Retrobituaries: Chris Latta, voice of Starscream and Cobra Commander
Children of the 1980s know few voices better than that of Chris Latta, who played the roles of both Starscream and Cobra Commander. (That’s like ninety percent of a Reagan-era childhood right there.) Latta, who was sometimes credited as Christopher Collins, was a voice, stage, and screen actor who died in 1994. Here are a few things you might not have known about him.
He knew both ends of the social strata in Springfield.
In the third episode of The Simpsons, Homer is fired from the nuclear power plant and becomes a social crusader. After successfully petitioning for a stop sign and, later, speed bumps, he takes on the plant. It’s here that we first meet Mr. Burns, the plant’s devious billionaire owner. To mollify the people of Springfield, Mr. Burns offers Homer a new job as plant safety inspector. Excellent.
Chris Latta was the first voice of Mr. Burns. Notably, he was also the first voice of Moe Syzlak, the local bartender. (Yes, he of the Flaming Moe!) Latta’s voice track for Moe was later swapped for that of Hank Azaria, though his work in that episode as host of America's Most Armed and Dangerous remains for all posterity.
Latta left the show early on to pursue his standup career.
He was a standup comic.
Latta began a career in standup comedy in Boston in the 1970s. He was a better standup comic than he was a poker player. According to the Los Angeles Times, he once had to play the same club in Boston for eight months to pay off a gambling debt. He said of comedy, "If you're an engineer and you've been a good engineer for a while, people don't say, 'Well, prove to us you're an engineer,' Comedy means starting from zero every time. The audience sits sedately and hopes to be amazed... Every time I go up on stage I find out if I'm funny again."
In 1990, he won the San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition.
He’s in the Transformers hall of fame.
You already know that on the cartoon The Transformers, he was the iconic voice of Starscream, the malevolent and duplicitous Decepticon lieutenant. You might not know that he was also the voice of Wheeljack and Sparkplug (Spike’s dad). In 2012, Hasbro inducted him posthumously into the Transformers Hall of Fame, which is an actual thing.
(In a bit of bonus trivia, Latta voiced an arms dealer named Old Snake in an episode of The Transformers that took place in the year 2006. It’s hinted that Old Snake, whose face is concealed throughout the episode, once led a massive terrorist organization. At the show’s end, Old Snake eludes capture and muses of his defeated, arrested client, “They simply don't make terrorists like they used to.” He then attempts a rally cry of “Cobra!” but breaks into a coughing fit.)
He was Cobra Commander. Really.
While Starscream never quite took leadership of the Decepticons (but for a few minutes during a coronation ceremony), Chris Latta did lead an evil army into battle. On the cartoon G.I. Joe, he voiced Cobra Commander, leader of Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.
This identity once spilled over into real life. (Well, realer life—am I right, Joe fans?) Latta said in an interview that he was called into the office of his son’s school guidance counselor. The school official was alarmed that Latta’s son kept saying that his father was Cobra Commander. “Well?” asked the counselor. “Doesn't that concern you?”
“But I am,” replied Chris Latta.
He was once a Klingon. Qa’plaH!
In an episode of Seinfeld, Latta played the role of a thug on the New York subway. In a bit of a meatier role, he played a homeless man on Mr. Belvedere. (Yes, Mr. Belvedere, who is definitely dead.) He was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played a Klingon starship captain. Latta was also on the superior Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (Save your hate mail, Picardophiles.) For those keeping track, this means there is a direct link between Transformers, The Simpsons, G.I. Joe, Seinfeld, Star Trek, and Mr. Belvedere. It’s a miracle that the universe hasn’t divided by zero.
Top image courtesy of BehindtheVoiceActors.com.