Harry Shearer Wasn't The First Voice Of Mr. Burns On The Simpsons

Many of the recurring faces on "The Simpsons" have the same voice: Harry Shearer. Alongside Hank Azaria (Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, formerly Apu, etc.), Shearer does more than double duty in playing the series' supporting cast. As a testament to his range, his roles run the gamut from nice guy Ned Flanders to milquetoast Principal Skinner (don't say Armin Tamzarian) to evil Mr. Charles Montgomery Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Plant and Homer Simpson's boss.

Shearer is the definitive voice of Mr. Burns (he's been doing it for 30+ seasons), but he wasn't the first actor to voice the character. That would be the late Christopher Collins, who was briefly part of the "Simpsons" cast during its first season, which aired from 1989 to 1990. Collins voiced Burns in the following episodes: "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," "Homer's Odyssey," "There's No Disgrace Like Home," and "The Telltale Head." 

Shearer took over in the season 1 episode "Homer's Night Out." He'd already been cast as Burns' assistant Mr. Smithers, which turned each of his scenes with Burns into a one-man show. (Collins also recorded some dialogue for Moe in season 1 but was replaced by Azaria even more swiftly.)

Collins' Burns had a deeper pitch; Shearer initially aped this but gradually reshaped the voice to be smoother and higher (reportedly inspired by Ronald Reagan and Lionel "Mr. Potter" Barrymore from "It's a Wonderful Life"). Burns' voice is far from a soprano in either case, but Collins voiced him like a barking dog whereas Shearer plays him as a serpent. 

Why, though, did Shearer get the chance to play Burns in the first place?

The career of Christopher Collins, from Transformers to The Simpsons

If you're an '80s kid, you're probably familiar with Collins even if you don't know it; he was part of the cast of that decade's two big cartoons, "The Transformers" and "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero." On those shows, he was credited as "Chris Latta."

With "G.I. Joe," Collins/Latta's biggest role was as the leader of the show's villains, terrorist organization Cobra: his character was appropriately named "Cobra Commander." Collins portrayed the Commander with a histrionic high-pitched voice; he would hiss his words like, well, a snake. Quite a different take from famed "G. I. Joe" comic writer Larry Hama, who thought Cobra Commander should sound like Orson Welles, aka the eventual voice of Unicron in "Transformers."

On "Transformers," Collins got the honor of playing the first character to appear onscreen and speak (besides the unseen narrator): Wheeljack, the Autobot inventor. Collins refreshingly played him not with a zany twisted scientist voice but a brash Brooklyn accent. His biggest "Transformers" role, though, was Starscream, the Decepticon Air Commander who was always trying to usurp Megatron's leadership. Collins used basically the same voice for Starscream as he had for the Commander (minus the hissing tic). After all, they were both impatient, effeminate, and yelled when things didn't go their way; the Commander shows what it would be like if Starscream did get to lead the Decepticons. Neither "Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" holds up once you're past middle school age, but Collins' buffoonish evildoer performances still hit.

In a fun bit of history repeating itself, actor Charlie Adler would later play both Starscream (in the live-action "Transformers" movies) and then Cobra Commander (in "G.I. Joe" cartoons "Resolute" and "Renegades"). Adler likewise used the same voice for the two villains. Collins' performance as both Starscream and Cobra Commander overlapped so much that they're now inseparable.

Why Christopher Collins was replaced on The Simpsons

1986's "The Transformers: The Movie" features much of the main cast dying, so as to clear the table for new toys characters. Starscream was one of the casualties; he finally disposes of Megatron and becomes the Decepticons' leader — for about 10 seconds, until Galvatron returns and vaporizes him, doing what his previous self never could in the cartoon.

Collins passed away in 1994 at the too-young age of 44 (meaning, without a butterfly effect, he wouldn't have been voicing Mr. Burns for that much longer anyway). "Transformers" writer Flint Dille and Dan Gilvezan (the voice of Bumblebee on "Transformers") remember him as a "beautiful human being and a wonderful talent" — even though Dille often had to bail Collins out of jail "for mysterious reasons" to get him to recording sessions on time. "It was always $1,500 and no one ever told me what it was for," Dille recalled, though he was sure to mention that Collins later paid him back.

It seems like "The Simpsons" crew mostly experienced Collins' difficult-to-work-with side. In 2018, Hank Azaria recounted to GQ (secondhand, admittedly) that "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening told him they'd recast Collins not because his voicework was bad, but because he had been "a dick."

As despicable as he is, Mr. Burns is one of my favorite "Simpsons" characters. Most of my personal best "Simpsons" episodes, from "Last Exit To Springfield" to "Rosebud" to the perennial "Who Shot Mr. Burns?", feature him in a big role. The contrast of his characterization, that he's both a devious mastermind and an out-of-touch old man, always makes me chuckle and the voice is an essential part of that. While Shearer's voice is the one I always hear, Collins shouldn't be forgotten either, especially with all his other incredible roles accounted for.