In lieu of the standard introduction of interview subjects, I'm going to just explain how I wound up in a room with Peter Cullen, the man who does the voice of Optimus Prime from "Transformers," and -- for reasons I still don't 100 percent understand -- Larry King. Only because, (a) it was one of the most unusual experiences that I've ever been a part of and (b) nothing else really sums up the surrealism of Comic-Con. Put it this way: It's not every day (or any day, until now) that I get called a "nerd" by Larry King after explaining to him the difference between KITT and KARR from "Knight Rider."
In the week leading up to covering Comic-Con as a member of the press, my email inbox became inundated with requests, offers and invites. Most of them were nonsense, but a few did pique my interests -- like the opportunity to talk to the man who has voiced Optimus Prime in multiple animated series and the Michael Bay movies, Peter Cullen. I mean, it's Comic-Con! And I've been listening to this man's voice for almost 30 years.
A couple of days before the interview, the publicist emailed to inform me that now Larry King would be paired with Cullen. My first reaction was that this Larry King must be some sort of producer on "Transformers," not the legendary talk show host -- because, you know, what sense would that make? After clarifying, however, sure enough, it was that Larry King.
My instructions were to meet Peter Cullen and Larry King at a studio inside the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown San Diego. When I entered, King was already holding court, entertaining a group of technicians and publicists (and Peter Cullen, who by the way, sounds nothing like Optimus Prime when he's using his normal voice) with a story of how Gregory Peck turned down the lead role in "High Noon." It was also very obvious that King and Cullen had not met before, which added to my curiosity as to why these two were here together in the first place. I was introduced to King and he responded, "Nice to meet you, Mark." I didn't even correct him, I just returned the greeting. (The publicist did interject, "Mr. King, it's 'Mike,' not 'Mark.'")
Here, without any more comment, is how the rest of this experience transpired.
My first question that I have to ask is why are you here?
King: They called a friend of mine named Dennis Gilbert, who's a very big insurance guy and a big guy with the Chicago White Sox, but he knew someone here and they said, "Do you think Larry King could come down to be part of Comic-Con and interview Peter Cullen as an event?" So I put him in touch with my father-in-law, Carl, who's been working on my career with me, as well, and they made the arrangements for me to come. At first, I've got to tell you the truth, I've never heard of Comic-Con. This is a whole new world to me. The only place this could take place was Hollywood Boulevard. This is bizarro. It's bizarro to me. I went to this nerd bar and these people are dressed as weird things, and they're stopping me on the street. The elves come over and ghouls and guys in uniforms. But of course, I know the Transformers, and I know Cullen's work.
Are people like, "Hey, you're dressed as Larry King"?
King: That's what I did when one guy came over and said, "You look like Larry King." I said, "Well, you know, I am!" So the chance to interview Cullen on stage -- I love interviews and I love asking questions, and it's a fun thing to do and I live right here in Beverly Hills. [It's a] two and a half hour drive. I love San Diego, come here a lot.
And, Peter, you have been here before, right? You're, like, the king of this place?
King: You should be the king of this place.
Cullen: I was here last year. No, I could hardly call myself the king of this place. My gosh.
King: But you would be like a heroic figure here. I mean, in the world of comics.
Cullen: Well, Optimus Prime is a heroic figure, definitely. And there are some people that wear Optimus Prime costumes or get-ups, you know?
Do they recognize you?
Cullen: You know, there are some that do, but they're in it professionally. Could you sign this please? And there's 400 [photos] underneath of it.
King: And remember, his voice changes for the character, so when he talks in his regular voice, you don't associate him with it. So he couldn't run into people, whereas, sometimes, you have a voice like Alan Ladd or someone like that where you just hear the voice.
Or Gilbert Gottfried.
King: Gilbert Gottfried, you know who he is. But his regular voice is nothing like the Transformers voice.
Cullen: No. I mean, that's a good thing for me, too, because I can walk through a crowd and say [in a wacky voice], "You know, you really have got the wrong person. Everybody says I look like what's-his-name."
King: That's a genuine talent.
When you were first approached for the "Transformers" in the early '80s, does it even go through your mind that people are still going to be talking about this in 30 years?
Cullen: No, no. Oh, not at all. You know, you have to remember, a voice actor's always auditioning and he's always creating a voice. And whether he's got the job in a show, he's contracted to do more than one voice, you know?
You voiced Ironhide as well.
Cullen: Yeah. And you would do three and you'd get paid for one. That's the way it used to work.
King: Is Mel Blanc one of the heroes of the voice?
Cullen: Well, he's my hero in voice.
King: I interviewed him once. He could go whack to whack to whack. Elmer Fudd to Bugs Bunny.
Cullen: He was the king. He was the king.
King: "What's up, doc?"
Cullen: I sat next to him in an animated show, something about dinosaurs, and he ‑‑ oh, Larry, you'd like this ‑‑ he was sitting right next to me. It was later on in his career and he had gone through a terrible accident and he had finally gotten a lot better And it came to my part to do a dinosaur and I had to make the roar. And I'm sitting next to the king. So my part came up, and I had to give a growl. So I [roars] and he looked at me, [Bugs Bunny voice] "Ooh, that's a mean one."
King: Do you ever throw your voice?
Cullen: No, I could never do that.
King: Senor Wences was a great ventriloquist.
Cullen: Oh, wasn't he, though?
King: Do you remember? You're too young.
King: He did this hand, remember?
I know who Senior Wences is.
King: On Ed Sullivan?
King: "Hello, hello, hello."
Cullen: "Shut the door."
King: "Shut the door." I went to dinner with him. We interviewed him and we went, five people, and to an Italian restaurant. And there was setting for six, but we were only five. And so the waitress comes by and "yes, yes, yes." And as she starts to turn, he goes, "And also, I'll have a spaghetti and meatballs," from the empty seat. So she turns around and says, "Let's get that again? I got six orders here."
Cullen: Throwing his voice.
King: Kept throwing his voice. Put it right on the seat.
Is Optimus Prime your favorite character? You've done so many.
Cullen: Oh, I'd have to say he's my favorite character of all time of anything I've ever done.
Because you've been doing it so long?
Cullen: I think partially.
King: And the popularity of it.
Cullen: It's the popularity and what it means to me, and I only have been doing it ‑‑ I did it the first two years --from '84 to '86 -- and then the movies, 2007 until present. But not a great deal of work until the new "Transformers Prime" [on The Hub TV network] series has come into being. But, overall, between those sections of years, I would give it number one as my favorite character. It's emotionally my favorite character and it means to me symbolically and idealistically for reasons that I have. Just, hands down. Hands down.
Were you upset when they killed him off in the animated "Transformers: The Movie"?
Cullen: At that age in my life, I was a young man, younger than I am now. I was shocked. I looked at Frank Welker, and I said, "Frank, I'm getting whacked."
And really early in the movie, too.
Cullen: Yeah. Page 16, I'm gone.
I was 12 when that movie came out and I was very upset, because that's everyone's favorite character.
Cullen: Well, I guess they had to bring him back because the children were so upset, according to all the articles that I've read about it. I wasn't aware of it then, but literally, they were hiding in closets and under beds. They wouldn't come out. They wouldn't go to see the movie after the people heard about it. None of them would go.
Were you thinking, Well, I guess that's it. I'm never doing him again?
Cullen: I used to always say, "There go the car payments."
So when Michael Bay makes the "Transformers" movie he got a lot of heat, actually, for changing so much. For people who love the cartoons, the movies are quite different. But he didn't change you. Did that surprise you? How did that conversation go?
Cullen: Well, I'm a pretty good fighter.
You had to fight? Did he want to do a different voice?
Cullen: Well, I auditioned at least three times.
Really? So he didn't just come to you and say, "Of course, we want you"?
Cullen: No. I stuck to my guns how I was going to do it and he was a very, very easy and understandable guy and a brilliant talent to put together all the things that he does -- to keep in mind that huge thing. I've often compared him to being a general in a battle. But holding all those pieces together and under all that pressure, I was really glad that he actually didn't give me any trouble and respected my presentation of it and, certainly, my stubbornness to change anything.
That would have gotten a ton of backlash. People were already upset just because there were flames on the side of Optimus Prime.
Cullen: That's another thing. I mean, visually, that's conceivable, but the character and his traits and his qualities and the measure of the character himself did not change.
But if that got out that you had auditioned and he turned you down, people would have been very, very upset.
Cullen: God love them.
But that didn't happen.
Cullen: It didn't thanks to them.
They announced a fourth movie. Are you back for that?
Cullen: I certainly hope I am back for it, yeah.
Oh, that's not 100 percent?
Cullen: Well, you never know in this business.
King: Do you ever change the lines?
Cullen: Sometimes, when it's appropriate.
King: I mean, will they accept that you're not comfortable?
Cullen: Yeah. I'm never one to push anything bad like that, unless it was over the top or something. I'd say, "Hey, he would never say this," you know.
Did Bay listen to you?
Cullen: I've had a couple of opportunities, and it was very well received at the time. I'm grateful for that.
You also did voice work on the "Gobots." Did you kind of feel like you were cheating on the Transformers a little bit? It was the rival toy.
Cullen: No, not really. Don't forget, the year was 1986, and that came later. I'm an actor, and I had to work. You know, a grunt.
You know what voice you did that used to scare me so much as a kid? KARR in "Knight Rider."
King: You were the car? My wife was in the original "Knight Rider," right, Carl? She was in the pilot. She was his girlfriend in the first two-hour episode of "Knight Rider." And you were the car?
No, no. There was an evil car.
Cullen: KITT was the nice car. I was the evil one.
King: Oh, the evil car.
Cullen: I was the bad car.
KITT was the good guy and KARR, K-A-R-R was the bad guy.
King: Well, what did KARR sound like?
Cullen: KARR was kind of like in that timezone where I wasn't Optimus Prime anymore and yet I had to be more -- I thought of being more mechanically menacing. So it's kind of a bad Optimus. [Voice] "My name is KARR, automated Knight Rider." You know, or something to that effect. I can't remember it anymore, but it was mean.
It was mean.
Cullen: Yeah, it was mean. It was threatening.
King: [Looks at me] You really know you're ‑‑ you're a freak, right? I mean, you're like a nerd.
OK, that's fair.
King: You know your stuff. "Gobots?" Whatever, go ahead.
I do my research.
King: I know. You're good.
Well, there was my Mel Blanc moment. Do you feel sorry for whomever has to step into your shoes as Optimus, whenever you decide to give it up?
King: Why would you give it up?
Cullen: Well, I would never give it up. I would never give it up, on a personal level, ever. No, it means too much to me. I'm too tuned to it. But, you know, partly because of me, but partly because of -- or mostly because of -- the fan base and the people that love him. I don't think they'd accept another.
King: Yeah, you're in a very good position. Well, you'd have to find someone that could duplicate that voice. It's very hard to do.
Cullen: You'd have to crawl inside my stomach and kick the emotions out of me the way they ... well, enough of that.
One last thing: Do you have a favorite moment or line you delivered.
Cullen: Oh, there are a lot. Gee whiz, I'm going to have a lot more now that I've been with Larry King. This is a highlight for me. One of the great days. Well, I suppose when I was younger and I looked forward to something great happening in my career, this is probably one of them. I would say as Optimus Prime, I would say, [Optimus Prime voice] "Hold on to your dreams. The future is built on dreams."
I just watched you do the Optimus Prime voice. My life is complete.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
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