Chances are, if you're a fan of the original Transformers and G.I. Joe series from the 1980's, you already know a little bit about Chris Latta, the voice of Starscream, Cobra Commander and a host of other characters. But chances are you didn't know that September 2010 marked the twentieth anniversary of a major hilight of Chris Latta's - under his birth name, Chris Collins' - career. But not in voice acting. What was it? What else did he do when he wasn't in a recording studio, plotting to overthrow Megatron or the leaders of the free world?
According to a Los Angeles Times article about him that ran in 1992, he had been doing stand-up comedy since the early 1970's - longer than he had been doing voiceover. He got his start in Boston, doing gigs in obscure clubs in front of audiences that, as the article put it, looked "like they wandered in off a Salvation Army rack". In fact, at one point he performed in the same club for nearly eight months straight in order to pay off a poker debt he racked up to the owner! (It's probably a safe bet that we wouldn't have seen Chris Collins on World Championship Poker.) On a different note, performing in Boston was also where he first met his wife, Judith.
Collins continued perfecting his comedic craft because, as he told the Times, "It's the hardest thing I could find... Short of ballet or opera, I'd say it requires more work than anything - if you're going to do it right." His work took him, over the years, to most of the major comedy clubs in America, from New York to Seattle to San Francisco. A versatile performer, he studied at Juilliard and had performed on Broadway. His talents included stage acting, singing and even dancing, but voice-over and stand-up were unquestionably his forte'. Eventually his "base of operations" switched from the East Coast to Los Angeles after he got the parts of first Cobra Commander, then Starscream, in the early 1980's - as Judith explained, "I got a call from him saying, 'Pack up the kid [Ben] and sell the house, we're moving to L.A.'!".
Doing stand-up, which he described as "a wierd gig", certainly presented its challenges. As Collins explained, making your friends laugh is one thing; but in front of an audience full of strangers, no matter what credentials you have you're still "starting from zero every time... Every time I go up on stage I find out if I'm funny again." He was certainly a perfectionist when it came to his performance. While he always thought his previous routine was a "bomb", he was perpetually trying to hone it. "If you don't try to make it better," he said, "what are you doing? If you think that you've done it as well as you can do it, then it's time to go try something else."
His humility about his own work was something that his manager, Ann Fox, described as rather "uncharacteristic" among comedians. In fact, according to her, offstage Chris Collins was rather shy - "a pussycat in a lion's body". A big man, tall and topping two hundred pounds, he often sported a trademark black leather trenchcoat and sunglasses that made him look absolutely intimidating. He used his imposing presence to great effect in his routines; which Fox described as "surprisingly dark", but also as being "not a series of one-liners, but more like sketches. He did stand-up, but he was an actor, a performer, not just a stand-up comedian." As the Times article quoted him from one performance: "I'm not a comedian. I'm a psychotic who's learned to market his problem."
Fox first met Collins when he was competing in September 1990 at the prestigious San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Luminaries of the comedy world such as Dana Carvey and Sinbad have won the SFICC; but the competition, which is judged through multiple rounds on criteria such as material, stage presence and audience reaction, can be grueling. Other well-known personalities such as Roseanne Barr and Janeane Garofalo failed to make it to the finals. As Fox explained, most performers were quick to ask how well they did on the last round; but she actually had to track down Collins, who was quietly sipping a ginger ale at the bar, to tell him that he was a finalist! For Fox, that was the start of a four-year relationship as his manager.
Chris Collins not only passed the semifinals, he went on to win the SFICC for that year, in front of a crowd of 3,500 people at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. It must have been a crowning moment for him; upon being announced the winner, "he fell to his knees and wept," Fox said.
Not one to rest on his laurels, though, Collins continued to perform across the U.S. and Canada. As he told the Times, truth is the best comedy: "When Dan Quayle gets up in front of a Burger King, points to a 'Help Wanted' sign in the window and tells reporters it's a sign the economy's improving, I mean the joke is already written, isn't it?" One can only wonder how he might have lampooned the politics of today!
Perhaps one of his funniest real-life moments came when his son's school counselor called Collins in to meet with him. "The guy was real concerned," as Collins related. The counselor explained how Collins' son Ben insisted that his dad was Cobra Commander. Didn't such 'fantasies' sound troubling?
Chris Collins simply looked at the counselor - probably completely deadpan! - and said, "But I am."
But alas, no amount of wit can defeat the inevitable. The details of Chris Collins' passing have long been shrouded in mystery, even controversy. When questioned about him, colleagues sometimes assumed that his passing was a result of substance abuse; this may have been a conflation with fellow actor Roger Carmel, who in fact did succumb to addiction in 1987. But according to Abby Collins, Chris' daughter, he had been sober since that same year. Other sources mistakenly reported Collins' passing as a result of brain or throat cancer. These assumptions, while incorrect, are also understandable; what ultimately claimed Chris Collins' life was encephalitis, an infection of the brain. Again according to his daughter Abby, he battled encephalitis from late 1992 until 1994, continuing to do stand-up until he simply no longer could.
Christopher Collins - known to a generation of fans as Chris Latta, voice of Starscream and Cobra Commander- passed away on June 12, 1994, leaving behind a life's work of smiles, laughter, and the love of those who knew him. Said Ann Fox of her friend, "I miss him every day."
May we all be so fortunate as to be so well remembered.
"A Stand-Up Guy: Comic Christopher Collins says his job is no laugh riot, but the payoff is thrilling." by Ken McAlpine, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1992.
Personal conversations, Ann Fox, June and September 2010.
Personal conversations, Abby and Judith Collins, April 28 and 29th, 2012.
Watch Chris Collins perform standup for A&E on Youtube:
You can also watch Vehicon 27's video tribute, including Chris Collins'
performance in the Seinfeld episode, "The Subway", here:
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