Heroic leaders don’t come more altruistic than Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots in the Transformers universe. There’s a lot we know about him from his appearances in tons of animated series, comics, video games, and the wildly popular current series of live-action movies. We know he’s got impeccable moral character, he’s humble, he’s a friend to humans, he’s prone to lengthy speeches, he’s a genius battle commander, and he’s almost comically willing to sacrifice his own life.
But, just as there are many things about his arch enemy Megatron we don’t all know off the top of our heads, there are similarly things about Optimus Prime many people don’t readily know. You may not know about some strange appearances he’s made, some real-life implications of his character, or even the real-life actor his movie version is based on.
It’s time for you to transform and roll out into the version of yourself who reads about 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Optimus Prime.
15. THE ARMY USED HIM AS A STRANGE METAPHOR
We’ll start you off with a particularly weird Optimus Prime fact: The U.S. Army used him as a metaphor for a portable battery charger. Yes, a portable battery charger. Since 1951, the Army has published a magazine with comic-book style visuals called PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly. It started out as a supplement to maintenance manuals during the Korean War and was drawn by legendary comic book creator Will Eisner.
It was in the January 2009 issue that Optimus Prime made his debut in the publication. Under the heading, “Transform the Charger,” a gruff-looking “man in charge” type begins the metaphor by saying, “Like Optimus Prime, the PP-8498/U Soldier portable battery charger is transforming all the time.” In the next panel, it’s revealed that the man in charge is sitting on Optimus Prime’s shoulder. Optimus and the man go on to explain the metaphor, noting that the transformation takes place in the form of a software upgrade. Optimus is only used from there to plug a tutorial and he’s seen in a later panel in truck mode.
14. HIS ORIGINAL NAME IS ORION PAX
In the Generation 1 timeline, Optimus Prime was simply created as the leader of the Autobots. But in a revised version of his origin story, he began life as a simple dock worker named Orion Pax. He was injured in an attack by Megatron and brought to the oldest of the Autobots, Alpha Trion. The keeper of the Matrix of Leadership rebuilt Orion Pax into the largest and most powerful of the Autobots. When he took over leadership of the group, he renamed himself Optimus Prime.
The name Optimus Prime is comprised of two words of Latin origin, meaning “best” and “first,” which make it a pretty fitting moniker for a leader. But the “Prime” half of his name also refers in some continuities to the Dynasty of Primes, an ancient race of the 13 original Transformers, and to Optimus being The Last Prime. In that storyline, he starts out as Optimus Prime, but is later reborn as Orion Pax with no memory of his “Prime” years, then receives the Matrix of Leadership and becomes Optimus Prime again.
13. HE’S COME UP IN REAL-LIFE GLOBAL AFFAIRS
No, a real Optimus Prime hasn’t descended from Cybertron to save the world from itself, as welcome a notion as that may be at times. But, similar to the earlier inclusion in a U.S. Army publication, Optimus has been mentioned very publicly in global affairs in recent years. A 2008 Canadian Armed Forces operation in Afghanistan was named “Op Timis Preem,” in (an obvious but not publicly admitted) homage to the Autobot leader. It was an extremely successful operation, taking out key Taliban leaders and some Taliban infrastructure.
While the Canadian military didn’t directly cite Optimus Prime as a reference for their mission, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was much more blatant about his Optimus love in 2009. After speaking on the radio about toys his children received for Christmas, he said he hoped he could meet Optimus Prime because “he seems to be able to solve most of the problems.”
12. HE’S A PACIFIST
It’s a little surprising to think of the leader of a band of warrior robots, constantly battling against another band of warrior robots using weapons of mass destruction, as a pacifist. But it’s true, Optimus Prime can be described as a pacifist, particularly when it comes to the Generation 1 Marvel Comics version.
He knows his job is to lead by example, to keep a positive attitude for his soldiers, and to use his wisdom to guide them in life and on the battlefield. But he’s ultimately averse to fighting if it’s not necessary. The problem for him is that it’s necessary all too often considering the bloodthirstiness of his enemies. Of course, this didn’t mean Optimus was ever afraid to go into battle in the name of peace and goodness– it was just a last resort. Even in the comics when his friend Ratchet had become fused with Megatron and he had the opportunity to put both out of their misery, he refused to do it.
11. HIS THREE COMPONENTS EACH FEEL WHAT THE OTHER FEELS
At first glance, Generation 1 Optimus Prime has two components: a semi-truck, which is comprised of a truck and a trailer. The truck is the brain center, which transforms into the Optimus Prime robot we all know and love. But the trailer turns into a combat deck, which houses a third component: Roller. Roller is a small vehicle that Optimus can send out as a sort of scout. The original toy version, which came with Optimus, did not transform, though his animated version could. When Roller sees something, Optimus sees it, too, even if he’s not there.
But part of that symbiosis means that if Roller or the combat deck is harmed, Optimus feels it. And, in turn, if Optimus is injured, Roller and the combat deck feel it. In fact, it’s said that Roller would simply not survive without Optimus. In one Marvel Comics storyline, Optimus used Roller to command a battle so he could sneak away on another mission – but when Roller was killed, Optimus felt it miles away, wracked with pain.
10. HE WAS NAMED BY CELEBRATED COMICS WRITER DENNIS O’NEIL
Dennis O’Neil was a key member of the writing staffs at both Marvel and DC throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. He’s known for reviving Professor X in a 1970 X-Men comic, and about a year later he gained a kind of comics writer superstardom as the main writer for Green Lantern and Green Arrow, when he had Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy become addicted to heroin. And after Batman got campy with the ’60s TV series, it was O’Neil who helped bring darkness back to the character, and created the characters Ra’s al Ghul and Talia al Ghul.
When he returned to Marvel in 1980, he became the regular writer for both Iron Man and Daredevil, but it was during that time that Marvel obtained the rights to publish a series based on a new toy: Transformers. And so he came up with the name Optimus Prime to describe the leader of the Autobots, the series’ good guys.
9. HE HAS NICKNAMES THAT ARE NEVER USED
Speaking of names, writers conceived of several nicknames for Optimus Prime that were never used in any official Transformers production or publication. And those names are as follows: Autobot Commander, Chief, Big Boss, and Roller. We know that the latter is also the name of the scout vehicle that lives inside Optimus Prime’s trailer, so it kind of makes sense that Optimus Prime himself is never referred to by that name. We need to keep our Rollers straight.
Optimus Prime did have a couple of nicknames of sorts that stuck for a while, though. In the G.I. Joe vs. the Transformers comic series, Cobra discovered some deactivated Transformers in the Ark, including Optimus. They then turned Optimus Prime into one of their HISS tanks and referred to him as HISS-114. In Beast Wars, Optimus Prime was referred to as Big Mack. Is that like the truck or like the multi-layered hamburger?
8. THERE ARE HUGE STATUES OF HIM IN CHINA
That’s right, there are huge statues of Optimus Prime in China; plural. In fact, building giant Optimus Prime statues seems to have become a bit of a thing over there. In 2010, a 10-meter-tall (32.8 feet) statue of Optimus was erected near Beijing National Stadium, the facility made famous during the 2008 Olympics. Made out of recycled material, it was a pretty lifelike representation of the live-action film version of the character.
In 2011, that statue was one-upped by an 11-meter (36 feet) model that weighed 21 tons, built in Shenyang City. Another lifelike replica of the movie version of Optimus, it was built using old car parts. A 2011 report referred to this one as the “World’s tallest Optimus Prime statue,” but reports go as far back as 2005 for sightings of a model closer to the cartoonish G1 version at a Toyota dealership in the Yunnan province, said to stand over 12 meters (40 feet) tall.
7. OPTIMUS PRIMAL IS NOT OPTIMUS PRIME
The Beast Wars series of the Transformers universe is a little sneaky with its naming conventions. There’s a Megatron who’s not the Megatron we conventionally know from the Generation 1 animated series, comics and the live-action movies. (He was actually a T. Rex/dragon type Predacon.) And there’s also an Optimus Primal, who’s basically Optimus Prime… except he really isn’t.
Primal’s name is absolutely an homage to the guy we typically know as the Autobot leader, he likes to make long-winded speeches like Prime, and his head looks quite similar in robot form, but they’re not the same guy. In fact, Primal once even saved Prime’s life. And while Prime tends to act more conservatively, Primal isn’t afraid to be a little crazy. He once said, after jumping from the edge of an exploding mountain, “Sometimes crazy works.” It makes sense that Optimus Primal would be wild– after all, he takes the form of a silverback gorilla.
6. HE’S NOT A MUSIC FAN
Like a stuffy lawmaker from Footloose, Optimus Prime tends to have a strange dislike for certain kinds of music and even dance. Apparently, for example, don’t expect “Dr. Feelgood” to be making any house calls at Optimus Prime’s place, because in issue #76 of Marvel’s The Transformers, he forbade Blaster (whose original alternate mode was a boom box) from playing Mötley Crüe’s music. Again in the comics continuity, he shows his displeasure with Blaster’s music. And he’s also been known to not have time for rap music.
In one of his harsher moments, during the Dreamwave comic Transformers Hardwired, Optimus says to his pal Jazz, “Anyone who’s ever seen you dance already knows you can’t move, Jazz.” Not the nicest thing to say to your happy-go-lucky right-hand man, and somewhat out of character for a leader who’s all about compassion and working together for a common goal. Or was it his awkward attempt at a joke?
5. HE HAS 13 DIFFERENT ALTERNATE MODES
As we know, Optimus Prime’s most iconic alternate mode is the Generation 1 red semi truck with the grey trailer. But Optimus has had over a dozen alternate modes across the many Transformers continuities. For the live-action movies, he’s still a semi truck, but now predominantly blue with red flames (although when he’s first discovered in Age of Extinction he looks closer to a rusted version of the original truck).
Optimus Prime has been different kinds of trucks, too, like a fire truck, dump truck, and pickup truck, not to mention a Cybertronian version of a truck. In the Unicron Trilogy Japanese animated series, he can join with Jetfire into an aircraft configuration. His other modes include a mechanical gorilla and bat (if you want to include Optimus Primal), an all-terrain fighting vehicle, briefly a T-rex in Rescue Bots, and specific high-performance supercars like the Nissan GT-R and Lamborghini Diablo.
4. PETER CULLEN HAS VOICED HIM 26 TIMES
Canadian voice actor Peter Cullen is the original voice of Optimus Prime, as first heard in the Transformers animated series in the ’80s. But he’s also the ultimate voice to end all voices for Optimus, having voiced him in 26 separate productions, including all four (soon to be five, with next year’s Transformers: The Last Knight) live-action films, four TV series, one animated feature film, one animated TV movie, two videos, 13 video games, and Transformers: The Ride at various Universal Studios parks.
He actually based the voice on his brother, whose voice had changed after returning from fighting in Vietnam, to that of a quiet hero. Cullen said his brother told him, “Real heroes don’t yell and act tough; they are tough enough to be gentle, so control yourself.” And that’s how he approached Prime.
But Optimus Prime is not all Cullen is famous for. It’s certainly the peak of his voice acting career, but he’s also known for voicing (among many others) Transformers’ Ironhide, Zandar in G.I. Joe properties, and he’s been the voice of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh properties since 1988.
3. PETER CULLEN IS NOT HIS ONLY VOICE
While Peter Cullen is by far the most beloved voice of Optimus Prime, and has voiced him far more than anyone else, he’s not the only one who’s voiced him in English-language productions. Seven other actors have had their turn across various official Transformers animated series and video games.
Jon Bailey took to the mike for this year’s animated Transformers: Combiner Wars mini-series; Neil Kaplan sounded Cullen-like in Transformers: Robots in Disguise; in the Transformers: Cyber Missions webisodes it was Eric Edwards; Samuel Jay Flatman took a turn in the Transformers Interstellar series; for the 2007-2009 series Transformers Animated, David Kaye took a stab; Optimus was only in six episodes of Transformers: Cybertron with Garry Chalk behind the mike, also doing the honors in Transformers: Armada and Beast Machines: Transformers. Kaye, Chalk and Robert Belgrade have voiced Optimus in various video games, though Cullen has also manned the lion’s share of those as well.
Fun facts: Star Trek star Michael Dorn (Worf) voiced Optimus Prime in a toy commercial and Tom Hanks once lobbied on The Tonight Show to voice the role in the live-action movies, before the first one had gone into production.
2. HE DIES… A LOT
Back in 1986, the Transformers: The Movie feature film shocked kids around the world by killing off the beloved leader of the Autobots. Children left the theater in grief and terror and there was a huge backlash, so they finally brought him back in “The Return of Optimus Prime” episodes of the TV series in 1987. But producers hadn’t learned their lesson. Since then, he’s died more times in more continuities than we can count. It got to the point where the Megatron of Beast Wars once hilarious drawled, “Oh, you Optimuses do love to sacrifice yourselves, don’t you?”
Cynics argue the frequent deaths of Optimus Prime are a ploy to replace him with a new leader and sell more toys, or revive him (he often comes back to life) in a new form to sell new toys. Others say there are legitimate story reasons. Nevertheless, here’s a small sample of his stranger deaths: he died and returned as a zombie in The Transformers Season 3; in the Generation 1 Marvel comic, he volunteered to be killed because of his immoral play in a video game, but his mind was fortunately saved on a floppy disk; and in the Decepticon mode of Transformers The Game he gets a The Walking Dead/Negan-style death, with Megatron bashing his head in. Not to be outdone, he’s also killed viciously by Megatron in the live-action movie series, in Revenge of the Fallen, but is unsurprisingly revived in the film, then later is sort of killed between movies and revived again in Age of Extinction.
1. THE LIVE-ACTION VERSION IS BASED ON LIAM NEESON
Okay, so we all know that Peter Cullen has done the voice of Optimus Prime in the live-action movie series. But there’s another actor who played a key role in the Autobot leader’s portrayal in the films: Liam Neeson. That’s right, in the DVD commentary for the original 2007 Transformers movie, director Michael Bay said he asked the animators to look at film of Neeson and use his body language to animate Optimus. So when Optimus Prime is locked in battle with Decepticons, are we actually seeing Qui-Gon Jinn’s slick Jedi moves from Star Wars? Or Rob Roy’s? Or Brian Mills’ from Taken? Or maybe we are seeing the sad widower from Love Actually.
Another actor-y tidbit: Optimus Prime is immortalized, along with many of the greatest film actors of all time, outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, complete with tire prints as well as Peter Cullen’s hand prints.
Transformers: The Last Knight opens in U.S. theaters on June 23, 2017, followed by the Bumblebee spin-off on June 8, 2018, and Transformers 6 on June 28, 2019.