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The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Family Guy's Cleveland Brown

The characters that inhabit the wild world of "Family Guy" may seem larger-than-life in many ways, but for all their wackiness, the cast still manages to feel very believable. We relate to both the strengths and flaws of so many of these characters, from Peter Griffin's (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) ignorance to Chris Griffin's (Seth Green) low self-confidence to even Stewie's (MacFarlane) devilish thoughts. 

When it comes to relatable characters, however, the top prize may just have to go to Cleveland Brown (Arif Zahir). Unlike some of his more high-strung companions, Brown is a far more mellow and calm individual who brings a much-needed meditative energy to the series. While he is prone to outbursts and moments of anger, Brown's tranquil personality is what keeps him such a lovable addition to the long-running adult animated sitcom. In crafting such a special character that many identify with, Cleveland Brown's original voice actor, Mike Henry, drew from a real-world inspiration that helped establish what could be his most famous trait. 

Cleveland's voice came to be after a funny encounter

Many might assume that voice actors have the magical ability to create a silly voice out of thin air. While there's no doubt of the talent these individuals bring to the table, it's not uncommon for even the best voice talent to base their performances on real people. Such was the case for actor Mike Henry who, before being replaced on the series by Arif Zahir in 2020 (via Deadline), was the voice of Cleveland Brown on both "Family Guy" and its short-lived spinoff "The Cleveland Show."

In an interview with Campus Times, the Virginia-born actor and writer was asked how he comes up with the voices for the several characters he portrays on the show. Henry used Cleveland, who he later in the interview admits is his favorite to voice, as an immediate example, saying, "I based Cleveland off of a guy I met playing basketball who pronounced Maryland like 'Merlin." He had a funny voice, and I started mimicking him. The voices are generally based on people I've met ... You have your bank of life experiences and when you're assigned a character, you just start pitching ideas." 

Stealing from real life is common for voice actors other than Henry as well. "The Simpsons" voice actor Hank Azaria even based the voices of both Comic Book Guy and Snake Jailbird off of real-life college friends of his.