To many growing up watching Transformers in the 80’s and 90’s, the leader of the Autobots -better known as Optimus Prime- might have been a childhood hero. Known for his gruff voice and sound leadership, the semi-truck-transforming alien robot was such a fan favorite, there was an entire nation of upset children when he originally died in the 1986 animated film- prompting a rapid comeback.
While Optimus Prime is pretty universal as far as character recognition goes, the voice of the popular robot -renowned Canadian voice actor Peter Cullen- often slides under the radar when compared to his character.
Now in his mid-seventies, Cullen was a familiar voice heard in the childhood of many a person. From the clinically-depressed Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh to the much beloved narrator of Cartoon Network’s Toonami promos, Cullen is still best known for his iconic role as Optimus Prime- the grizzled space combat veteran whose voice was ironically based on a veteran of jungle warfare.
You see, Peter Cullen had an older brother by the name of H.L. Cullen, or “Larry” for short. Growing up together in Montreal, Larry and his brother were devout Canadians who were also of American heritage.
Despite living on the other side of the northern fence in a difficult era, Larry felt compelled to choose duty over convenience and crossed over into the United States to become an officer in the US Marine Corps, at the same time when many young men were fleeing into Canada to avoid having to fight.
From 1965 to 1968, Marine Captain H.L. Cullen served as a Marine infantry officer with Kilo 3/5 of the 1st Marine Division.
During his time in Vietnam, Cullen -like many veterans of combat- saw the very worst of human nature. Through engagements with the enemy and the constant emotional stress that accompany such events, he himself became what he had to be in order to lead his men and stay alive in an environment that was hostile, confusing and unpredictable to the average man.
In the course of his tour of duty, Cullen was awarded the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Combat Action Ribbon.
After the war, Larry eventually got on with his life the best he could and got an apartment with his brother, Peter, who was pursuing a career as a voice actor.
In a 2014 interview, Peter Cullen recalls how there would be no Optimus Prime without the help of a certain Marine Captain on the day of his big audition.
“I was living with my brother, a former Marine,” he began, “He was K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines and he fought in Vietnam…He was decorated, wounded and came home…And there was a change. There was a significant change in his demeanor, his sense of living.
We were sharing an apartment at the same time and he said ‘Peter, where ‘ya goin?’
I said ‘I’m going to an audition, Larry,’ and he said ‘What are you going to audition for?’
I said ‘I’m gonna be a truck.’ He started to laugh, I started to laugh and I said ‘But Larry, he’s a hero. He’s a hero truck!’
He looked at me and he said ‘Okay, a hero. Well if you’re gonna be a hero, Peter, be a real hero. Don’t be one of those pretend Hollywood heroes- always yelling and acting tough, be a real hero.’
His voice got very low, there was a seriousness in him and the way he talked, there was a gentle smoothness to it- and he said ‘If you’re gonna be a hero, Peter, remember: be strong enough to be gentle. Be compassionate, you know? Be understanding. Don’t go yelling and screaming.”
For the younger Cullen, the moment was so powerful that it could still choke him up, even in his later years.
“It’s the way he said it,” he recalled. “When I got to the audition… about twenty minutes after that conversation, I read the lines. That influence that he sad on me, his voice -the way he had said what he had said just rolled out of me…and it felt so comfortable, it felt so good. By the time it was all over and I was driving away, I had this warm that I had just done the best audition I’ve ever done in my life.”
“So,” he concluded, “My brother Larry was directly responsible and for that, I’m forever grateful.”
While his younger brother skyrocketed to fame, Larry Cullen went on to do many things as well. From a stockbroker to commercial pilot, actor to computer programmer, Cullen seemed to do well at anything he put his mind to.
Sadly, Larry would die suddenly in his Virginia home in March of 2011 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in July of the same year.
According to this obituary, “Larry’s greatest gift was friendship; compassionate, tolerant and respectful towards others. Larry’s many friends and his Marine Corps brothers cared deeply for him. This marvelous sensitive man with a great sense of humor will never be forgotten.”
While Captain H.L. Cullen may have passed on, his voice and approach to heroic leadership -channeled through his younger brother- has been immortalized, both in recorded history and in the hearts of millions of children- past, present and future.
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