John Lasseter has manufactured entire worlds out ofthin air.
The co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville,California, and one of the masterminds behind themovie hits “Toy Story,” “ToyStory 2,” “A Bug’s Life,”“Monsters, Inc.” and “FindingNemo” has made stained-glasswindows walk, brought toys to life and taught bugs tospeak.
In other words, with more than hisshare of technological and cinematicmiracles, there seems to be nothingthat Lasseter can’t do.
But when his son Sam was diagnosedwith type 1 diabetes shortlyafter turning 9, Lasseter admits thathe was knocked for a loop, suddenlyleft feeling uncharacteristically uncertainand powerless.
‘Something That No ParentEver Wants to Hear’
“It’s something that no parent everwants to hear,” says Lasseter, who isthe father of five boys. “To hear thatyour son or daughter has a life-threatening,lifelong disease—news like that just shakes your world.”
Speaking from his home in Sonoma,Lasseter describes the momentalmost two years ago when he firstrealized that something was wrongwith Sam.
“Sam is really an amazing soccerplayer,” he says, “and I always lovewatching him play on his youth soccerteam. . . . One day, we were at thisone game, and every time he made arun at the ball, afterward he’d have tostop and lean over—completely out ofbreath. I was thinking, ‘Okay. Something’swrong. That’s not Sam.’”
The young boy, it turns out, hadalso been experiencing the classicsymptoms of excessive thirst and urination.When a family friend who is adoctor suggested that his conditionmight be diabetes, Sam was admittedto the University of California, SanFrancisco, medical center. It was therethat the diabetes diagnosis was confirmed.
“Boom. That was it,” remembersLasseter. “Sam’s whole life changed.Our whole life changed.”
For the next several weeks, theLasseters devoted themselves to learningabout diabetes.
“I wanted to know the whole historyof diabetes,” Lasseter says. “Iwanted some perspective on how farwe have to go to find a cure. Lookingat Sam, who was so scared—as a parent,it just rips your heart out. Thatfeeling, that moment, I still haven’tbeen able to shake it. One of thethings you go through is to think,‘Man! If there’s a way I can do anythingso this doesn’t happen to otherfamilies in the future, then I’m there!Just show me what I can do!’”
Support From Pixar Colleagues
Over the next days and weeks,Lasseter learned that many of hisPixar colleagues had diabetes, as theybegan dropping by his office to sharetheir experience and support.
One important ally was actor JohnRatzenberger, best known as Clifffrom the television show “Cheers.”Ratzenberger is the only performer tohave supplied a character’s voice inevery Pixar film (he’s Hamm thepiggy bank in both “Toy Story”movies, P.T. Flea in “A Bug’s Life,” theYeti in “Monsters, Inc.” and a schoolof moonfish in “Finding Nemo”).Ratzenberger’s son, now a teenager,has had type 1 since he was in elementaryschool.
“When you’re a parent whose childis diagnosed with diabetes,” saysRatzenberger, who for years hasworked to raise money for diabetesresearch, “the first thing that happensis that the earth swallows you whole.That’s exactly what happens. All of asudden, your perfect kid is hit withthis life-and-death battle, and, as aparent, it’s the end of the world foryou. But your job as a parent is toscale back up out of that hole andlearn to take care of your child.”
Ratzenberger is a major financialsupporter of childrenwithdiabetes.com,an online service created to supportchildren and families living with diabetes.Ratzenberger “helped out a lotwith emotional support,” according toLasseter. “We talked a lot, and he startedintroducing us to a lot of great people.It’s a wonderful community, thepeople who are working for a cure fordiabetes.”
‘Finding Nemo’ ScreeningBenefits Diabetes Research
For several years, with Lasseter’s support,Ratzenberger has hosted advancescreenings of Pixar films in LosAngeles as fundraisers for diabetes-relatedorganizations.
After Sam was diagnosed, John andNancy Lasseter quickly decided to putfuture films to use raising money forthe Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation(JDRF). In early May 2003, a$500-a-seat dinner and auction atPixar Studios—highlighted by an earlysneak peek at “Finding Nemo”—raisednearly half a million dollars. This wasadded to the $140,000 collected earlierat a similar event held beforethe English-language release of theOscar-winning “Spirited Away,” aproject for which Lasseter was executiveproducer, with Ratzenberger contributingthe voice of an irritable frog.
“We’re very fortunate,” Lasseteracknowledges. “We’ve worked hardfor it, but with these movies, we’vebeen given a wonderful opportunityto help out where it counts.”
Back to Soccer and Diving
Asked whether Sam has returned toplaying sports, Lasseter shouts, “Heck,yeah! And that’s not all. The thing I’mproudest of is that Sam—who’s tenyears old now—was certified lastThanksgiving as a scuba diver.”
Both Lasseter and his wife havebeen divers for decades, and now thewhole family is certified. To make surethat Sam stays safe, father and sonhave developed a series of hand signalsto communicate about blood-glucoselevels and the like, even dozensof feet underwater.
“If I want to ask, ‘Howare you feeling? How’syour blood [glucose]?’ Ipoint to his finger, as inpricking a finger to checkyour blood,” Lasseter explains.“And he’ll give mean okay sign or a thumbs-downsign to say he’s feelinglow.”
Lasseter keeps a tube ofglucose gel handy whilediving.
“We call it cake frosting,”he says. He’s alwaysprepared to give Sam anunderwater glucose squirt if the boystarts to feel dangerously low.
“The thing is, he’s a certified scubadiver!” Lasseter laughs. “At ten yearsold . . . he’s scuba diving! I’m so incrediblyproud of him. He wouldn’t let thedisease get in his way. . . . And now,he’s just an amazing little scuba diver.”
“Of course,” the proud father grins,“he’s always been a pretty amazingkid.”