure in their performance, it makes it a lot easier,” says Hamm. “That was Connor, and at such a young age. He had that kind of shattered innocence and emotional availability that was right there.”
After a brief college stint at Missouri, Ratliff headed abroad to be part of the inaugural class at the new Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. He stayed in England after graduation, finding enough stage work to make a living. Even at the time of the Band of Brothers audition, Zielinski was a small role, but the chance to work with Hanks and so many other accomplished people felt like the big break he’d been hoping for.
Instead, the experience of being hired and fired so abruptly left him broken. He tried to keep his career going for another year or so, but kept butting against larger forces he couldn’t control, like the time an indie film he’d written and acted in finally got booked to play the South by Southwest festival — only it was in October of 2001, weeks after 9/11, when few Americans were ready to fly anywhere. He spent a while in Oregon, working at a friend’s daycare center and being rejected by the local Shakespeare festival, then moved to New York to give acting one more go. Whatever contacts and career momentum he’d made in England simply didn’t translate. He put on his own plays but couldn’t get people to come in a city with so many splashier options. An agent asked for his acting reel, then refused to watch it; when Ratliff came, at her request, to pick it up, her receptionist wouldn’t even buzz him in, leaving him screaming that they should just throw it in the trash. He decided that’s also where his acting dreams would lie. Working at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, he tried to take stock of a life that hadn’t turned out as planned, including a divorce around this time that he doesn’t like to talk about.
“I was married in my twenties; by the time I was 30, I was divorced,” he says simply. “So in addition to career failure, at the age of 30, I had sort of failed in every box you could check. I don’t have any prospects, I don’t have a career, I don’t have any of the things that any of my friends had. I was working at a bookstore and living in an apartment that was difficult to afford month to month. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I didn’t know what to do.”
In the early Seventies, Bill Ratliff had worked with the improv comedy giant Del Close. Bill and Gretta, who was long active in community theater, saw improv as a potential soft re-entry point into show business for their son, and kept encouraging him to take a class at Upright Citizens Brigade. Ratliff reluctantly agreed to try it, expecting little. Instead, he found that he was good at improv, and began advancing rapidly through the UCB hierarchy until Chris Gethard invited him to join his troupe, the Stepfathers. Ratliff, conditioned to expect rejection by that point, responded by asking Gethard if he could go back to his lower-level team if the Stepfathers kicked him out, or whether failure meant he’d be booted from UCB altogether.
Right away, Gethard appreciated Ratliff’s “borderline maniacal ability to commit to things.” He explains, “It just gives you such freedom to mess around, because you can bounce any idea off him and it will never make him blink. It can be a little intense to be on stage with Connor, because if he’s playing a serial killer, you will actually feel unsettled. If he’s playing someone who tries to seduce you, you are getting seduced. The standards for acting in improv are very low, but Connor’s standards as an actor are impeccable.”
Griffin Newman, who’s been playing Watto opposite Ratliff’s George Lucas since 2016, admits to being intimidated at first by his co-star’s intensity. “It was, like, ‘How do you have a conversation with that guy?,” he says. “‘He seems so deep in his thing and never breaks. Who is he really?’ It’s a thing I’m still trying to figure out to some degree. The thing that’s fascinating is that he is simultaneously one of the most genuine, direct people I know, and yet he is totally inscrutable. The answer is, he is a deeply committed, deeply obsessive, entirely earnest person.”
But what others see as inscrutability, Ratliff views as practical craft. “My style of improv is about sustainability,” he explains. “When I enter an improv scene, I am prepared to live there for the rest of my days. I don’t need to get a bunch of laughs right away. I want to come in knowing what my character wants. That probably comes from being an actor before I was an improviser.”
D’Arcy Carden did improv shows on the road and in New York with Ratliff, and quickly learned to say yes to whatever ridiculous idea he had next. “We did an hour at UCB where he pretended to be an exercise instructor,” The Good Place star recalls, “and me and another actor, with no rehearsal or information, were behind him doing exactly what he did. Just jazzercise-y exercises, motivational stuff. We were dripping with sweat by the end of it. He’s not like, ‘And this is why it will be funny’ or ‘This is why it’ll work.’ The UCB actors who came up with him just know to trust him. You don’t do the exercise show with Connor to get on television or to get seen, but because it’s 100 percent fun and silly.”
Gethard brought Ratliff on as a writer and performer for his public-access series, The Chris Gethard Show. Soon, Ratliff had the idea that he would run for president via the show, with the only plank of his platform being that he was already over 35. He debated rival candidate Jimmy “The rent is too damn high!” McMillan, in what Gethard considers a creative breakthrough for the series. At that year’s South by Southwest, one of the Gethard Show recurring characters, the Human Fish, challenged fans to wrestle him in an inflatable pool filled with Crisco. On the spur of the moment, someone suggested instead that the Fish wrestle Ratliff, who was there in a suit and tie to canvass for voters. Ratliff stepped away for a moment and returned wearing nothing but a pair of Connor Ratliff for President jockey shorts.
“It had his face on it, it had graphics on it,” marvels Gethard. “My hand to god, we did not expect him to strip down. So after, we all get backstage, laughing about it, and we go, ‘Connor, how did you know you’d go there? Is that why you wore those underwear?’ He goes, ‘No, I wear them every time I do the president bit.’ He bought some of his own merch!”
“I had committed to the bit in secret,” Ratliff says. “It’s a good example where if you fully commit, you’re prepared for moments like that that are serendipitous. It’s a pretty wonderful feeling.”
While working on Gethard Show, Ratliff began doing The George Lucas Talk Show at UCB, initially with Shaun Diston in the sidekick role as Jar Jar Binks. Early installments played to sparse and mostly confused crowds — executive producer Patrick Cotnoir remembers one episode where a group of high schoolers came after their prom and “had no idea what was happening” — but eventually, they built a reliable, if small, audience that was coming specifically to see whatever weirdness Ratliff and company had on tap. Ratliff began focusing on less celebrated Lucas interests, like his love of Norman Rockwell, and would talk at length about Butter Boy and Butter Girl, an obscure pair of commemorative Rockwell plates. It flummoxed everyone in the room each time, but Ratliff kept doing Butter Boy material until it finally began working as a running gag in the virtual pandemic shows.
It was that famous, almost unsettling patience paying dividends — as it did in the form of Dead Eyes, too. For years, Ratliff felt too ashamed to even tell the Hanks story. But when he started at UCB, he realized it was a good icebreaker, in part because every actor has experienced professional rejection and disappointment. Eventually, Ratliff began thinking of turning the incident into a podcast, applying the investigative format of a show like Serial to something incredibly minor and low-stakes. In the early episodes, he called in favors from friends like Carden, Hamm, and Zach Woods (another member of the Stepfathers) to appear and help him tell the story. Then he started hearing from actual members of the Band of Brothers cast and crew, as well as celebrity fans like Rogen, all of whom wanted to guest on the show. In one episode, Ratliff even got a degree of closure when he and Rogen joined Band alums Ron Livingston and Stephen McCole to act out the Zielinski scene.
Performing the scene also served as a humbling reminder about what a fuss Ratliff was raising over such a tiny part, which in the final version of the series had only two lines of dialogue. “Zielinski was not a star-making role,” he admits. “I’m not the actor who was almost one of the leads in Lord of the Rings. I would have been forgotten one way or the other.” The actor who replaced him, Adam Sims, also wound up working at a bookstore for a while afterwards, and told Ratliff that one day Ron Livingston came into the store to buy a book, leaving Sims too embarrassed to remind him of their brief work together. In the Sliding Doors universe where Ratliff kept the job, he’s sure of two things: One is that his career still would have fallen apart at some point around that age, because “I was not prepared for the amount of rejection and failure that are just a natural part of being an actor.” The other is that watching the final version of the Zielinski scene would have also left him depressed, but without the great anecdote. “You can’t even make a podcast about that! I know how to stretch a story, but I don’t think I could do, ‘I had five lines in Band of Brothers and they cut it down to two!’ That’s where I draw the line about what should be in a podcast.”
Dead Eyes launched in January 2020, and was quickly getting Ratliff more attention than anything else he’d done in his career. He joined the indie rock band Guster on tour as their opening act, and on March 11, they played St. Louis, with Ratliff’s parents and many old friends from Missouri in the audience. Backstage midway through the show, he saw his phone blowing up with notifications that the first big celebrity had come forward to say they had tested positive for the coronavirus — and it was none other than Tom Hanks. Ratliff knew this news would only hasten a push for some kind of Covid lockdown, which would cancel the tour. And if Hanks should die, then the whimsical, quixotic nature of Dead Eyes would now seem in very poor taste. Once again, Tom Hanks was threatening to derail Connor Ratliff’s career.
“It was very weird to, for the second time in my life, lose a show business job [because of Tom Hanks],” says Ratliff, who greatly admires the two-time Oscar winner and was frustrated that some Dead Eyes fans assumed he’d be happy about this turn of events. “Obviously, him catching Covid is very different than [him] directly saying ‘You’re fired.’ But I just couldn’t believe that there was even a slight thematic resonance, that there was even an echo of it. I don’t take this personally, but in many ways, that made it the proper 2020 version of [the situation]. Because I was able to realize that it wasn’t personal in the year 2000. And the biggest problem with all of it — other than some bad communication that made things worse for me — is that I was not strong enough at that age to process it as anything other than personal rejection. Personal failure: ‘I am a failure. That is my identity now.’”
Even that epiphany took some time. After Guster canceled the tour, Ratliff drove home with his parents to hunker down for what many hoped would only be a few weeks of quarantine. But his mood was already dark, as he suspected, correctly, that the pandemic would make it very hard for him to perform in public for a long time. Back in New York, Newman and Cotnoir could tell that their friend was, as Newman puts it, “completely despondent,” so they tried convincing him to do George Lucas as a virtual show, just to shake him out of his funk. He resisted until they suggested doing it as a fundraiser for all the UCB staffers put out of work when the theater closed early in the pandemic.
Ratliff agreed, “but in classic Connor fashion,” Newman says, “the thing we’d told him would be easy to pull off became him saying, ‘The way we’re going to raise money is we’re going to watch every single Star Wars movie. If we don’t do the Ewok movies, it’s not worth doing!’” They made themselves delirious by live-streaming for 31 hours straight, raising more than $20,000 for their UCB colleagues, and soon they were doing regular fundraising binges of shows like Arli$$, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Muppets Tonight. As with Dead Eyes, the variety and celebrity level of the George Lucas guests rose thanks to people being able to appear from their own homes, from Kevin Smith to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade villain Julian Glover. (Full disclosure: I appeared in a Season Two episode of Dead Eyes and have been a guest on both the in-person and virtual versions of George Lucas Talk Show, including one time that resulted in me watching The Star Wars Holiday Special for charity.)
“It was a tough time for everybody,” says Cotnoir. “But for someone who’s so creative and puts himself out there in so many ways, it was rough. But I think having Lucas and Dead Eyes, being able to bury [himself] in these things, it’s helping keep those creative juices flowing, even if you’re not making money at them.”
Ratliff is convinced Dead Eyes struck a chord with so many people during the pandemic because its themes are far more universal than his odd and specific Hanks run-in would suggest. “It’s about coping with disappointments,” he says. “And that is also a big part of what the pandemic has been about. For a lot of people who have done all the right things and done everything to be safe, it still doesn’t mean that they feel good about it, and everybody has had to change their plans about everything… I think people feel the way I felt in my twenties when everything that I tried to do didn’t work. And in different ways, George Lucas is a comfort to the people who enjoy it, because for four hours every Sunday night, they didn’t have to think about their problems. They were just in this world where they could lose their mind a little.”
George Lucas has also given him an excuse to finally create collectibles. In typically obsessive fashion, he has recently produced both a vinyl GLTS soundtrack album and a limited GLTS-themed press run of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The latter is happening entirely because actor Stephen Tobolowsky discussed his fondness for the book on a recent appearance with George and Watto. The former, meanwhile, required him to study up on music copyright law and track down the rights holders to the Star Wars Holiday Special songs so he could get permission to put them on the album. In the process, he discovered most of the songs had been written by Gillian Welch’s parents — surprising the singer-songwriter with the news that they owned the publishing rights.
Given his obsessiveness, as well as his focus on sustainability in his work, it’s not surprising that Ratliff has been doing George Lucas since 2014, and that he’s mined three podcast seasons and counting about losing a two-line role that nobody else remembers. He insists he can do both projects forever if there’s an audience for them — maybe even keep Dead Eyes going beyond the hoped-for moment when he lands his white whale and gets to ask Tom Hanks about their brief encounter.
“If I get the answers I’m looking for [from him], that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have more questions, or there wouldn’t be more stories to tell,” he argues. “I certainly haven’t faced the last of my disappointments.”
“I think he has gone out of his way to now not get Tom Hanks on the show,” says Newman, noting that Ratliff by this point knows many acquaintances of Hanks (Jon Hamm included) who could link the two of them up. “Because he knows that’s how the show ends, and he’s not ready to end it yet. As it does, with any Connor project, the show has turned into something much bigger than this one idea.”
While Ratliff would gladly trade whatever success he’s gained over these last two years for a world where the pandemic didn’t happen and he was just “an improv comedian in New York who occasionally books roles on TV shows or Netflix films,” he is getting more meetings to pitch projects he’d create. Dead Eyes is proof of concept that there’s an audience for his esoteric ideas, though he’d also be happy working in a more familiar playground. “I would love to be able to make a Star Wars thing,” he says, “especially a Star Wars thing that’s really funny.” He is also convinced that “the baller move” for the people currently making Star Wars shows would be to put Jar Jar Binks in The Mandalorian or The Book of Boba Fett and finally get fans to love him.
Perhaps it’s not surprising Ratliff is so drawn to Jar Jar, among the more notable failures of one of the most successful men in the history of the movie business.
“All these big flops are the keys to other success, which is the way that I view failure,” he says. “Dead Eyes is [about] this huge failure in my career. And it’s also the most successful thing I’ve ever done. But it’s not something I would have anticipated 15 years ago. Even a year ago, I was so negative, and these things helped pull me out of it, in part because they are life-affirming. And also, they are about how you can be the most successful of the most successful filmmakers of all time, and you’ve still got to take your lumps when people don’t like Jar Jar Binks. He’s like anybody else, you know?”