What can ever match the quality of some well-meaning fraternal advice from a brother who is a Marine for his younger sibling who voices robots in animation for a living? The saga of Optimus Prime and Peter Cullen is almost as elite and legendary as Batman and Kevin Conroy. It is impossible to imagine these characters that have become imbued with so much history in popular culture without their respective voice actor’s specific baritone and inflection. But for Cullen, the role of Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise was almost a near-miss opportunity.
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Transformers Audition: Peter Cullen’s Extraordinary Story
Peter Cullen, who debuted as Optimus Prime with the very first production of the Transformers, made history when his voice rang out on television screens across North America on 17 September 1984. The indelible effect that Cullen would go on to have on the franchise was soon recognized when the popularity of the Transformers began to grow steadily and consistently in pop culture.
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In 2018, during an appearance on TFCon, guest speaker Peter Cullen was presented with the question of a 10-year-old boy who asked the actor how he originally came up with the voice for Optimus Prime. He went on to recall to the audience the most heart-warming story about his brother:
“My brother, Larry, a Captain in the Marine Corps, had returned from Vietnam, and he would always take a little interest in where I was going every day, because I was a grunt, as the Marines would say. So he said, ‘Peter, where are you going today?’ ‘I’m going to audition. I’m auditioning as a truck.’ And he [laughed]. But Larry, he’s… evidently he’s a hero truck. He’s a real hero.
And his face got somber and he said, ‘Peter if you’re gonna be a hero, be a real hero. Don’t be a Hollywood hero type with all the BS and the yelling and screaming and trying to be tough. Be strong enough to be gentle.’ His voice is ringing in my ears as I’m driving to the audition. And I read the copy and Larry is just coming out, his voice, the way he talked to me, and it said [in the infamous voice], ‘My name is Optimus Prime.’”
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To date, no voice has been able to match the depth and impact that Peter Cullen has had during his tenure as the leader of the Autobots. The character of Optimus Prime made even more iconic by Michael Bay’s modern live-action franchise further cemented Cullen’s legacy as the iconic voice of the Transformers character in film and television.
The Evolution of Transformers in Film: 1984 to 2017
The Transformers: The Movie, released in 1986, was the first project that brought the Autobots and the Decepticons to the theatregoing audience. The sci-fi animated film revolving around the two mechanical and highly intelligent factions warring against each other was adapted from The Transformers, the animated television series that ran from 1984 to 1987, which in turn was based on Hasbro’s Transformers toy line.
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The 1984 animated series, produced by Marvel Productions, featured Peter Cullen as the first and original voice of Optimus Prime. Two decades later, it was a commendable task for Michael Bay to consider bringing Cullen on board for his epic five-part film series, i.e. Transformers (2007) to The Last Knight (2017). What essentially then makes the already fuel-guzzling high-octane sci-fi live-action franchise even more loveable is Cullen’s presence in it.
The Transformers animated series is available for streaming on Prime Video.