Sep. 14, 2012 at 3:24 PM ET
Optimus Prime is more than just another Saturday morning cartoon character. He is an icon. With his calming voice and commanding presence, he is a roboticfather figure to a faction of transforming androids ... and to many a gamer.
We all have voices fromour childhood that we remember — James Earl Jones’ threatening voice as DarthVader in “Star Wars,” Kevin Conroy giving depth to the Dark Knight in "Batman: The Animated Series." But Peter Cullen’s performance as the wise and benevolent leader of the Autobotsin "The Transformers" animated TV series from the mid-1980s was so seared into our brains that no one elsecould possibly have voiced the character of Optimus Prime when the films came to theaters decades later.
And now, after leading the Autobots to survival and freedom in both TV andfilm, Cullen has given life to Optimus Prime in video games — including the new "Transformers:Fall of Cybertron" game which is the best thing to happen to the franchise since thecartoons first came out.
I recently had a chance to talk the prolific voice actor, who has voiced more characters than I can possibly list here. And though Cullen is obviouslynot a nurturing, two-story robot defending the earth, I have to say, he did have an uncommonlykind and fatherly demeanor during our interview.
Here's what he had to say about his unexpected inspiration for Optimus Prime and the power of the voice.
Q: Being who you are, do you end up having a lot of friendsasking you to do their voice mail greetings?
Cullen: I have on occasion; it is usually a very, very impromptu momentor perhaps a more formal gathering. I couldn’t do it on a regular basis forsure, but I will do it for someone who expresses a real deep enthusiasm for it,and it’s a pleasure to make someone happy in that way.
Q: What was your inspiration for performing for OptimusPrime?
Cullen: I impersonated my brother Larry who was an officer in the Marine Corps who fought in Vietnam. He was a bronze star recipient as well as earned a couple of purple hearts. We were very close all of our lives, and he was theone who inspired me to be a leader without shouting.
I applied his advice on theday I went to interview for (Optimus Prime). He asked me where I was going and I said I was auditioning for a truck and he laughed and asked "what sound areyou going to make?"
I said, "No he is a hero, he actually speaks." And he said, "Wellif you are going to be a hero, Peter, be a real hero. Don’t do all theflashy Hollywood stuff, do it from your gut." And so I just did him ... what elseam I going to do? I just impersonated Larry. And about seven days later I got thepart.
All those many years ago that still sticks in my mind as one of mostimportant moments in my career.
Q: Have you ever resented the character that you have been so well known for?
Cullen: On the contrary, you know Todd, he is such a special character to me because he represents so many great qualities. And he had had such an effect on a lot of kids lives back in the earlier '80s and especially for latchkey kids.
I’ve heard over the years, at a lot of the conventions I've gone to, "Mr. Cullen, you know you raised me." My heart starts pumping in my chest. It's a gut feeling, you know, because they are totally sincere and I realize the affect I had years ago. So it becomes a responsibility to never sway away or to vary the characterization.
Q: What are some of the challenges of expressing a characterwith just voice?
Cullen: It’s not really that difficult. All I do is identify thetraits and maintain them. I don’t venture very far from the concrete stable platformhe has been conceived of. That makes it relatively easy. I think, of course, there are times you have to be emotional about it, but I’ve always believed less ismore. And if I don’t feel honest about it, I will redo it.
Q: Is that your chief concern: honesty?
Cullen: Definitely. I think most actors try to convey that. Istudied acting when I was a young man (laughs) many years ago and realizedthat, if I infused honesty into my portrayal, then the reception would always beso much stronger.
Q: What is remarkable about your fans?
Cullen: I love them. I’ve met such a cross section ofpeople over the years. They are a warm wonderful group of people and I thinkthat pulls the feelings out of me because of their genuine appreciation, whichis always humbling.
It is always a surprise to me because, how many peopleduring an average day in their life get compliments? One of things I hold dearlyin raising children and now grandchildren is that I've always found thatencouraging somebody and caring enough to encourage and to never let them downis a wonderful feeling. And I get that from my fans.
I hate to say 'my fans.' itsound so grandiose. i’d rather say 'my friends.' They recognized what’s inside ofme and I’ve recognized what’s inside of them and that is a bond of some kind.
After the interview was over, Peter and I said our goodbyes. But then he told me to wait one second. There was a moment of defening silence, and then this booming voice:
"This Is Optimus Prime. you've reached Todd Kenreck's phone number, he is not available. At the beep leave a very short message. Thank you."