Prime Time: Cullen's 'Transformers' Resurrection

Although Peter Cullen has long since moved on from playing the voice of Autobot leader Optimus Prime on "The Transformers," he can still recall his surprise upon learning that his character would be killed off in the 1986 movie.

"I was with Frank Welker, who played [enemy Decepticon leader] Megatron, and we were reading in the studio before actual recording," Cullen tells Zap2it.com. "I was thumbing through the pages, underlining my lines, and I got to one section and I said, 'Oh man, I'm getting whacked. Oh hey, Frank, look at this: They're snuffin' me ... You're wipin' me out, man. There go my car payments.'"

The shocked actor tried to figure out what had happened, thinking that maybe his character just wasn't popular, a safe assumption since he didn't receive any of the fan mail at the time. He couldn't have been more wrong. Optimus Prime's death caused a hue and cry among impressionable kids, and one little boy was so upset, he locked himself in his room, refusing to come out.

On the 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD (in stores Nov. 7) of the film, the filmmakers explain that the character and the bulk of the other Transformers were killed off in the movie for purely business reasons: to allow Hasbro to introduce its second generation of the dual-natured mechanical toys that supposedly fought for galactic supremacy. In a way, this robot massacre was a sign of how well things were going for the series, which first tested the waters in 1984.

"When I read for it the very first time, it was pretty much confusing because it wasn't your normal animated cartoon," he says. "I saw a sketch of [Optimus Prime] and a character breakdown. It interested me because it was different, it was new and there was no real challenge to create a voice due to the physical characteristics of the character. It was a mechanical toy, so it could be anything."

Cullen based the voice of the Autobot leader on his older brother Larry, who served in Vietnam as a captain in the Marine Corps.

"When he came home, I could see a change. He was quieter and he was a man and a hero to me," says the actor. "I watched him and listened to him. I'd never had an opportunity to do a superhero, and when that came, [that voice] just came right out of me and I sounded like Optimus."

That leadership communicated itself through the character and commanded the respect and adulation of many young boys who would later grow up and join the military -- such as the National Guardsman who legally changed his name to Optimus Prime.

"Yes, that's fantastic," says Cullen. "I've had [fans] who now are police officers give me their patches and Marines that have said, 'I've modeled my life after the character and I'm very grateful for you and I'm a proud Marine.' It's breathtaking. I get a little lump in my stomach when I think about that. Marines -- I don't think there's a greater group."

Cullen also appreciates the diehard fans he meets at conventions, events that his children initially had to urge him to attend. What amazes him the most is how familiar the fans are with his voiceover resume, which stretches back to the '60s and includes parts on "The Jetsons," "Smurfs," "G.I. Joe," "Dungeons & Dragons," "DuckTales," as Eeyore for the "Winnie the Pooh" cartoons and as the evil K.A.R.R. from the "Knight Rider" TV series starring David Hasselhoff.

"Often at these conventions, they'll bring up that character, K.A.R.R.," says the actor. "I'd think, 'Wow, don't you guys sleep? You know more about me than I do.' I put those things way behind me. I can't even remember what I did. Then they compare it to Optimus Prime, and I say, 'Wow. What year was that? They'd say, 'Well, it was 1984.' I had no idea, no idea at all. It was an awakening."

Now, 20 years after having died on screen as Optimus, Cullen's fame is enjoying a revival -- not only from the movie's re-release on DVD, but also from the upcoming live action "Transformers," in which he vocally reprises his signature role.

"I haven't done any work [on the new film] yet," he says. "The only information that I garnered, some kind of an idea from the audition pages that I had read for -- they seemed to indicate that Optimus was still Optimus Prime and hadn't changed radically. I was pleased to see that, although I wasn't sure that I had the role at first because I had to audition again with Michael Bay, the director, for the second time. I'm sure what he wanted to do was convince himself that I could become more personal and more one-on-one with a human relation. So I came in and I read again, and I think I shelved all those thoughts of not being able to act.

"He read the character Witwicky," Cullen adds, referring to one of the humans who claimed a close friendship with the Autobots. "It was kind of friendly and it put Optimus out of his normal realm, but it seemed perfectly appropriate with the live action-human relationship and it was very interesting. I was quite pleased that Optimus could become more sensitive and more one-on-one with the characterization other than talking to robots."

Since he hasn't been called into the recording booth yet, Cullen can't confirm the other vocal casting, such as fellow Autobot Ironhide -- a role he also provided the voice for in the '80s -- or Welker as Megatron.

"Frank is probably one of the greatest talents I've ever worked with, one of the funniest human beings in the world," says the actor. "One of the toughest parts working with Frank is to try to remain serious because he could make you laugh with a facial expression, then multiply that by 10 when he opens his voice. So it was always fun. And of course, I hope he gets to play in the movie as well because I'd love to revive that alone by itself. That to me would be a treasure."

So, in reading those few auditions pages, did Cullen happen to find out any spoilers, such as Optimus Prime dying -- again?

"No, I hadn't seen that," he says with a laugh. "I wouldn't want to go through that again."