Growing up in the 1980s the first thing my brothers and I would do on Saturday mornings was make a big bowl of Fruit Loops, fire up the trusty Zeneth CRT TV, and started watching cartoons. Mainly Super Friends, G.I. Joe, and ThunderCats were on the docket for our weekend ritual, but the one cartoon that we always made sure to watch was Transformers. My favorite Decepticon was Soundwave, because I had a cassette player similar to that character, and my favorite Autobot was Optimus Prime. My best friend’s father was a truck driver, so when he would come home to clean the semi, we got to play in the truck and pretended to drive. We would always think we were riding inside Optimus during those days.
But beyond the cool transformation and bright color scheme, there was that majestic voice that Optimus Prime yielded. Bold and strong, yet humble and genuine. His voice was direct and forceful to his enemies, but empathetic and calm to those he protected. These are the traits I thought of when describing this heroic and legendary Autobot.
It was also these characteristics that Peter Cullen would echo when voicing Optimus Prime. Even though Cullen had voiced other infamous characters such as Winnie the Poo’s Eeyore and KARR from the Knight Rider series, he will always be known as the voice of Prime.
What isn’t familiar, though, is who the person Optimus Prime’s character is based on and where Peter Cullen channels his inspiration while voicing this legendary leader of the Autobots.
In the early 1980s, Peter Cullen was given a chance to auditioned for a part in a new cartoon series. He told his brother, Larry Cullen, about the audition and wanted to get some advice on what he thought of this new career opportunity. Larry, who was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, told Peter, “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.”
Needless to say, Peter took that advice to heart and aced the audition and the rest as they say is history.
Even though Peter is the most recognizable name in the Cullen family, Larry has his own impeccable resume.
Larry Cullen was a teacher, a broker, a commercial pilot, and even played professional football for the Montreal Allouettes, but most importantly he became a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps.
H.L. “Larry” Cullen was a United States Marine Corps officer and trained at the Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. He was then deployed to Southern Vietnam as a Captain and infantry officer for K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
For his heroic service in Vietnam, Larry was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V”, two purple hearts with gold stars, and a Combat Action Ribbon.
It was from Larry’s advice and his heroic service to the United States Marine Corps that has and always will be the inspiration for the iconic Autobot known as Optimus Prime.
Sadly, though, H.L. “Larry” Cullen passed away at the age of 70 on March 28, 2011. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In Season one of Transformers: Prime, Larry Cullen was remembered at the end of episode 20, which aired on July 23, 2011.
When reading the text for the audition, Peter Cullen said this about his brother on the character of Optimus Prime:
“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.”
Even though Peter will be remembered as the voice for the leader of the Autobots, it was because of Larry’s selfless actions, calm demeanor, and grit as a U.S. Marine Corps veteran that will always be considered the true face of Optimus Prime.