Belated Mourning of One of Our Own
The tiers of the voice acting heirarchy are often invisible to the layman. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of those who spend their lives in small glass booths bolstering the playtime memories of children with their work know that there exists several different career rungs for a voice talent to sit themselves on. There are vocal Gods; men like our friend Frank Welker, whose inexhaustible talent has permeated nearly every pore of the pop culture canon and the industry itself. And then, slightly below, there are the 'tweeners. Those who balance out their contributions to cartoon land with explorations into other fields of entertainment, be it television, movies, comedy tours or music.
Chris Latta was one such instance. His name goes mostly unheeded on the roll call for the greatest characters of the 1980's Saturday morning cartoon goldrush, and even relatively educated geeks will have a hard time connecting him to the characters he portrayed. Make no bones about it, though--in the comparatively short time that Latta was a player in the voice industry, he made fit to immortalize himself with a pair of crucial roles in the Hasbro action theater.
Haven't guessed yet? Read on.
Latta was born in Orange, New Jersey, on the crest of the fifties. Biographical information about him up until the time he broke into acting is sketchy; he didn't start building his resume' until he picked up work on the Robotech precursory "Space Battleship Yamamoto". He worked twenty-five episodes of the import before nailing a few bit roles on era sitcoms. It wasn't until five years after his work on Yamamoto that Latta really and truly arrived as a Saturday Morning zeitgeist with a little show called Transformers.
Transformers was one of Hasbro's magnum weapons in cornering the commercial cartoon market, and paired with fellow heavy artillery G.I. Joe, they utterly dominated the animated landscape through the early eighties. Hasbro offered big robots, big firepower, colorful characters and utterly ridiculous storylines in their series; as any grown nerd can tell you, they hit the nail right on the head. The Hasbro staple always seemed to be that the good guys would be utterly overshadowed by the villians they were pitted against in potency of characters--while Duke and Optimus Prime were undoubtedly square cool, they couldn't compete with the likes of Starscream and Cobra Commander.
Both of whom Latta lent his voice to.
It really couldn't come as less of a shock; Latta's indisputible screaming was hardly modified between the two characters. Starscream simpered, wailed, squealed and shot himself in the foot and Cobra Commander screamed, carried on and eventually turned into a bunch of giant snakes. Though Latta's boys never really won a damn thing in their machinations against mankind, he turned their endless fussing and howling into an art form. In just a pair of roles, Chris Latta was immortalized as the "screechy guy", perhaps shrewd enough at the height of the series' popularity to know that no child in their right mind would ever forget such an obnoxious voice.
And to his credit, we haven't.
Latta didn't just put out the particularly notable sounds of the aforementioned on Joe and Transformers. He also did duty as Wheeljack, Krunk, Gung-Ho, Ripper the Dreadknock, Reflector, Sparkplug, and other one-shots on individual episodes. His run on Transformers lasted the two years before the series bridge on the big screen; as anyone knows, Starscream was vaporized into particles by the irate Galvatron, and never popped back up in consequent shows. His work on G.I. Joe ended shortly thereafter, in 1987, as did his participation in a series called InHumanoids. Latta's focus shifted back to being in front of the camera, and he clocked spots in films like Roadhouse, True Identity, and Blue Desert.
Latta also began touring the comic circuit in the late eighties and early nineties. At age fifty, where many people have stuffed themselves into a cubicle or corporate cubbyhole, Latta was damning audiences to laughter over martinis at Caroline's Comedy Hour and an Evening at the Improv. His television work hit stride considerably, as he performed on both Star Trek: DS9 and The Next Generation, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue and Married... With Children.
In 1989, amidst a fat plate of guest appearances, Latta returned to voice acting for two seasons of The Simpsons. He was given the roles of the cauliflower-everything bartender Moe Szyslak and tyrannical billionaire Charles Montgomery Burns, and ran with them until relinquishing both roles to series staples Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer, respectively.
Latta's last celluloid role was as what he had spent most of his career portraying--a witless goon, in the phenomenal Estelle Getty-Sly Stallone vehicle Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! He dropped out of the industry shortly thereafter, dropping work on the Simpsons and turning his full attention towards his tenderfoot comic career. He continued work on Improv until 1994, when regrettably, he passed away of a heart attack in Ventura, California at fifty-four years of age.
Despite the fact that Latta only had less than ten years of scattered voice acting work to his credit, he made a massive impact by doing the best with what he had. His style was a throwback to the days of Dink Trout and Jerry Colonna, doing one very memorable style of voice to make his legacy and doing it well--so well, in fact, that the ripples made by his too-brief injection into the voice talent pool are still spreading out today. Fifteen years after the first fact, Cobra Commander is an anti-hero for the ages, and Starscream is still the best ass-kissing backstabber held dear in the frontal lobe of any self-respecting fankid.
There really isn't a better epilogue to a life than immortality held fresh in the minds of the lives you touched, whether it was something as simple as making a child laugh, or breathing life into a giant robot that turned into a jet fighter.
And for that, we thank you for the retrospect, Chris. For being our chickenshit second banana, for defining the role of lackey in a brand new light, and for causing more happy sore throats for our childhoods than a hundred visits to Chuck E. Cheese.
We won't forget your voice.