Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Peter Cullen recalls death, outrage and reincarnation of Optimus Prime at annual TFCon

It was standing room only at Mississauga’s TFCon when Peter Cullen, the voice behind the iconic Transformers’ character Optimus Prime, took to the stage for a Q&A session with fans.
“It’s so great to be back on Canadian soil,” Cullen proclaimed before taking pre-screened questions from the audience at the annual Transformers convention on Saturday, July 18.
The Canadian voice actor is, perhaps, best known for his portrayal of Optimus Prime in the 1980s G1 Transformers cartoon and later iterations of the character.
The popularity of the Autobot leader was something Cullen did not really appreciate until years after the iconic character met his untimely death in the 1986 Transformers animated movie.
Cullen joked about how he discovered Optimus Prime’s fate.  He recalled reading the script with Frank Welker, who voiced Megatron and many other characters on the show.
“Hey Frank, I’m getting whacked on page 17,” Cullen recalled telling his friend, only to read some pages ahead. “I’m not coming back. There go the car payments.”
Cullen said he decided if he was going to die, it was going to be the best acting of a dying robot ever, but knowing less was more, he just did it and got out of there. Years later he learned that the 90-minute cartoon was not a success. Children left the theatres and parents were upset and made a fuss.
“I hated it,” Cullen said of the killing of Optimus Prime.
But it was a cartoon meant to sell toys, so the focus was on merchandising and business design, not judging the popularity of characters. Cullen did not even realize how popular the transforming truck was because there was no Internet and he never saw any of the fan mail.
The public outcry, however, saw the character return for three episodes “to tell kids Optimus Prime is alive and well and no longer living in poverty,” Cullen joked.
The actor went on voice other characters in ‘80s cartoons, including in Voltron and G.I. Joe. And for 17 years he was the voice of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. He would eventually reprise his role as Optimus Prime in later animated series as well as the movies.
When rumours that a Transformers live action movie was in the works, fans took to the Internet arguing the project would never make it without Cullen and Welker. Cullen eventually received a call to audition for the role of Optimus Prime. He had to go in for a second audition weeks later, but soon after he was informed he had the part.
Cullen credits the “groundswell” of support from his fan base for landing the gig.
“I love you guys,” he said.
While Cullen returned to voice Optimus Prime, fans weren’t able to bring back the Megatron they grew up with. Bay instead hired Hugo Weaving to voice Prime’s nemesis (although Welker brought his talent to the character for the video game off spin).
A character meant to sell toys, for fans Optimus Prime has come to symbolise an incorruptible figure with a strong moral character and respect for all life. He is a brilliant, albeit reluctant, military strategist who strives for peace but is willing to fight for the weak. He not only inspires his ragtag team of Cybertronians with his gentle leadership, he also inspired a generation of children.
“He was well-conceived and brilliantly written,” Cullen said of the character, adding that Optimus Prime has so many great qualities and over time he has felt it necessary to be true to those ideals. “I still feel that way.”
That meant challenging the use of a line during the feature film. He would not share the line with the audience, but indicated it involved the everyday usage of violence. He expressed his disdain and reluctance to say the line.
“I’ve never had to do that again, so I won,” Cullen said of staying true to Prime’s character.