Retro Thursday: Peter Cullen aka Optimus Prime
I talked to Peter Cullen, voice of the animated Optimus Prime, in late 2006 as anticipation for the “Transformers” live-action film was building. We talked about his time on the TV show and his role in the live-action film. It was exciting to talk to Cullen, who, as the voice of Optimus Prime, was a definite childhood hero of my brother and me. This interview ran on the cover of Weekend Look on Nov. 10, 2006.
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 semi truck 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.”
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