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Peter Cullen, Canada's famed Optimus Prime voice actor, still prioritizes helping kids

The 82-year-old actor looks back at his impressive career, including his friendship with Frank Welker and working on a project with NASA

Peter Cullen attends Paramount's
Peter Cullen attends Paramount's "Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts" premiere at Kings Theatre on June 5, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Few voice actors are as beloved as Montreal-born Peter Cullen, most famously known for voicing Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise.

As the 82-year-old makes his way to Toronto for Fan Expo Canada, Cullen said he feels "honoured" to continue to have the opportunity to meet fans — Canadians in particular — at fandom events.

"It is an opportunity to say thanks," Cullen told Yahoo Canada. "I look forward to it always."

Cullen has an achieved an impressive career going back decades. From the National Theatre School of Canada and summer stock theatre in New York, he also did one-hour radio shows for CBC and television work for the public broadcaster, as well.

"In voiceover, it just took off with commercials and movie trailers, cartoons, ... there was really no time for for acting in film or television," Cullen said. "I was a seven-day-a-week, in-front-of-a-microphone for years and it was a story of constant work, and then finally into cartoons, when the cartoons were massive.

"It was an opportunity to work with other actors and replenish that absence of performing. It was always so much fun. Especially with Frank Welker."

Cullen met Welker on 1979's Mighty Man and Yukk, and the pair have been friends ever since. Cullen still celebrates Welker's talent and creativity.

"Working with Frank, that was the beginning of a huge, huge ongoing career," Cullen said.

"We travel together to a lot to these conventions and I look forward to it, because it's just non-stop laughter. ... Your stomach aches from laughing."

Peter Cullen, right, helps Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron, make handprints in Play-Doh compound at HASCON, the first-ever FANmily™ event from Hasbro, Inc. on Sept. 10, 2017, in Providence, R.I. (Stew Milne/AP Images for Hasbro, Inc.)
Peter Cullen, right, helps Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron, make handprints in Play-Doh compound at HASCON, the first-ever FANmily™ event from Hasbro, Inc. on Sept. 10, 2017, in Providence, R.I. (Stew Milne/AP Images for Hasbro, Inc.)

'I like anything that has to do with helping children'

While there have been so many impressive roles and iconic voices for Cullen, being able to impact the lives of children is high on the voice actor's priority list when it comes to projects he's particularly excited to be a part of.

"I like anything that has to do with helping children and helping youth," Cullen stressed. "I do it out of love. ... I don't do any of that for money.

"It's all very special to me when it involves kids and the effect that it has. It's a very rewarding life."

Cullen also did some work with NASA, specifically the OPSPARC project, the Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge for elementary, middle and high school students.

In terms of Optimus Prime, Cullen highlights that the character is a good example of "leadership, as well as "honour and courage" for children.

"A father to many who don't have a father," Cullen said about the character.

The voice actor has frequently spoken about how the actual voice of Optimus Prime was inspired by his brother, Larry, who was in the Marine Corps. More broadly, when Cullen is developing a voice for a new character, the sketches have a big impact on how he approaches the voice.

"Are they big? Are they small? Do they have a small neck? Do they have a big neck? Do they have a big belly? A small belly? I will relate that to, what would it sound like? Like a musical instrument. Is it big like a tuba or small like a bugle? The voice, I think, will come from what it looks like," Cullen explained.

Peter Cullen is seen in the LG photobooth at the
Peter Cullen is seen in the LG photobooth at the "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" premiere after party sponsored by LG Mobile Phones at Mann's Bruin Theater in Los Angeles, Calif. on June 22, 2009. (Casey Rodgers/AP Images for LG Mobile Phones)

For the many people who look up to Cullen's work, his biggest piece of advice is, "if you do something you love, you'll never work a day in your life."

"I feel very fortunate that way with my life," Cullen said.

He added that, for voice acting in particular, the most "interesting and the hardest" thing to do is be "honest with your words."

"When I was younger, I read to children a lot. I would read children's books and I tried to amaze them by bringing words to life with feeling," he said. "When you get their attention, you know you're on the right track.

"Try to make kids believe in your words by the honesty of them, and try to colour and ... make the beauty of a story come alive."