Transformers fans today celebrated the 80th birthday of the man behind the much loved leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime; Peter Cullen. The Canadian actor has lent his distinctive tone to many characters over the years such as Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh, Monterey Jack in the original Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers cartoon series and even provided the vocal sounds of the Predator in the original movie, but it is his work as Optimus Prime that has gained him the majority of his huge following of fans.
Peter Cullen was born in Montreal in 1941 and after an uneventful childhood began working in the entertainment industry in the 1960s on radio. It was through working as a radio announcer that he built up his skills as a voice artist, which included numerous stints on his home town radio station working overnight and weekend shift swings. At the end of the 60s he also was the announced for Smother Brothers Comedy Hour. He continued in this vein throughout the 1970s with turns on The Sonny and Cher Show and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show.
When Cullen auditioned for a part in an animated series as a superhero robot, he read the brief of the character of Optimus Prime and called it "the opportunity of the year." I think in retrospect, he would probably now call it the opportunity of a lifetime. Cullen would later recall that his inspiration for Prime's voice came from his older brother Larry, who had told him, "Peter, Don't be a Hollywood superhero, be a real superhero. Real superheroes don't yell and act tough; they are tough enough to be gentle so control yourself." That advice is probably as good a description of Prime that anyone could give. In addition to being given the role of Prime, when the casting decisions were made, Cullen was also asked to be Ironhide as well.
When relaying how Prime's voice was based on his Vietnam vet brother, Larry, Cullen once said, "When he came home, I could see a change. He was quieter, he was a man and a superhero to me. I watched him and listened to him. I'd never had the opportunity to do a superhero, and when that came, that voice just came right out of me and I sounded like Optimus."
When Prime was killed off in the 1986 animated Transformers movie, the backlash was so great that writers brought the character back on three occasions before bringing him back to round off the last five episodes of the original animated series. Although it seemed like that was finally the end of the road for Cullen's time as Prime.
However, when Michael Bay was making a new live action movie based on the franchise, there was only one person who they wanted back as the voice of the new Optimus Prime, and that was Peter Cullen. Since 2007, Cullen has continued to provide the voice of Prime in five sequels and will reprise it again in Transformers: Rise of The Beasts which is currently filming now. He has also voiced Prime in numerous video games and TV series in the last decade, including Transformers: Prime for which he received a Daytime Emmy Award nomination in 2011.
Outside the Transformers franchise, Cullen has given voices to some of the most iconic characters of a generation in series like Voltron, Knight Rider and GI Joe. He provided a voice to the Red Skull in a 1981 Spider-Man series, a gremlin in Joe Dante's 1984 movie Gremlins and most notably as the villain Venger in the animated Dungeons and Dragons series. There are some people who believe that voiceovers are much easier than on screen acting, but that is probably just because actors like Cullen make it look so simple. We join all his fans in wishing him a happy 80th birthday, and long may be reign as Optimus Prime continue.