Transformers Had To Revive Optimus Prime For The Sake Of Some Very Unhappy Kids

This author is old enough to remember the death of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), the leader of the heroic Autobots in Nelson Shin's 1986 animated sci-fi epic "The Transformers: The Movie." Coming in the middle of a successful run on television, "The Movie" aimed to expand the series into a full-blown space opera, complete with interplanetary settings, all-new characters, and a massive mechanical cosmic deity played by Orson Welles (his final work before his death in October of 1985). Many fans of the TV series — and they were legion — flocked to theaters to see their favorite transforming robot characters wail on each other in a cinematic context. 

It should be recalled that "The Transformers" was one of many 1980s TV shows that functioned explicitly as an advertising exercise. The Transformers were gimmicky toys — puzzles that could be manipulated from robot shapes into cars and back — and the TV series featured scads of characters that children could go buy at Toys "Я" Us. The show featured hard-working actors and animators, but its very existence was never anything more than commercially mercenary. 

As such, the makers of "The Movie," thinking they could renew their toy line with an all-new generation of characters, elected to do one of the most dramatic things possible: they killed off the old characters and replaced them with new ones. The beloved Optimus Prime kicked the bucket and was supplanted with a sleeker, cooler character named Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack). 

The filmmakers didn't realize how dramatic this would be for the youths watching. In an interview with Collider, Cullen recalls hearing about the distraught, traumatized little kids who were deeply affected by Optimus Prime's death and how he was called back after his alleged retirement from the character to correct this.

The wailing children

The stories are legendary for kids of a certain age. I recall anecdotes from the time that audiences were upset about the death of Optimus Prime that theater managers had to stop the projectors and issue refunds in order to give the children a chance to go home and grieve. Personally, I recall less sadness over the death of Optimus Prime, but was impressed by the temerity of the filmmakers; a "wow, they really went there" reaction. 

It seems that Cullen and the rest of the "Transformers" filmmakers underestimated kids' affection for the robot commander. Optimus Prime was, to Cullen's eyes, merely one of the main characters of the first two seasons of "The Transformers," with the movie coming in between seasons two and three. There were only 16 episodes in season 1, but a whopping 49 in season 2, so fans got to know the character pretty well. Merely offing him was incidental for Cullen, but monumental for young fans. Cullen recalls hearing the stories: 

"I did Optimus Prime up until the movie in 1986, where I was put to rest. 'There lays Optimus Prime. See ya, kid!' And I didn't come back, I wasn't resurrected until the first Michael Bay film. So, there's a lot of time in between; however, I did come back to do two or three shows because a lot of kids evidently had trouble with that scene, and they were not coming out of their rooms and hiding under beds, I was told."

Anyone born in the mid-to-late '70s can chime in here to confirm the rumors Cullen heard. 

It seems, however, that a letter-writing campaign forced the studio to bring Optimus Prime back to life. Luckily, he's a space robot, so "rebuilding" him was merely an inconvenience. 

The Return of Optimus Prime

The "two or three shows" that Cullen refers to are largely in reference to the two-part episode "The Return of Optimus Prime," something that the studio was forced to make only after they realized that Optimus Prime was considered the main character of the show. According to a retrospective in the Hollywood Reporter, Hasbro had every intention of phasing out the character but had to stop after that letter campaign flooded their mailrooms. Cullen said:

"[T]hey brought me back for three shows. The mothers of America went to the powers that be, and so they had to bring me back. But then, that's when I went to sleep again permanently, and I didn't touch it until that first movie with Michael."

In "Return," Optimus Prime was resurrected by a Quintesson, a mysterious species of robots that is not allied with Autobots or Decepticons. Optimus Prime was needed to help fight a Hate Plague that caused everyone in the galaxy — human and Transformer alike — to fight one another. That episode proved to be so popular that Hasbro rebranded the entire franchise and put Optimus on their masthead. To this day, the character is an invaluable part of the "Transformers" universe, and he has headlined all but one of the live-action/CGI series of films from 2007 on. 

Michael Bay, who directed five of the films, knew better than to play with childhood emotions. He never killed one of the main Autobots, at least not without carefully bringing them back mere scenes later. Optimus did "die" in the live-action sequel "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," but he hastily returned for that film's third act. Bay, it seems, was keen to avoid another letter-writing campaign like in 1986.