Robot hero role transformational for voice actor

By Matthew Price Published: November 10, 2006
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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.

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Optimus Prime was the valiant leader of the Autobots in the 1980s “Transformers” cartoon series.

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