If you asked any kid in the 80s who their favorite cartoon leader was, and more than likely, you’d hear Optimus Prime. He was the definitive commander, partly because of the voice work Peter Cullen brought to the role. He was such a great fit for the role that twenty years later, when Michael Bay made his Transformers movie, the fan outcry brought Peter back to the big screen.
Peter Cullen brought so much to Optimus in the cartoon, making the Autobot leader a real hero – a bit of a father figure to the smaller bots and a bit of John Wayne to the Decepticons he fought. He could play basketball and call Decepticons “boobies” and turn around and punch Megatron into space. He made you care enough about him that when he died in Transformers: The Movie, you cried your heart out and it turned into one of the most traumatizing moments in animation history.
But there’s another leader from the 80s that I want to talk about who’s also part of Transformers. Dan may be the third most recognizable Transformers voice after Peter’s Optimus and Frank Welker’s… everybody else (maybe fourth after Chris Latta’s Starscream). Dan Gilvezan gave Bumblebee his trademark best friend voice, portraying the small Autobot as someone everyone wanted to hang out with.
I mean, he started a trope of yellow, kid-friendly characters, like Cheetor in Beast Wars, Hot Shot in the Unicron Trilogy. Outside of Transformers, you’ve got Pikachu and Agumon in Pokémon and Digimon, respectively, among many others. Yellow characters are targets for kids to latch on to, and Bumblebee pioneered that trend. He was charming and enthusiastic and wanted nothing but to be in the middle of everything, often the bravest of the Autobots, sneaking up on Decepticon planning sessions to gather intel – whether he succeeds or gets caught notwithstanding.
In that way, it surprised me that Dan Gilvezan has more experience voicing a leader than Peter did back in the day. Not including his turn as Spider-Man in Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends or Cooler in Pound Puppies, Dan has voiced the leader of the heroes in four other shows! I watched a few episodes of all four to get a sense of how each leader sounded, comparing them to Bumblebee.
Dan’s first leadership role hit the small screen in 1986 as Dargon in the 5-episode mini-series Sectaurs. Dargon sounds a little more gruff than Bumblebee, but not as much as some of the other voices here. He does a lot more screaming here too, but I don’t think he did any of the ululation that the other Sectaurs characters do (General Spidrax did the most that I saw). I can’t be sure, but the narrator at the beginning of the first episode sounded like Dan as well, and if it was him, that’s his most intense voice work of all four shows. IMDB says Dan provided the noises for Dargon’s steed, Dragonflier, but I can’t tell since it sounds so weird.
The following year, he started his only 65-episode series, Spiral Zone, as the embarrassingly named Dirk Courage. He only sounded like Bumblebee in the very beginning, during a mission brief. After that, his voice takes on an assertive but not aggressive tone. Very authoritative, and a great leader voice.
1988 brought us Questar in Dino-Riders’ 13-episode run. Questar came off a little gruffer and more aggressive than Courage and was easily my favorite of the four. There were a few lines where he sounded like Pat Fraley’s BraveStarr, and it fit really well with the wild aspect of the show.
Victor Vector in the 5-episode mini-series Ring Raiders was Dan’s last foray into leading a team, premiering in 1988. I can’t believe they stole his name from a joke on Airplane! Vector’s voice is the closest it comes to Bumblebee’s, which I find doesn’t fit the character’s appearance at all, as Ring Raiders has an odd (and sometimes ugly) art style. Vector looks like someone with a much deeper voice, like Arthur Burghardt or Michael Bell, should have portrayed him.
The most interesting thing to me is that while Dan played multiple leaders in the 80s, Peter Cullen became famous for the lone leader role he played. Peter mostly played villains like Venger (from Dungeons & Dragons) and Nemesis (from Robotix) or supporting roles – even to Dan’s Dargon and Questar as Mantor and Gunner, respectively.
Unfortunately, none of these four cartoons have had the legacy that Transformers got, so Dan doesn’t get the recognition I think he deserves. Lucky for us, though, Dan still has a strong connection to his most famous role – he makes appearances at Transformers and retro conventions, and he’s released an incredible book about his experiences with Transformers called Bumblebee and Me: Life as a G1 Transformer, even voicing a great promo for it.
I’ve got the book, and it’s a great read if you’re interested in behind-the-scenes stuff from Transformers and a few other cartoons he talks about. Check it out if you get a chance. It’s some great insight into the roles he’s played in cartoons and our childhood in general. You can pick it up on Amazon.
If you’re interested in reading some more action-packed 80s cartoon nostalgia, check out my books Old School Evil and Old School Evil: The Rejects, available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.