Arif Zahir knows he’s living a bit of a Cinderella story: The aspiring young actor has gone from impersonating the “Family Guy” character Cleveland Brown on YouTube to starring as the character’s voice actor starting next season.
“It doesn’t seem real,” said Zahir, who officially landed the gig last month, as “Family Guy” was renewed for its 19th and 20th seasons. “My mama almost had a heart attack when I told her!”
When the “Family Guy” producers first emailed Zahir about auditioning to take over as the voice of Cleveland Brown, the young YouTube star thought it was a joke. Zahir said he was convinced that “Family Guy” would retire the character after Mike Henry, who originated the role, stepped down in June. (Henry joined several white performers on animated series who have agreed to no longer voice characters of color.)
“I thought they were going to write him out and I was like, oh no,” Zahir said. “But I was appreciative of that, if that was the choice they were going to make. If Mike didn’t want anyone else to do this character it’s completely understandable.”
Executive producers Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin confirmed that everything was on the table, including both phasing out Cleveland or finding a new voice actor to take over the role.
“It wasn’t, ‘We need to do it no matter what, and we’ll get the best person available.'” Appel said. “We were talking about other possible solutions to a life without Cleveland, such as a new character, whatever it might be, while a parallel track continued of auditions.”
“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane set the bar high, however. “Seth was always very specific that he said, we would never just cast a great impressionist who wasn’t also a really talented comic actor,” Appel said. “And we wouldn’t cast a great comic actor who couldn’t capture not just the voice, but some of the part of the role that Mike Henry had nurtured for almost 20 years.”
It was “Family Guy” director Greg Colton who stumbled across Zahir’s YouTube videos and alerted the producers to his work.
Zahir began doing “Family Guy” voices in middle school to crack up his classmates. “I’m just a huge Seth MacFarlane fan, anything he does,” Zahir said.
He launched a YouTube channel in the early 2010s, and started uploading his impressions — first, “Family Guy” characters like Cleveland, and then others like President Obama. His channel grew to the point where it covered the tuition to attend the arts-centric Relativity School (now Hussian College Los Angeles) in Downtown L.A. But when attending classes limited his time making videos — and his YouTube audience dipped — Zahir dropped out to focus on the channel.
“I went from around 700,000 followers to a million and then two million in the same year,” he said. “And I kept growing and growing and I’ve just gone full time on YouTube since then. I have a fan base that supports me.”
Appel and Sulkin said they weren’t aware of Zahir until they started looking for a new Cleveland, but quickly became enamored by his YouTube page and impersonations.
“We did a deep dive, and certainly decided right then that if we were to recast Cleveland, obviously, we would have to consider him,” Appel said. “To be fair to Arif, this was a role that our casting folks cast a wide net. And we had a bunch of really talented actors audition for. As each stage of this process progressed, the list narrowed and narrowed until there was one person on that list.”
Zahir said he studied Cleveland Brown both as a voice impressionist but also as an actor, and that may have been the edge that landed him the part.
“I try to put my personality and be really animated in my voices,” he said. “I felt like a lot of people who did Cleveland Brown’s impression lacked that. I studied it from the beginning of the ‘Cleveland Show’ to watching ‘Family Guy’ back in the late ’90s and seeing [Henry’s] performance change over the years. It’s really lived-in more than it was. I couldn’t help but think a lot of people that probably had auditioned didn’t really take the notes as much as I did. I really studied every little nuance that Mike’s performance had as Cleveland. I played back clips of the show, and matched the pitch as best as I could. I would just sit there for hours and just play it, pause, play it, pause.”
After several rounds of auditions, the producers gave Zahir unaired episodes to perform. “These were scripts he could perform, for which he had zero reference,” Appel said. “And so that by definition precluded any rote impression, or repeating of what someone else who’s very talented may have done. And his approach to the scripts just floored Seth, me and Alec. Each scene, it wasn’t always exactly to the note of what Mike would have done with it, but it captured Cleveland.”
At that point, MacFarlane, who had been on the fence over whether to keep Cleveland going, was in. “Seth’s bottom line was during those conversations that, if we’re going to do this, we need to have somebody great,” Sulkin said. “And I think we just found the four-leaf clover.”
Added Appel: “I think a lot of the fans would have been really sorry to see Cleveland leave Quahog. He’s a great character, and great for Peter and Quagmire and Joe to interact with. When you have the luxury of having 20 seasons, it’s nice that you can rely on the shared history of those four characters. It was a flowchart with one box: Can we find the second most perfect Cleveland — and someone who could live up to Mike’s standards.”
Sulkin noted that in a year of change, the decision to bring in an actor of color to perform Cleveland “felt like a change that we all got behind. We all felt and feel with what’s going on in our country, and it seemed like a good opportunity to make some adjustments on our end. And hopefully, we can make them while keeping the show seamless. The fact that we got a guy like Arif, who is fantastic, I think rewarded that decision.”
Zahir has already started attending virtual table reads for next season’s episodes, along side some of the “Family Guy” stars he has idolized for years as a fan: Alex Borstein, Seth Green, Patrick Warburton and others.
“Once that episode finally airs, and seeing my name next to these legends that I’ve grown up with, it’s going to be another level of surrealism for me,” he said. “But between now and then, it’s about recording and getting everything done. And building a rapport with them.”
Henry has also been supportive of the change, and is still very much a part of “Family Guy” as a regular cast member performing other voices. As soon as physical table reads can once again happen, Zahir looks forward to meeting with Henry in person.
“One of the biggest things was I didn’t want to tarnish the character’s legacy or Mike’s legacy,” he said. “I know it’s his baby and I want to give it my hundred percent. Everything that Mike’s done for the character — I think the most important thing is for people to make sure that he is the original. He really is Cleveland Brown and I’m just continuing the legacy.”
Meanwhile, it’s been a whirlwind since the Cleveland announcement for Zahir, who has now signed with CAA and has started dreaming big: “Whether it be film, stage, voice, video game acting, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “I can’t wait to be so busy and to the point where I only have time to sleep and work. I’m just ready to do it all.”
Said Appel: “Cinderella wouldn’t have worked if Cinderella weren’t likable. It’s hard not to root for him.”