Behind Optimus Prime (And Eeyore), One Man's Signature Voice | KUER 90.1

Behind Optimus Prime (And Eeyore), One Man's Signature Voice

Jun 29, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 6:20 am

Transformers: Age of Extinction has smashed its way to the No. 1 spot at the box office. Director Michael Bay's film franchise has consistently topped charts since the first film arrived in theaters in 2007.

The live-action films have embraced the latest in visual affects — but the movies have also called back to the series' past, through the voice of Peter Cullen.

Cullen, 72, was the first actor to give voice to Optimus Prime — the leader of the Autobots, and the series' metal, robotic heart — on the original Transformers cartoon show in the 1980s. Other actors have played Optimus Prime in various iterations of Transformers over the years, but Cullen happily returned to the role for the live-action film franchise.

In an interview with NPR's Arun Rath, Cullen says playing Optimus Prime again was "like slipping into an old pair of shoes that you hid in the back of your closet."

Cullen got his big break as the announcer on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the early 1970s, and famously voiced Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. He tells Rath that of the many characters he has played over the years, a certain giant, extraterrestrial robot is still his favorite.


Interview Highlights

On when he realized he had a talent for doing voices

I lived on a farm, and I worked the farm. And I remember the very first summer, I could imitate the cows, the calves, the chickens, the different dogs they had. And one of the greatest memories I have is, I had a full dairy barn where I would collect milk pails with my brother, Larry. I found one day that I made a loud noise and all the cows looked up to me.

So I did something like, "And now that I have your attention!" And they all looked up. And I walked down the center of that aisle with these cows looking at me and I said, "This is fantastic." I must have been 8 years old ... and I was the king of the cows.

On landing the role of Optimus Prime in the 1980s cartoon

I auditioned like everybody else. I was told it was a hero, and I was told it was a truck.

I was living with my brother Larry at the time. He had returned from service as a Marine in Vietnam, and I told him one day I was going out to audition for a truck.

And he says, "A truck?"

And I said, "Yeah, but he's a hero truck."

"This is really good, Pete, yeah," he said ... "Well, if you're going to be a hero, be a real hero. Don't be a Hollywood stereotypical thing with the yelling and screaming." He said, "Be strong enough to be gentle." And Larry was that way.

I had no idea what the script was going to be. But in effect, the lines just came out, and I just did my brother, Larry.

On the characters he has most enjoyed playing

Well, Optimus Prime, No. 1. He's my above-all favorite. The second one was Eeyore [from Winnie the Pooh]. I enjoyed doing Eeyore because he was simply charming.

And I get an awful lot of reactions from, especially, young kids, when I go up and just say [in Eeyore's voice], "Hello. Thanks for noticing me."

And to see their faces light up, that to me is one of the great joys.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Hey, thanks for joining us on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath here at NPR West. And Optimus Prime is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION")

PETER CULLEN: (As Optimus Prime) Humans are hunting us.

RATH: "Transformers: Age Of Extinction" stomped into movie theaters this weekend with the kind of spectacle that comes alive when massive, building-sized robots smash each other to bits on the big screen. But behind optimist prime is 72-year-old voice actor Peter Cullen who first voiced the character 30 years ago on the Transformers cartoon show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TRANSFORMERS")

RATH: Peter Cullen said he first realized his talent for voices when he was a young boy.

CULLEN: I lived on a farm and I remember the very first summer I could imitate the cows, the calves, the chickens, the different dogs they had. And one of the greatest memories I have is I had a full dairy barn where I would collected milk pails with my brother Larry. I found one day that if I made a loud noise and all the cows looked up and to me - so I did something silly like, I know that I have your attention. And they all looked up. And I walked down the center of that aisle with these cows looking at me and I said, this is fantastic. I must have been eight years old.

RATH: And you were the king of the cows.

CULLEN: I was king of the cows.

RATH: Peter Cullen got his big break in voice acting in the early 1970's. He was the announcer for the pilot of a new variety show - "The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SONNY AND CHER COMEDY HOUR")

CULLEN: Ladies and gentlemen, Sonny and Cher.

(APPLAUSE)

CULLEN: So it ended up being a series and for four years I, you know, I could make the house payments and lived happily ever after.

RATH: So in 1984 there's a cartoon show based on a line of toys known as the Transformers. And you became the first person to voice Optimus Prime. Let's actually hear a little clip of the cartoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TRANSFORMERS")

CULLEN: (As Optimus Prime) This new planet is rich with sources of energy. But the decepticons must know this too. So we must find them and stop them.

RATH: So how did you land the part of Optimus Prime?

CULLEN: I auditioned like everybody else. I was told it was a hero and I was told it was a truck.

RATH: Work with that.

CULLEN: Work with that. I was living with my brother Larry at the time. He had returned from service as a Marine in Vietnam. And I told him one day I was going out to audition for a truck. And he says, a truck? And I said, yeah but he's a hero truck. A hero truck? This is really good Pete, yeah, he said. Yeah, Larry. He says, well, if you're going to be a hero, be a real hero. Don't be a Hollywood stereotypical thing, you know, the yelling and screaming. He said be strong enough to be gentle. And Larry was that way. I had no idea what the script was going to be. But in a fact the lines just came out and I just did my brother Larry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TRANSFORMERS")

CULLEN: (As Optimus Prime) We are autobots. We're from Cybertron. A planet far from Earth.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Another planet? That's awesome.

RATH: The character Optimus Prime was actually killed off in the 1986 animated Transformers movie. Other actors have played the character over the years. Peter Cullen found other roles in TV and film. But in 2007 the director Michael Bay brought the series back to the big screen and asked Peter Cullen to voice the big guy again. Peter Cullen says, it was good to be back.

CULLEN: It's like slipping into an old pair of shoes that you had in the back of your closet and took out 20 years later and said gosh these are so comfortable. Why did I throw them away, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRANSFORMERS")

CULLEN: (As Optimus Prime) My name is Optimus Prime. We are autonomous robotic organisms from the planet Cybertron.

RATH: We haven't even scratched the surface of your career. Of all the characters you voiced over the years - you did Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh - you've done some Smurfs, some Gremlins.

CULLEN: Yeah.

RATH: Do you have a favorite?

CULLEN: Optimus Prime, number one. He's my above all favorite. The second one was Eeyore. I enjoyed doing Eeyore because he was simply charming.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WINNIE THE POOH")

CULLEN: (As Eeyore) Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock.

CULLEN: And I get an awful lot of reactions from especially young kids when I come up and just say, hello, thanks for noticing me. And to see their faces light up. That to me is one of the great joys.

RATH: Peter thanks for coming in. It was great fun talking with you.

CULLEN: I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

RATH: That was voice actor Peter Cullen. You can catch him in theaters playing Optimus Prime in "Transformers: Age Of Extinction." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.