ThunderCats

Relax, ThunderCats fans. Panthro isn't dead. "I noticed a little bit of a rumor about that," Kevin Michael Richardson, who voices Panthro in the Cartoon Network remake, tells TVGuide.com. "Someone said that on Facebook, and I was like, 'Really?'"

When ThunderCats made its triumphant return to television in July, fans were outraged that Panthro, an integral part of the original '80s-era ThunderCats team, was absent without a satisfactory explanation. In the reboot, Panthro is first reported to be killed in action. Later, a false Panthro is revealed to actually be the evil Mumm-Ra in disguise. After all of this misdirection, it's a relief to know that we'll see the real Panthro back, however briefly, on Friday's episode (8:30/7:30c on Cartoon Network).

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In "Song of the Petalars," Lion-O and his gang are running from lizard assassins when they happen upon the Petalars, creatures who live their entire lifetime in 24 hours. Through this short-lived race, the ThunderCats learn a valuable lesson about keeping hope alive. Here's a peek at Lion-O's first encounter with the Petalars:

"It was really a heartfelt episode," says Richardson, who's also known for voicing Cleveland Jr. on The Cleveland Show. "I saw a rough cut of it a couple months ago and I must say we were all in the room saying, 'Wow.' Atticus [Shaffer] (The Middle) played the young child in the episode. ... He was like a one-take wonder with the amount of lines he had to squeeze in such a short amount of time."

Although Richardson doesn't divulge any details about where Panthro has been ("The show will address that," he says) or how he meets up with Lion-O, it's not difficult to guess.

"I was very impressed with how they introduced him," he says. "I'm not really supposed to tell you. It's when you least expect it and it's when the team really needs him the most. It's brief but it's really action-packed and a very cool entrance, I must say. He'll show his silhouette and then he'll use the nunchaku, showing off his skills, but he uses the ThunderTank mostly. It is sweet. Just think of a pimped out version of the old one. It's bada--."

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Here's more from the interview with Richardson, who identifies with Panthro. They're both bald!:

What's your previous knowledge of ThunderCats? How were you approached to play the voice of Panthro?
Kevin Michael Richardson:
I remember watching it back in the '80s. I had some ankle surgery because of a sports injury and so I was in the hospital and it would come on every day more than once. Here I was, a big guy watching ThunderCats. I really enjoyed it. Panthro was my favorite, I must say. So when they approached me for this job, I was blown away. I had no idea that they were going to try to make a new one. The fact that I was cast in the role to boot was just the icing on the cake for me.

Why was Panthro your favorite Thunderian? How has his character changed in the new version?
Richardson
: From the original, he's tough, he's strong and has that gravitas to him, but he also had some heart. ... It wasn't just this, big brash tough guy. He had wisdom to teach to the rest of the ThunderCats, even though he wasn't the appointed leader. I just loved him. In this new twist that they have on it, he's still a tough guy, he has some lightheartedness to him, however, he's a little more edgy. There's a lot less B.S. to him. He's a little scarred up. You can see some battle scars. I don't know how he got [the scar over his eye] yet. I think that's going to come up in some future episodes though.

Since you were familiar with Earle Hyman's work as the previous Panthro, how did you try to make the voice for the updated Panthro different?
Richardson:
A lot of times when people cast me, they want this big, deep black voice ...  And I tend to recycle them with different roles from time to time. Fortunately, Panthro is not really a big, black dude, but a big fat cat. From what you and I remember from back in the day, he did have this nice, smooth, ethnic touch to his voice. So I had no idea [what to do]. It could have been anyone: an Asian, a Puerto Rican, Caucasian, who knows?

Richardson: When I went on tape, I said, "Who is this guy, really?" And I thought: tough, strong, silent type. That was all I kind of get in my head. It was kind of a Michael Clarke Duncan-ish, Keith David-ish feel. Two good friends of mine. So I tried to add a texture to him. ... It kind of flowed out a little differently from the other guys I do. I kind of loved what came out. ... I know they wanted an authoritative voice, a lot less B.S., almost brooding.

ThunderCats photos

Are you jealous of Will Friedle for the "ThunderCats, ho!" battle cry that he gets to do as Lion-O? Do you want Panthro to have his own?
Richardson:
No, actually I was cheering for him every time he said it. I just looked at him, and was like, "Dude, you get to say that every time!" So I'm like a little kid and grabbing his shoulder. I think he might have to see a chiropractor because I might have thrown his spine out of whack. They sit me across from him now because I used to grab him every time he said that line.

What's your take on this new Mumm-Ra? Is he among the scariest cartoon villains of all time?
Richardson:
He's pretty hard core in this one. If you remember the same thing in the old series, he gets all big and strong and buff, when he turns into like, Super-Mumm-Ra. This guy, I don't know what they did to him, but they Hulked him out. This guy is pretty bada-- on this series.

So how psyched are you that they found a bald Thunderian for you to play? Actually, he has more of a fringe thing going on than the previously fully bald Panthro.
Richardson:
(laughs) What are you trying to say? Yeah, is that what's going on with his face now? It's kind of designed almost like Hellboy's hairstyle. I noticed that. I thought that was kind of cool. Bald brotha, nothing wrong with that.

But is he really "bald"? Aren't they cats covered with fur?
Richardson:
Yeah, so maybe it's really short fuzz. That's what we're looking at.

How do these feline Thunderans maintain their hair? Do they shampoo?
Richardson:
You know what? I don't even want to go there because I know how my cat takes a bath. And if I were around Cheetara, forget it, my wife would probably punch me in the face.

Did you have a cartoon crush growing up? I liked Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe and Speed Racer's Racer X.
Richardson:
Cheetara definitely sprouted a few [manly hairs] on me, I'd say. But the thing is I already hit puberty by then, but I think she helped a few more grow. Ain't it the truth. I'm trying to think back... it wasn't necessarily animation; it was more live action when I was a kid. It was Jaime Sommers on the Bionic Woman. I was this kid just fascinated by this chick who could kick my a--.

How do you unleash your inner panther/Panthro? Is there catnip involved?
Richardson:
You'd have to ask the wife that. That's getting kind of personal.

Here's one more peek at ThunderCats' "Song of the Petalars," which airs Friday at 8:30/7:30c on Cartoon Network.