Thursday , July 18 2024
Peter Cullen and moderator Victor Dandridge (Credit: Pat Cuadros)

GalaxyCon Columbus: Peter Cullen on ‘Transformers’ and Radio

Voice actor Peter Cullen (Transformers, Predator) met his fans at GalaxyCon Columbus, one of Ohio’s popular comic cons. There was a celebratory mood at his panel, for two big reasons. Cullen, perhaps best known for voicing Autobot Optimus Prime, teased that Hasbro had filmed a table reading of the first Transformers episode with the original cast.

Filmed with four cameras in November, the project will be part of the celebrations of 40 years of Transformers. Cullen said, “You’re going to enjoy it, because we had a ball!”

As for the second reason, the National Academy will be giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Children’s & Family Emmy Awards on December 17. This comes as well-deserved recognition for the voice actor beloved for other roles including Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, Monterey Jack in Rescue Rangers, and many more.

On Optimus Prime’s Voice

For Cullen, Transformers is a unique show because it’s not just a program based on a toy line. There was a lot of care in the writing and the stories.

“Prime is who he is by what he says. If there are moments of intimacy with a character, where he’s showing compassion, his voice will adapt to those words, whatever words are written. [It] shows the gentler side, that part of Prime which I like doing because it accomplishes so much more in terms of other shows.”

Photo of Peter Cullen gesturing
Credit: Pat Cuadros

Recording in the booth for the Transformers films is still a fun experience. The most challenging vocals to record are the screams, grunts, and similar sounds, which he does anew for each film. “I do two-hour sessions and I save the worst for the last. You get all the good stuff at the beginning. I say, can you guys put the screams and the grunts like on a tape?”

With the films, Prime’s voice is slightly different because it’s deeper. That’s because the Autobot looks so large on the screen. On one occasion, he worked with one actor who wanted to hear his lines in person so that she could react to what he was doing. Optimus Prime’s head was supposed to be at the height of the scaffolding in the room.

“That depth, the real baritone came out but not in a yelling form. It had to translate as a conversation. In the movies, we had to work on depth, the difference between that and in a command. In a command, it was a lot easier to go back to the original Transformers: Generation One. Autobots, transform and roll out!” 

On Getting into Acting

Cullen’s interest in sound and doing voices began early in his life, as I detail in my FAN EXPO Boston piece. At GalaxyCon Columbus, he spoke of how acting runs in the family. His mother, Muriel, graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

He said, “She never pursued her dream. She was a good actress and a comedienne. She told me, ‘There is a school that’s going to take students from across the country, 15 English and 15 French. They are auditioning. You should go and audition.'”

She also told him, “If you get accepted, that’s a thermometer, a pretty good idea that you have the qualities to do [this] as a profession.”

Peter Cullen holding a microphone
Credit: Pat Cuadros

When Peter Cullen auditioned for a spot, which he ultimately got with the National Theatre School of Canada, he selected Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din.” Then his improvisation piece fittingly incorporated his childhood love of animals. He was “walking a big, big dog in a park that got interested in a little dog. No words, just physical.”

On the Influence of Radio

During Q&A time, I asked Cullen how growing up in the 1940s, the golden age of radio, impacted his understanding of sound and voice acting.

He said, “I was really lucky. I listened to radio before television even came. We were very late in getting a TV. My parents didn’t really know what a TV was. I had a radio by my bed and I used to listen to it all the time.”

Cullen listened to all sorts of shows: thriller I Was a Communist for the FBI, detective drama Boston Blackie, sitcom Amos ‘n’ Andy, and more. In the mornings, he’d catch Don McNeil’s popular “The Breakfast Club” from Chicago.

Photo of Peter Cullen smiling
Credit: Pat Cuadros

Cullen also has a familial connection to the world of radio.

“My grandfather was on WOR in New York City. He was one of the first people in radio and his son, Alfred McCann Jr., took over from him with his wife [Dora. The show was] called The McCanns at Home. They broadcasted for close to 50 years on top of what my grandfather had done.”

Whenever he visited, he’d see their big table with the microphones for their radio show. “They would say, ‘And now, my young nephew from Montreal is in the room and come over here, Peter, go and say hello to the people.'”

Once his uncle invited him to read a Red Cross advertisement from the script on the table. Cullen said, “I’d be seeing this microphone and I’d be scared to death of it. I was shaking!”

Engaging in this family project and hearing other radio shows proved instrumental to his understanding and appreciation of the medium. “I heard all these voices. I was so conscious of that as a person growing up. The idea that I could be in the profession didn’t happen ’til years later, but I was in awe. People in radio were celebrities, you know, the huge celebrities.”

Visit the GalaxyCon Columbus website for more information.

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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