How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine - We Are The Mighty
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How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine

Peter Cullen is now known to fans around the world as the voice of Optimus Prime — leader of the Autobots in the The Transformers cartoon, video game and film series. The voice and character traits of Optimus are rooted in Marine values and leadership. Here is the story.

Cullen, born and raised in Montreal, Canada to Irish-Catholic parents learned many great lessons and had a wonderful upbringing with his siblings. He grew up skating from the age of 2 or 3. The winters in Montreal were extremely harsh with tens of feet of snowfall making some East Coast winters look mild. His siblings Michela, Larry and Sonny were post-war kids that enjoyed different sports such as hockey, boxing and baseball. Larry was Peter’s hero growing up where Larry was a great boxer and was quite tall. Cullen said, “Larry had a sensitive nose so in boxing matches I would hit his nose to bloody him where it looked like I was getting the better of him. Larry grabbed me and said, ‘Peter if you keep this up I am really going to hurt you,’ of course when he hit me with his gloves it was like being hit by a sand bag.” 

How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine
Larry and Peter Cullen. Photo courtesy of Peter Cullen.

Peter shared, “Larry was my hero from the very beginning. His personality stayed the same throughout his life. He was noble, courageous and had integrity specifically being honest to the heart and Corps. My brother had Marine Corps strength actually built into him.” Cullen stated that these values and athletic skills were instilled in him by their parents. Both parents were athletes. His mother was an all-American hockey player in college and his dad was a distance runner for Boston University where he was the captain of the team. Roger Bannister beat Cullen’s father’s record for the mile. Cullen’s parents were dignified and demanded respect from their children. Cullen said, “We were taught to be honest and truthful. That is ingrained in you. My Jesuit training from Loyola helped as well.” His parents were loving, giving and conservative in raising them. Cullen recalled, “When my mom walked into the room we stood to attention.” Cullen’s father also used humor throughout his daily life. 

His brother Larry joined the Marines before the U.S. entered the Vietnam War. His brother thought that getting out of college he wanted to continue playing football and planned to do so for the Marine Corps. Once Larry joined the Corps the Vietnam War began to pick up pace. He was trained in Quantico, VA as an officer. Larry served in Vietnam as an infantry officer with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. His personal awards include the Bronze Star with a “V”, two purple hearts with gold stars and the Combat Action Ribbon. Cullen shared, “Once he graduated from officer training, he was informed he was going to be on his way to Vietnam. Our father worked in the international newspaper business and was going to be worried about his son.”

 Cullen recalled being a radio station announcer in Montreal for the Milk Man’s Matinee from midnight until 6 am. He would get the paper through the teletype machines then put a record on. Once, he saw news come through on Operations Hasting. Cullen stated, “I was reading about the Marines there where the NVA was coming through and executing officers in the field…Larry had a one in four chance of survival when talking about the situation.” He wanted to intercept the newspaper going to his home and rushed home so his father wouldn’t read it. He said, “…my father eventually did read the paper in his office downtown and had a stroke. That is how concerned he was for Larry.” Larry survived and was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” during Operations Hastings and his father eventually recovered.

Cullen shared, “I went to five or six reunions with Larry for his Marine unit from Vietnam. I was a speaker at one of them telling jokes and making them laugh…a great bunch of guys there. There is a special aura about Marines where you can pick them out….They are the most sincere wonderful people where these reunions reminded me of that and how special they were. Larry got a lot of joy out of being around his fellow grunts.” He believes Marines share a powerful message when they are around. Being around Larry’s friends from the Corps means a lot to him, “I talk to several of them where they are starting to go. I still remain in contact with Larry’s platoon leaders and his enlisted men. Larry became a captain and was stationed in Camp Pendleton where I met a lot of them….the feeling of being around Marines echoes through me.”

How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine
Larry during days in the Corps. Photo courtesy of Peter Cullen.

Cullen began his entertainment career doing summer stock during the senior year of high school. He took the place of an actor that got sick and was initially building sets and scenery. He enjoyed doing the role and then pursued an acting career going to The National Theatre School of Canada. Cullen studied Shakespeare, Chekhov and Eugene O’Neil. He had parts in West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and then The King and I in Winnipeg. He had the lead in Bye Bye Birdie. He worked in repertory theatre in Montreal and came back to Montreal to transition over to radio when Kennedy had just been assassinated. He took a job at a gas station before long and then was working at a radio station. 

How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine
Cullen as Optimus Prime in Transformers, 2007. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

Cullen and Larry became friends with famous comedian and actor Jonathan Winters. Winters served in the Marines in the Pacific during World War II and left the Corps as a Corporal. Winters positively influenced many of the great comedians of today, including Robin Williams, and passed back in 2013. Larry introduced Winters’ comedy records to Cullen back in the 1950s. Winters shared a lot about his Marine stories and past with the brothers. They would spend up to ten hours talking at a time together. Winters met Cullen on a special show with the famous comedian. Winters met Cullen on a special show with the famous comedian. Winters and Cullen lived near each other and continued their friendship. Larry moved out to Los Angeles in the early 80s, so the two Cullen brothers and Winters spent a lot of time together. Winters would exhaust Larry with laughter — they would have to go home after laughing so hard because of his antics. 

Cullen was a regular on the The Sonny and Cher Show. Winters invited Cullen to work with him on a special, which humbled Cullen as it was the, “…greatest of honors to be even considered.” He worked on The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show as well. He wanted a normal family, moved out to the country and did voice acting. This led to him working as a voice actor for cartoons, promos for network TV, movie trailers and narration for films. Cullen has done more cartoons than anything else. He said, “Kids remember my voice from the different cartoons I worked on. I can’t even remember doing the voice.” Adults ask him to sign pictures for him for cartoon characters he doesn’t even remember voicing. He shared, “Lessons in humility come hard and often in showbiz,” which reflects the difficulty of working in the business. 

Cullen talked about how Optimus Prime came about. “My character in The Transformers for Optimus Prime came from Larry. I did not know that many Marines back in 1984; they always had that sense of dignity and honor built into them. There is something special about Marines.” He was called by his agent for an audition for the leader of these toys, called The Transformers. He was to play the leader which was a big semi-truck. His brother was staying with him at the time. Cullen needed to use the only car they had for this audition. He informed Larry he was going to an audition to play the voice of a hero truck and Larry responded, “That’s a heck of a way to make a living.” Cullen informed him that the character was a good guy and Larry replied, “If you are going to be a leader, be a real leader not a Hollywood leader with the yelling and screaming and pretending to be a tough guy. Be sincere, be honest, be respectful….be strong enough to be gentle.” Larry’s voice got deep and quiet when he said, “Be strong enough to be gentle.” His delivery surprised Cullen and he thanked his older brother for the advice.

When he got to the audition his paper stated that he was, “Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, but it could have said my name is Larry Cullen, leader of the…” The voice just came out where the whole persona was Larry and was a Marine, “…the character was just a great guy.” Two weeks later Cullen’s agent contacted him to let him know he’d gotten the role. Cullen informed his older brother about him being the basis for the character – – Larry was now a cartoon. Cullen’s loyalty and admiration he had for his brother is a great part of his life. 

Cullen shared, “The Marine Corps definitely stands out to me from the other branches of services in the way it has affected me. Through the experience I have had with Larry and the Marines of his platoons and Marines from other units…there is a sense of dignity, honor and integrity that does not require many words or attitude.” Cullen further adds, “It is a built-in sense of confidence and sense of respect where it is a ‘been there done that’ without snubbing and without conceit. It is a sense of earned honor…and so well deserved for the amount of intensity that a Marine feels from the very beginning of their training through their service. It is just pervasive…the sense of truth that a Marine has to the team he is with and to himself. There is no other way to describe, it is just being a Marine, different from everybody else. Just different.” Cullen strongly feels that Marines are just, “…special.”

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A picture of Larry and his medals earned in the Corps. Photo courtesy of Peter Cullen.

Cullen was invited on the USS Reagan aircraft carrier by Michael Reagan recently. He got to meet the captain of the ship and take a photo with the crew. He is humbled by, “how this character Optimus Prime has touched the hearts of so many people in the military.” Cullen is happy and fulfilled with his legacy he is leaving behind with his acting work, his family and he left a legacy for his brother and those that served with him. He said, “Being interviewed by the Marines is the honor of all honors. I am grateful that you requested to interview me and how proud I am to be a part of this. Thank you.”  

Cullen said that his brother Larry was quiet about his service in Vietnam and did not say much. Larry shared a funny story once about boot camp where he had brushed a sand fly away from his face and the DI had him dig a grave to bury it. Once Larry had buried the sand fly the DI asked, “what direction was he facing?” Larry did not remember the direction and had to dig the sand fly back up. Larry told Cullen that, “…if you try to join the Marine Corps I will break both of your legs.” Larry believed Cullen was placed on this earth to make people laugh and to entertain them. Cullen tried to sign up for the Corps however the recruiting office was closed for the day — Larry was very upset at him. 

How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine
Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker) vs. Optimus Prime (voiced by Cullen) in The Transformers: The Movie, 1986. Photo courtesy of i-mockey.com.

Cullen began his entertainment career doing summer stock during the senior year of high school. He took the place of an actor that got sick and was initially building sets and scenery. He enjoyed doing the role and then pursued an acting career going to The National Theatre School of Canada. Cullen studied Shakespeare, Chekhov and Eugene O’Neil. He had parts in West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and then The King and I in Winnipeg. He had the lead in Bye Bye Birdie. He worked in repertory theatre in Montreal and came back to Montreal to transition over to radio when Kennedy had just been assassinated. He took a job at a gas station before long and then was working at a radio station. 

How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine
Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker) vs. Optimus Prime (voiced by Cullen) in The Transformers: The Movie, 1986. Photo courtesy of i-mockey.com.

Winters invited Cullen to move out to California to work with him. Cullen was a regular on the The Sonny and Cher Show. Winters invited Cullen to work with him on a special, which humbled Cullen as it was the, “…greatest of honors to be even considered.” He worked on The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show as well. He wanted a normal family, moved out to the country and did voice acting. This led to him working as a voice actor for cartoons, promos for network TV, movie trailers and narration for films. Cullen has done more cartoons than anything else. He said, “Kids remember my voice from the different cartoons I worked on. I can’t even remember doing the voice.” Adults ask him to sign pictures for him for cartoon characters he doesn’t even remember voicing. He shared, “Lessons in humility come hard and often in showbiz,” which reflects the difficulty of working in the business. 

Peter Cullen
Winters with Cullen on the beach back in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Peter Cullen

In closing Cullen stated, “Wherever a Marine is, they are distinct and are unchangeable where truth is with them. I can tell you (the interviewer) are a Marine.” Cullen ended the call with, “Semper Fi my friend.”

How the voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by a Marine
An image showing Cullen alongside many of his voice creations, Optimus Prime included. Photo courtesy of Twitter.com.
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