He steals every scene he's part of in Pixar's Cars, a fantasy populated by anthropomorphized vehicles. But Mater the buck-toothed, redneck tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) has a human alter ego: Douglas ''Mater'' Keever, a 48-year-old construction superintendent who lives in Sherrills Ford, N.C. Keever hasn't missed a big race in years at the Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, a city that's about 40 miles away from his home and now he's better known around the track than ever. ''You don't know what Pixar has done for Mater,'' says Keever, talking about himself in the third person, as he's wont to do. ''They've taken a poor old country boy and got him involved in something awesome.''
Cars director John Lasseter first met Keever at the Lowe's Speedway in 2001, while on a fact-finding research trip. (Yes, Lasseter got paid to hang out at racetracks, just like he got paid to play with toys as ''research'' for the Toy Story movies...ah, what a charmed life.) There's a rise in the infield at Lowe's known to the locals as ''Redneck Hill,'' where hardcore fans stay in tents and pop-up campers. And that's where Keever had long since become known as ''the self-appointed mayor,'' meetin' and greetin' and towin' cans of beer around to his pals in a little red kiddie wagon.
When Lasseter first walked up to him, Keever offered a brewski and introduced himself the way he always does to new folks in his life: ''My name's Mater,'' he said. Mater? asked Lasseter. ''Yeah, like tuh-mater, but without the tuh.'' (Does that exchange sound familiar? It should it's exactly the way Mater the tow truck introduces himself to the Lightning McQueen character in Cars.) Keever got the nickname as a kid, chucking ''tuh-maters'' around a farm run by his mom's parents.
Lasseter was impressed with Keever right off the bat, because ''he defined NASCAR fan,'' the director says. But neither man realized, at that point, that the seeds for the birth of a Pixar cartoon star had been planted. A while later in Cars' production, Lasseter and Co. were having a lot of trouble nailing down the details of a cheerful truck character. The idea was it'd be a flatbed, not a tow truck. But Lasseter recalls that ''it wasn't landing.'' And then he hit on a great idea: Let's use Doug Keever's nickname and make the truck a tow truck. And his name's Mater. Get it? Tow-Mater?
Right there during that fateful story-conference meeting, Lasseter says, he called Keever on his cell phone in the middle of a construction job. Was it okay if Pixar hijacked his handle? Dadgum, sure thing, Keever said. He was so excited he didn't care that Lasseter had interrupted him in the middle of prepping a huge batch of concrete. ''I just don't see how they can be so creative,'' Keever says of the Pixar folks. ''I suppose that's why they're in the position they're in, and why I'm in the position I'm in.''
After a whole lot of character work done by cowriter and codirector Joe Ranft, plus final voice work by Larry the Cable Guy, Mater wound up the breakout star of Cars. If that sounds hyperbolic, just listen to audiences whoop at the cow-tipping scene, or the early-morning moment when Mater wakes up, oil dripping from his mouth like drool, and accidentally backfires. (Animation-homage-inside-gag alert: As Mater stretches out his kinks, he moves almost exactly the way the dog Tramp does when you first see him beside a railroad car in Lady and the Tramp a favorite Disney-movie moment for Lasseter.)
Eventually, Keever also wound up recording his own vocal cameo, along with his best racetrack pal Larry Benton. Look and listen for Keever and Benton as two hootin', hollerin' motor-home fans, cheering on Lightning McQueen in the first couple of minutes of the film. He came up with his own ad-lib line, ''Well dip me in axle grease and call me slick.'' Pixar chose that coinage over his initial improv, which went, ''Call me lubrication.'' According to Keever, producer Darla Anderson immediately nixed that wording. How come? ''Maybe she thought it sounded sexual, I don't know.''
The money Pixar gave Keever for his acting debut, and for the use of his sobriquet in perpetuity throughout the known universe, is tucked away in the bank for now. ''I'd like to watch that grow,'' he says. ''They paid me for my name, and for me to come out there and record my parts and stuff. They really looked after Mater. Paid for my mo-tel. They really bent over backwards. I hope they don't go in the hole on this thing. I'll feel guilty.'' Lasseter also kept reminding Keever he'd always have an ample supply of Mater toys to dole out as gifts. And indeed, Keever already has a stash of stuff, including a Mater balloon, a Mater dish towel, and a bunch of toy-truck Maters. ''It's gettin' to be so much, I might hafta buy a storage building.''
Keever has begun to cope as well with incipient fame. Local papers and TV stations have interviewed him. Has he been getting a lot of comments on his deeply Carolinian accent, which is something like Mater's twang but deeper? ''It's the way I've talked all my life,'' he says, pronouncing ''life'' more like lahf. ''People say, 'You sure do talk funny.' I say, 'Well hell, you do too.' Doesn't bother me.'' But when Keever went to California for the Cars wrap party in Oakland ''I guess that's probably the biggest event I've ever been to,'' he marvels Lasseter told him that the surge of local interest was only the beginning. ''John said, 'Mater, that is just small beans. It's not gonna be very long till every child in the world is gonna be in love with Mater.' I never had thought of it like that. It's pretty overwhelming for a country boy like myself.''