Twenty years ago, "Transformers: The Movie" hit motion picture screens. This week, a 20th anniversary DVD rolled out. Voice actor Peter Cullen, who played Optimus Prime in the original cartoon series and 1986 animated movie, talked about his role as the robot disguised as a semitruck who led the Autobots. Cullen is slated to reprise his role in next year's live-action "Transformers," directed by Michael Bay. In it, Cullen will voice the computer-generated Prime. Cullen was already a successful voice actor, with stints on "G.I. Joe" and "Voltron." Cullen showed up at a general casting call and looked at the character sketch. "I was used to doing animated characters, and here we have a truck," he said. But after he read the short bio of Prime, he began to get an idea of how to portray the Autobot leader. "The character breakdown for Optimus Prime was pretty straightforward," Cullen said. "The writers were ... excellent. I got a sense of Optimus Prime having integrity and honor and courage and conviction." That courage and conviction, as evidenced in Cullen's vocal portrayal, was inspired by Cullen's brother Larry, a former Marine captain who served in Vietnam. "I think I got a lot of Optimus Prime from my brother. Certainly, the control and the honor and definitely the spirit of command. Soft-spoken, sensitive but willing to kick a-- like a Marine can do." Cullen said. "I tried to keep him cool under all conditions, and authoritative and convincingly powerful." Cullen found out about his character's death in the 1986 movie while reading through the script with Frank Welker, who portrayed Megatron, the Decepticon leader. "I looked at Frank Welker, and I said, ‘Did you read this? I'm getting whacked! I'm getting rubbed out, and you're doing it,'" Cullen remembered. Cullen said he understands the business reasoning at the time, which was to introduce the new product line. "It's (toymaker) Hasbro, and it's Hollywood, and it's business, and that's the way they operate. They don't take it personally, and I don't really." Optimus Prime's cool leadership qualities made him a Gen X hero. But Cullen didn't know about his influence until years later, when, on the insistence of his daughter, he attended a Transformers convention. "My eyes were opened wide," he said. "I was shocked, and I was surprised. The little information that I had was on such a minimal basis, you really couldn't get an overall picture on how big it was. It still is kind of a surprise to me. I think about it, and I think gosh, it's an honor." Cullen was moved by a young man who stood to speak to him at a question-and-answer session at the convention. "He said, ‘Mr. Cullen, when I was a kid, you raised me. ... You had such a great impact on my life. I didn't have a father, and you became my father, every day. And I'm very grateful to you for that. You mean a lot to me.' "I don't think there's any words to express the way I feel now, and did then. Ultimately, it was an obligation and a responsibility to never let that kid down. "I found out subsequently that there were other young boys at that time in their life that felt the same way, because that's been repeated to me. And without sounding as if I'm — it's more of a humble reaction than it is anything else. It takes me back, and I get a little churn in my stomach when I hear that, and when I think about it, too. It affects me very deeply." Cullen said the hard-core Transformers fans are to thank for his reprisal of the role in the upcoming big-budget film. "(The filmmakers) were thinking more Hollywood big names," Cullen said. "They did start to consider the original voice actors because of the enthusiasm and the ... stubbornness of the fan base. God, I'm grateful for those guys," he said. Cullen was called in to audition for Michael Bay at his offices in Santa Monica, Calif. He was asked to read a scene with Optimus Prime and Ironhide, a gutsy Autobot who was a close friend of Prime's, also played by Cullen in the original series. "The script assistant was there, and she started reading for Ironside," Cullen said. "I said, ‘Excuse me, dear, do you mind if I read it?' Because I actually played this character.'" Cullen completed the read-through reading for both characters. Cullen received a callback. This time, Cullen was called to act out a more personal, one-on-one scene. "The reason for that was, they wanted to find out if I in fact could act," he said. "Optimus steps out of his normal frame, and becomes ... a little more human." Shortly later, Cullen heard from his agent that he was again cast as Optimus Prime. "And I said, ‘Oh, fantastic,' and that's when I started to get involved," he said. "It started getting exciting, and it's remained that way ever since."
Optimus Prime was the valiant leader of the Autobots in the 1980s “Transformers” cartoon series.