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Moderator Victor Dandridge and Peter Cullen (Credit: Pat Cuadros)

Fan EXPO Boston: Peter Cullen on ‘Transformers’

Fan EXPO Boston welcomed legendary voice actor Peter Cullen for a fun-filled panel discussion with Victor Dandridge on August 6. With more than 200 credits to his name, Cullen is perhaps best known for lending his vocal talents to Optimus Prime in Transformers, Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, the Predator‘s noises, and KARR in Knight Rider.

Cullen, who turned 82 in July, entertained fans at the Boston comic con with his stories and voices. He primarily discussed the Transformers: Generation 1 days, when in 1984 the Autobots and Decepticons were introduced to audiences. He also revealed that he’s no stranger to the area. His father, Henry L. Cullen, attended Boston University.

On Early Interests in Sound and Voices

From a young age, sounds intrigued Peter Cullen. He remembers reading Gerald McBoing Boing comics about a character that could do sounds. Cullen said, “If there was a bank robbery going on, he could do a police siren. He’d foil the bank robbers! Or he could do a train going by. [He was a] little guy with this huge train sound coming out.”

Photo of Peter Cullen
Credit: Pat Cuadros

At school, he loved doing animal noises and impersonations. “I got into more trouble than I got into books! I was always trying to make people laugh.”

While his classmates were a welcoming audience, that wasn’t always the case with adults at school. “One day, I was impersonating the teacher in front of all the kids. I looked towards them and they were all looking at the front door. I finally looked there, and there was the teacher with the principal!”

However, don’t assume Cullen set his heart on acting as a career that early. As he thought about it, he also tried a variety of activities, including some summers working on a farm. “I had all kinds of aspirations when I was younger. I even considered taking up agriculture.”

On Industry Innovations

It’s still incredible to look back at what the Transformers toys signified at their launches. “The concept was huge. You have a little manipulated toy. These were not stuffed animals. They were practically engineered marvels that revolutionized the toy world.”

Likewise, the creatives behind the cartoon achieved a lot with this roster of beloved Autobots and Decepticons. “These great minds broke open the doors for animation in a way that we never thought in our lifetimes previously.”

On Finding Optimus Prime’s Voice

Portraying Optimus Prime throughout the years, whether in the cartoons or the films, means a great deal to Cullen. He owes the voice to his brother, Larry Cullen, from their discussion before his Transformers G1 audition. Larry provided what turned out to be crucial advice in shaping Optimus’ voice.

Photo of Peter Cullen speaking and holding his hand out
Credit: Pat Cuadros

“He said, ‘You know, Peter, if you’re gonna be a hero truck, be a real hero. Don’t be one of these Hollywood show-offs pretending he’s a tough guy screaming and all that phony stuff. Be strong enough to be gentle.'”

Years later, Peter Cullen keeps that tip in mind whenever he steps into the booth to play Optimus Prime. “The sense that of responsibility that I have is very deep, and I treasure that. I’d stand up for that character under any condition.”

Another essential aspect is his love for his brother, who served in the Marines and received a Bronze Star with V and a Purple Heart during the Vietnam War. “Generally speaking, the affection I had for my brother, I translate into my performance. I try to convey that with my heart and I always will.”

Peter Cullen: From Autobots to Audiobooks?

Near the end of the panel, I stepped up to the Q&A microphone. I asked Cullen if he would ever cross over from cartoons into audiobooks and audio dramas like some other voice actors have done.

He said, “I would really love to record something that I have written because I truly understand myself better than I understand the author of another book.”

“If I were to do a book, I would probably do an action/adventure book, where I could do sounds as well: gunshots and explosions. And I’d hire Frank Welker.”

It’s always a treat to see Cullen ad libbing with original Megatron and longtime friend Frank Welker (Scooby-Doo, Curious George, Transformers: The Last Knight). An audiobook collaboration between the two legends sounds like a perfect idea.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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