The “Optimus Prime: Up Close and Personal” panel, hosted by Larry King, was really a tribute to the man who has voiced Optimus Prime for almost 30 years, Peter Cullen. When King and Cullen appeared before the crowd, the entire audience rose in standing ovation for the both of them. Even after a short pre-recorded intro by Bulkhead, voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, the crowd once again gave Cullen another standing ovation with chants of, “Peter! Peter! Peter!” this time.
Before the interview even began, after Cullen looked at King, Cullen said in Optimus Prime’s voice, “I’m overdressed,” and he took off his jacket to match King’s signature tie and dress shirt look. King began asking Cullen how he became a voice actor. Cullen replied saying that he got into it quite accidentally. Cullen said he could always do voices and animal noises as a kid, and he had hosted a midnight radio talk show in Montreal where he would impersonate characters who ‘came into the studio’ like Walter Brennan or John Wayne to entertain his audience. Cullen also recorded radio commercial ads for a year and went into theater in Toronto before returning to Montreal to do radio. When Cullen moved to Hollywood, he was asked to do a funny voice for the talking ball on the Sonny and Cher show, and that voice got him noticed in the voice over business.
King then asked Cullen’s inspiration for Optimus Prime’s voice, and Cullen said Optimus Prime’s voice is actually based on his brother, Larry Cullen, who was an ex-marine captain. When they lived together in Burbank, one day Cullen told his brother he was going to audition for the voice of a heroic truck. His brother wished him good luck, and it was that voice that Cullen used to audition for Optimus Prime. Cullen said Larry’s tone was strong and truthful yet gentle. Cullen felt those were the qualities that embodied Optimus Prime as well. When asked by King what Cullen felt was the meaning of being Optimus Prime and why the character was so beloved, Cullen answered that Prime was the very essence of strength, honor, and courtesy.
King asked Cullen how he felt about Optimus Prime’s death during the first series. Cullen said he was shocked when he had first read the script and even asked his colleague, Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron, about it. Welker was also shocked and replied to Cullen, “There goes your car payments!” This lead King to his next question about Cullen’s relationship with Frank Welker. Cullen said they both got along quite well off from work, and that he admired respected Welker’s skill with his voice and as a airplane pilot. Cullen said Welker is a great friend and human being.
When asked by King whether Optimus Prime has changed over the years, Cullen just replied that whenever he voices Optimus Prime, he thinks of his brother, Larry. Despite Optimus Prime’s instantly recognizable voice and character, Cullen said he enjoys his anonymity since it allowed him to raise his family in the country without the burdens of fame.
King asked Cullen how he does voice overs, and Cullen replied saying voice overs should inspire others and that one must be able to take a drawing of a character and find a voice to match that character. Cullen also said that voice acting was more acting than actual voice manipulation. King then asked Cullen if a character’s voice ever stumped Cullen. The only voice that ever stumped Cullen was Monterey Jack from Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers. Cullen said he couldn’t do the Australian accent and the Australian interjections.
King asked whether or not Cullen thought Optimus Prime was a father figure. Cullen said he did because Optimus Prime was trustworthy and reliable. Cullen said he even met and talked to fans who had no dads and had looked up to Optimus Prime as theirs, so he felt obligated to keep Optimus Prime like that. In fact, Cullen even tried protesting about a few lines in the third Transformers movie which he felt weren’t true to Optimus Prime’s character, but his complaints were overridden by the executives.
In the audience Q&A with Cullen moderated by King, one fan asked what Cullen thought of the other actors who voiced Optimus Prime in the interim, but Cullen said he’s been too busy with other things to pay attention. Asked whether or not Cullen would switch places with Frank Welker’s character, Megatron, Cullen quickly replied, “No.” Another fan asked which Optimus Prime role he liked best, and Cullen said he liked voicing for Transformers: Prime the best. Recording practices had changed a lot since Generation 1’s days, and Cullen felt more camaraderie with Transformers: Prime than with G1. Finally, when asked who Cullen’s hero was, Cullen said Mel Blanc was his voice acting hero.
Sonia Lai also blogs at Voice Actors in the News. Photos courtesy of the Hub PR department.