“I was completely baffled,” Arif Zahir says, describing his reaction to receiving some genuinely life-changing news from Fox Television. “I got a call, sent it to voicemail because I thought it was spam. I checked the voicemail … and it was the executive producer [of Family Guy].”
In the summer of 2020, amid the Black Lives Matters protests and urgent conversations about race in America, a number of characters of color in animated series were recast to reflect their identity. Big Mouth’s Missy, voiced by Jenny Slate, and Central Park’s Molly, voiced by Kristen Bell, were both mixed race who were eventually replaced by Ayo Edebiri and Emmy Raver-Lampman, respectively. Family Guy underwent its own change: Mike Henry, who had voiced Cleveland for 20 years, announced on Twitter that he would be stepping down from the role because “persons of color should play characters of color.” Zahir, a popular YouTuber known for his impressions of iconic characters, was hired to take over the role for season 20.
“It was extremely intimidating,” says Zahir, especially considering it’s one of the first times that an actor stepped down from a major, long-running role to hand it off to a person of color. “When [the voice actors for] Scooby Doo with Shaggy or Bugs Bunny from the Looney Tunes [were replaced], that was because the actors got old and couldn’t do the voices anymore, so they got new actors. This was a situation where he was still able to do it but it was his choice to step down and a new person came into such a big iconic role.”
Zahir, drawn to the character’s distinct voice and calm personality, started doing Cleveland impressions in high school. His take on the Cleveland voice has been a regular staple of his YouTube videos ever since he started his channel eight years ago. When he heard about Henry stepping down, he took to TikTok to post a video.
“If there’s an area where a person of color is able to step into a role, obviously that should be given or attempted to be auditioned for,” says Zahir. “I personally don’t believe as a voice actor that obviously every single race has to be played by that race — that’s the power of voice acting. But I’m saying if there’s a position where they could have that, why not give that person a shot?”
When the casting was announced, Zahir was boggled by the instant and passionate reaction from longtime fans. He got that people love the character and the original voice actor, but the sheer volume of reactions was a lot.
“The first day I got it it was like my phone was like zoom-zoom-zoom from literally 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. the next day. [People were like] ‘love it’ ‘oh my god’ ‘love it’ ‘this guy sucks’ ‘oh my god I got you freak,’” he laughs. “I was like ‘Oh no, my god, do they hate me?!’ but luckily I had my fans back me up in the comments and said, ‘Hey check this video out he actually does sound like Cleveland’ and people would go ‘he sucks’ and then watch the video and come back and go ‘alright he’s pretty good I’ll give him a shot.’ The eyes on me from millions of people, that I was not expecting.”
Thankfully, with the legacy of the role and the weight of fan expectations, Zahir says that Henry was an incredibly helpful mentor throughout the whole process. The two had a two-hour FaceTime, where Henry talked about creating the character and imbuing him with life across two decades. After that, he wished Zahir good luck.
“He told me the words that describe what Cleveland: kindness, compassion, empathy and humor. And I take that to the studio every single time I record with that mind,” says Zahir.
Season 20 of Family Guy is currently airing on Fox.