Christopher Charles Collins (August 30, 1949 – June 12, 1994), born Christopher Lawrence Latta, and also known as Chris Latta, was an American actor, voice artist and comedian, perhaps best known as the voice of Cobra Commander on the G.I. Joe animated series and as the voice of Starscream in the first Transformers animated series. He is also noted among Star Trek fans for his guest roles on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, along with many other TV shows and a number of films. In addition, he had a successful stand-up comedy career.
Early life and career
Collins was born Christopher Lawrence Latta in Orange, New Jersey, and grew up in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, New York City. His legal name became Christopher Charles Collins when his stepfather adopted him. Collins' biological father, Robert Latta, was a New York stage actor. His mother, Jane Morin, worked as an advertising executive. In his stand-up routine, he claimed to have grown up in Harlem and said his ultra-liberal parents had moved the family there "so he could meet some Negroes." (Morningside Heights is sometimes called "West Harlem.")
After a year at New York University, he studied acting, dance, voice and mime. In the mid-1970s, he acted on the New York and Boston stage and did voice-over work for Boston radio station WBCN. He made his animation voice acting debut as one of the English dubbers of the 1979 anime series Space Battleship Yamato (also called Star Blazers). He was most recognizable in that series as the voice of space marine Sgt. Knox during the Comet Empire installment.
In 1983, Collins started voicing Cobra Commander for a five-part G. I. Joe animated mini-series. In 1984, he reprised the role for a second five-part animated mini-series, which became a regular series in 1985. Also in 1984, Collins voiced a new character, Starscream, for a three-part Transformers animated mini-series. By 1985, he was voicing other G. I. Joe and Transformers characters in toy commercials, carrying on in those roles when the two television series made their debut. When he began doing regular voice work, he adopted the stage name Chris Latta because another Screen Actors Guild actor was performing as "Chris Collins."
Cobra Commander was the original leader of Cobra, usually portrayed (in the cartoon version) alongside the steel-faced Destro. Starscream was played as a megalomaniacal offsider to the chief antagonist (Megatron performed by Frank Welker), and was more concerned with usurping his superior than with following orders. After the Serpentor character was created in 1986, drawing power away from Cobra Commander, that role became very similar to Starscream's role. Most striking, however, was the high-pitched, rasping voice Collins employed for both roles, which made the characters always seem duplicitous and conniving regardless of what they were saying, as well as adding an element of a running gag when they inevitably threw a tantrum or when they were humiliated by their superiors (Starscream getting slapped around by Megatron for his disobedience and Cobra Commander getting himself routinely countermanded by Serpentor). He also provided the voice for Wheeljack, a heroic Autobot who was something of a mad scientist, the Autobot's human friend Sparkplug Witwicky, and Gung Ho, a burly, rough and tumble G.I. Joe Marine characterized by his mustache and bald head. Gung Ho was very much the antithesis of Cobra Commander; while Cobra Commander was a cowardly egomaniac and a weakling, Gung Ho was a brave, steadfast hero who was strong enough to withstand a punch in the jaw without flinching.
Collins' success led to work on many other animated programs, including The Simpsons, where he originated the voice of Mr. Burns in the first season episode "Homer's Odyssey", and recorded lines (but was dubbed over) as Moe the bartender for "Some Enchanted Evening". Along with several other early Simpsons voice actors, he left during the first season. Hank Azaria took over the voice of Moe, while Harry Shearer assumed the role of Mr. Burns.
Other film and television work
Later in the 1980s, Collins began working as Christopher Collins and acted in many live-action television series and motion pictures. He played Klingon Captain Kargan and Pakled Captain Grebnedlog in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Collins went on to portray two different Markalians on Deep Space Nine, the first, Durg, and an unnamed assistant to The Albino. In Married... with Children, he played Roger, one of Al Bundy's bowling buddies and a member of NO MA'AM (National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood). He also portrayed a mugger on an episode of Seinfeld entitled "The Subway." His character known only as "The Thug" and demands Kramer to "Gimme da money!" before being apprehended by an undercover NYPD officer. In this episode, he is credited as "Christopher Collins." He appears as "Mr. Forbes" in a first-season episode of NYPD Blue titled "Abandando Abandoned". He provided some voices in The Real Ghostbusters and is credited as Chris Collins.
Collins' first live-action feature film appearance was a bit part as the sharing husband in the Patrick Swayze movie Road House. He also appeared in True Identity, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Blue Desert and A Stranger Among Us.
Stand-up comedy career
Collins' stand-up career peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he performed in most of the major comedy venues in the United States and Canada. In 1990, he won the prestigious San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition.
At the beginning of his act, he would enter in a black trench coat and order the audience to applaud the person who introduced him. Afterwards, he would pick out an audience member who failed to applaud and tell him he had to "clap alone." Later, he told the audience he was not a comedian, but a "psychotic who learned to market his problem." Collins' comic persona was a loud, angry, mentally unstable man who liked to intimidate the audience. This image suited him well in his many bit roles in films and television, where he often played mobsters and hit men. He was a frequent featured performer on An Evening at the Improv and Caroline's Comedy Hour.
Collins married twice and had three children. Early in his career, he divided his time between New York, Boston, and Los Angeles before settling in L.A. in 1983. In 1991, he moved to Ventura, California.
Christopher Collins died on June 12, 1994, his cause of death officially recorded as a cerebral hemorrhage following a long illness. Although his contemporaries have spoken fondly of Latta, some have made cryptically suggestive comments on the nature of his death, including Peter Cullen (who remarked that he was a victim of Hollywood's tendency to "devour its young"), Susan Blu (who said that Latta was "a sweet guy who had his demons"), and Flint Dille (who noted on the commentary track for the 20th anniversary DVD release of The Transformers: The Movie that he and other members of the production staff "never really found out" how he died). In another interview, Dille recalled: "There was one summer when I had to bail Chris Latta (Starscream, Cobra Commander) out of the Hollywood jail in order to get him to the recording on time. Never figured out what he was in for, but he said it was jaywalking. Chris was a wild, interesting guy. I liked him and was very sorry to hear that he died."
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