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The original Captain Planet is ready to report for duty.
David Coburn was just a twenty-something when he was cast in the 90s cartoon. He didn’t know the show would change his life and (quite literally) change the world — with its environmental themes shaping how an entire generation viewed its relationship with nature.
“Captain Planet is the greatest job I ever had as an actor,” says Coburn, speaking to Heat Vision from his home in France. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had that did any real good for anybody. I’m constantly amazed and humbled by those who were affected.”
Now Leonardo DiCaprio is reviving Captain Planet for the big screen as a producer, and Coburn has hopes the Oscar winner will invite him to participate in some way.
“There’s nobody better to play Captain Planet than Leo. Well there’s me, then there’s Leo,” Coburn says with a laugh. “But if it can’t be me, if Captain Planet can’t be a 51-year-old Jew, then Leo’s a good second choice.”
Captain Planet and the Planeteers launched in 1990, before environmentalism was mainstream and before films like An Inconvenient Truth were winning Oscars. The show was created by media mogul Ted Turner. To some, the series proved Turner was just an eccentric billionaire with a pet cause.
But the show — about five teens from around the globe whose powers combine to summon the heroic Captain Planet — was quickly embraced by Hollywood, with a parade of A-listers signing up for roles. Sting, Jeff Goldblum and Meg Ryan were among the villains, while Whoopi Goldberg was a regular as the voice of Gaia.
And before Coburn, the role of Captain Planet was originally voiced by Tom Cruise.
“It just wasn’t working. They replaced him with me. I think I’m the only guy in Hollywood who can say he replaced Tom Cruise,” Coburn says. “No offense, Tom — I’m a huge fan and I love your work! — but one of the reasons they picked me is the guy I’m playing is not a macho superhero. He’s like a big brother, an encouraging coach. He inspired kids to do better.”
Coburn voiced the character until the franchise ended in 1996. He moved to New York, pursued music, voiceovers, commercials and had small roles on shows like The Sopranos and Law & Order: SVU. But when Al Gore’s 2006 global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released, something clicked in the actor; he had to do something.
“I wrote Mr. Gore a letter at the end of 2006. I said, ‘You must get a lot of mail, but I’m sure this is the only one you’ll get from someone who was the voice of Captain Planet,'” Coburn recalls. ” ‘We’ve been working on the same thing for some time. Sir, please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you.’ “
Coburn flew to Nashville in 2007, where he and other influencers (“I sat next to Cameron Diaz,” he recalls) received training from Gore on how to spread the message of the film around the world. But Coburn wanted to take it further. He hoped he could arrange a partnership between Turner and Gore, with the idea that they could pool their resources to create an environmental educational program for children.
Coburn believes that reaching kids — just as Captain Planet did — is the easiest way to save the environment, as children can be taught from an early age to respect it and may even be able to influence their parents to do the same.
“I argued children are the only demographic on the planet not motivated by profit. Ideological change is enough to motivate children to change,” he says. “We had a totally untapped army of loyal environmental soldiers who didn’t need profit and carbon taxes to influence their behavior. But I couldn’t get Gore and Turner to work together.”
Shortly after the Gore/Turner disappointment, Coburn ended up moving to France and is now the father of twins he proudly describes as “beautiful, brilliant bilingual girls.”
“I lost faith in my leaders. I lost faith in the people who were surrounding me. I moved to France to live a simpler life,” Coburn says.
He translated his environmental presentation into French and has been giving it in his new country.
The actor is pleased that an A-lister with environmentalist credentials like DiCaprio has picked up the mantle — and he’s hoping the star invites him to be involved in some way, either onscreen or behind the scenes.
“He’s a brilliant actor. You can’t say boo about his talent and you can’t say boo about his ideology. He’s an all-around good guy,” Coburn says. “Lucky for Captain Planet that Leonardo decided to make the film, and hopefully luckily for everyone who loves this show — Leo decides to contact me.”
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival