For decades, Frank Welker and Peter Cullen have been titans in the animation voice acting industry. Cullen is known for his immediately recognizable bass voice, which he has lent to such characters as Optimus Prime in Transformers and Eeyore in the last few decade of Winnie the Pooh media. Welker is a vocal chameleon, with one of the longest pages on IMDb. He has played Fred on Scooby-Doo continuously since 1969 and has also voiced iconic characters such as Megatron on Transformers, Nibbler on Futurama, Dr. Klaw on Inspector Gadget and hundreds of other roles, and is just as well known for his uncanny ability to mimic animal noises that have been utilized in hundreds of live action and animated films and television shows.
The two will be part of a panel at this year’s Rhode Island Comic Con at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence Rhode Island on November 7. The Young Folks’ Ryan Gibbs talked with Welker and Cullen a few days before the event through phone interview.
TYF: When and why did the two of you get into voice acting?
Frank Welker: I originally came out to California to go to college and get in the business, and I knew very young and very early on that I wanted to be in the entertainment business. My whole goal was to be an actor and I really wasn’t sure what form that would take. When I grew up and was in high school and trying to make my decision of where to go, I thought “well there’s California, New York or Chicago,” and New York was so far away and a big city, I was kind of nervous about that. Chicago, I didn’t know much about it, but there was no oceans, just a cold lake – but a nice lake. But California had sunshine, the beach, beautiful girls and Hollywood, so it all made sense to come out here.
I came out and got in the theater department [at Santa Monica College] and decided to pursue commercials. I did commercials and then got into doing some television, and then some films and along the way I bumped into somebody who said “hey, you ought to come over and do a voiceover for me,” and I was “what is that and is it legal?” They explained what it was and I went in and did a Friskies dog food commercial and his girlfriend happened to be casting a show at Hanna-Barbera for ABC called Scooby Doo and I ended up getting Freddie Jones, who I’m still doing 45 years later.
Anyhow, it really was an accident of getting into voiceovers. I slowly found that I was doing more and more animation and sound effects for movies, and really enjoying it, and doing less and less of everything else that I was interested in. I found out I wasn’t a very good dramatic actor, which I would have loved to have been on camera, but I could do more in animation that I couldn’t do physically on camera. That’s how I got into it, and it just sort of snowballed and got bigger and bigger. The next thing you know, that was pretty much what I was doing. I even stopped doing my stand-up comedy and concentrated on voices.
Peter Cullen: I started off a lot differently. I wanted to be a serious actor back in Canada. I went to the National Theatre School of Canada up in Montreal. I was in my late teens – I was 19 – and it was a three year course and it was ten months of the year which three were spent in Stratford on Avon in Ontario doing Shakespeare.
Well, I soon came to the conclusion that I really wasn’t cut out to be the artsy guy. I had too much fun. I had followed the experience of grade school and high school by being the clown. I was one of the funny guys. I continued with that and did a little theater and ended up doing television back in Montreal and film and nightclubs. Reviews, mostly, because I could do several different characters. In an hour and a half show, I could come on as three or four different costumes and accents and stuff.
I loved it and thought I was getting along great with it, and they asked me to come to Hollywood to do a show called It’s a Wacky World which was to replace Laugh-In. The show was a two hour special and it bombed. I was out of work and had moved my wife and child. We’d bought a house and I was ready to settle into a very successful Hollywood career which I was thinking was going to be very much like Arte Johnson and all the other guys from Laugh-In. Well, that wasn’t to be. I ended up doing an audition for an announcer for The Sonny and Cher Show, which was being done at the same studio, almost. They just hired me immediately, and I recorded with an orchestra as the little man in the ball on The Sonny and Cher Show that did all the little funny noises, popped out with a flag and then went back into the ball and I then had to come in 16 bars later under a kettle drum and say “ladies and gentlemen, Sonny and Cher.” They kept that on for five years or whatever it was. Then about three weeks later, I was a regular on the show when they found out that I could do accents and voices and characters and stuff like that.
So that was it for those years. Pretty grindy. I decided that this is too much, couldn’t raise a family this way and a very good friend of mine, Jonathan Winters, said [does perfect Jonathan Winters impression] “you know Peter, what you ought to is, you ought to do your voices. Those voices, you could make a lot of bread.” So I took a year off and just went to auditions and landed my first job and it was voiceovers from then on; No on camera, no more stage, no more nightclubs, no more nothing. Just V.O..
Welker: You know what’s amazing, coincidentally, and Peter and I just found this out; We were talking about it the last time we were together. When Peter was doing the Wacky World deal to replace Laugh-In or to follow after Laugh-In was canceled, I was doing a pilot at the same time with Arte Johnson for a show that was going to replace Laugh-In that was going to be the Arte Johnson show; I can’t remember what the name of it was. It was basically his show and we were all doing Laugh-In characters and the same kind of thing [Cullen’s] guys were doing. We were both doing the exact same thing at the exact same time and both of those shows never made it!
When I was sitting around watching the Sonny and Cher Show, and I swear this is the honest truth, I watched Peter’s stuff and I thought “My God, who’s ever doing this voice stuff is really good.” It just cut through all the noise, his characters and sounds, and I thought “Man, I hope that guy doesn’t come to Hollywood.” [Cullen laughs] He was so good on that show. Then it wasn’t that much longer that when [Cullen] got into the voice biz and I’m doing voices and then we meet up on Mighty Man and Yukk [in 1979].
TYF: Frank, you’re renowned for animal sounds in the industry. Where did you learn how mimic animals to such an effect and as a followup, I read an anecdote that you once provided the sound of an entire flock of geese in a single take, is that true? [note: specifically, this claim is made by John DiMaggio in a Futurama commentary]
Welker: [laughs] Well, to answer the first part of your question, both Peter and I do a lot of noises and impressions. One of my specialties — and it wasn’t anything I really concentrated on, it was just one of those things from my youth that was just dumb luck — I can listen to animal sounds, noises, people and pretty much pick up anything; It was just sort of a parrot thing.
I found that when I got out here, and I started doing voices and things, I don’t know how I actually [started]. I guess it was Doctor Dolittle was the first film where they actually called my agency and they were looking for any actors that could do donkeys and any kind of animals. So they sent me out and I ended it up doing just a whole bunch of stuff on there. One of the sound editors, he tells another sound editor, and pretty soon, people start calling and saying “Is that guy who does the yak underwater, is he available?” And usually there was only one guy doing a yak underwater because Peter wasn’t in town yet. So i’d get the call.
Like I said, it wasn’t really something that I worked on, it was just things that came naturally. When you would actually go into a picture, like a feature, and they want you to loop – which is doing your voice or your character against the screen, you watch it on the screen, and you record it – is one of my very favorite things to do. You just get lost in the film and every once in a while, I would see something when I was doing one thing and I’d just do it out of habit. The guy would say “what was that?!” and i’d say “oh, i’m sorry, I saw that pigeon over there and I just couldn’t help it.” and he’s “no, no! can you do more” and I say ‘sure” [makes realistic pigeon noises] [and he says] “oh great, we’ve got some flies, you can’t do a fly, can you?” [makes realistic fly buzzing noise]. And then, just one thing lead to another, and pretty soon there I was going doing an awful lot of animals and monsters and sounds for scary movies, which I love.
There was a picture called Species, and the creature was this beautiful New York model [Natasha Henstridge] who played this creature that came down and was supposed to mate with all the most eligible men. There were scenes where there were eggs on the train, and they had to have a sound and the guy goes “we don’t know what to do, you got anything?” and I said “well, I guess could do this” [gurgling egg cracking noise]. And it was so much fun just making stuff.
Those are things that Peter and I did in school to get in trouble, but now we’re being asked to do them to be creative! I think you just sort of let your mind go and these are things that maybe a lot of people don’t think about.
The second part of your question; I think what you’re referring to is I used to do in my stand-up act 15 ducks singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” That may be it. And what it was, there was a lead duck that goes [sings “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” in a duck voice]. And then the other 14 ducks would join in [sings the same song, but as a chorus of ducks]. Now aren’t you sorry you asked? [Welker and Cullen laugh]
TYF: How did the two of you get the job for Transformers and where did the voices for Optimus and Megatron come from?
Cullen: Well, we auditioned with I don’t know how many other actors, but probably the whole field back in those days, probably about 30 or 40; There are hundreds and hundreds now, if not thousands. We would go in what they would call a “cattle call” and you’d be standing out and you’d be looking at the pictures of the characters and you were billed to select three or four and your name would be listed on one; They wanted you for this or that. That’s the way that was handled through the audition process.
Then of course, to do the character, you draw on your own experiences and your interpretation. In my case the character of Optimus Prime was written as a hero, and the words were pretty straightforward and quite honest. I was determined not to sound like a Hollywood typical hero with the big voice.
On the advice of my brother Larry – who is a Marine Corps captain and fought in Vietnam and when he came back he had a very different outlook on life – one day when he asked where I was going I said “I’m going to audition for a truck,” and he laughed. And I said “No. he’s a hero truck,” and then he got very serious and he said [in a deeper voice] “well Peter, if you’re going to be a hero, be a real hero. Don’t be one of those phony Hollywood sounding types that think they’re tough and they’re not. Be compassionate, be strong enough to be gentle, and have a little dignity. But be strong”
And so I took that down, and I drove to the audition and I saw the script for the first time. I was in the booth, take one, and my brother Larry’s voice just came out: [in the Optimus voice] “My name is Optimus Prime.”
And then, went through the whole thing, just did it with that inspiration of my brother Larry in my head. Then two weeks later, found out I got the job and I was very grateful; Grateful for my brother, too. I told him that I got the job, and he said “Well Peter, that’s great!” and I said, “no the job was the truck,” “Oh, the hero? We you a real hero?,” I said “yeah, I did you!” That was it, he didn’t want to hear another word!
TYF: Frank, same question for you; Where did the voice for Megatron come from? You got the job in the same way, correct?
Welker: Yeah, it was very similar. It was an open call, so as Peter mentioned, they sent a call out to all the agents and they send all their people in. And then Wally Burr, who’s directing it, he has a few of his favorites like Peter he really liked and myself and a few other guys that he worked with on G.I. Joe and many other shows. He made sure that we came back. Then he’d say “Pick a few that you want to read” and when I saw Megatron, I thought “Man, I would really love to do the villain “ And of course, I could never do the hero, I sound like [does a stereotypical nerd voice read] and I would never get a nice voice like…Peter’s voice is just, forget it, it’s just perfect.
Cullen: [laughs] You’re the best!
Welker: So I thought, “Well the only chance I have is maybe that nasty villain,” and i’d been fiddling with a voice and I call it my “cave of wonder” voices and it was similar to that, but I had a “cave of wind” voices where it sounded like it was maybe 15 people at one time going [demonstrates said voice] “WE ARE ALL IN THE CAVE”
I thought if I could take that weird sound and maybe throw it into something a little deeper that somebody else wouldn’t do it. As Peter said, he wanted to do something different and real and not something that’s typical. I figured everyone’s going to do a typical robot and I’ll never get it. So I took my “cave of winds” voice and then threw in a little bit of mechanical sounds and then [starts doing Megatron voice] next thing you know, you have Megatron, leader of the Decepticons. So I didn’t know anybody else would do that, but I figured they probably wouldn’t and I’d have at least a decent shot at it. And I was very surprised and happy to actually get that voice and that they didn’t fiddle with it. They let me do that voice.
So that was fun and rewarding and I’ve enjoyed doing Megatron for a long time now.
TYF: What are your favorite roles that you’ve done in your time as a voice actor? I know you probably have several hundred options between the two of you!
Cullen: I love roles that make people happy, that entertain them and do something more than maybe not just laugh; that arouse some feeling. Optimus Prime would have to be one of my most endearing ones. I’ve had so much fun doing characters that were funny, but I’ve never heard any feedback on those. The only one that I think that stands out for feedback would be Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, and everybody seems to like him over the years. I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do him.
But I would have to say the one that’s created the most controversy and the most satisfaction would be Optimus Prime, without a doubt.
Welker: I agree with everything that Peter said. You want to do something that is meaningful or at least will stay there and be something. I mean, Peter plays a lot more beautiful, serious characters and also great comedy characters, and I think I play a lot of silly characters. I’ve always enjoyed Dyno-Mutt. It’s just absolute goofy, but it’s fun to fiddle around with and ad-lib, and that was a character that I did many years ago. Slimer from Ghostbusters is a character that again you can ad-lib in and play around with and get some highs and lows. It seems to be that usually the character that you’re doing at the time, you’re having fun working with it. But the character that’s been responded to so greatly by the fans has been Megatron. So, that is obviously become one of my very favorites and it’s always fun to do. He’s a great character in all his iterations.