If you grew up in the late 1970s or during the 1980s in America or many other countries around the world, chances are very good that you had Star Wars action figures. If you were a boy between the ages of 6 and 13 at any time during the run of the original Star Wars films (1977 to 1983), they were probably your favorite toys. Certainly they were mine. I had seemingly hundreds of Star Wars action figures, and in fact many of them still reside in a box in my parents’ garage, awaiting that magical day (for which most of my age-peers are also waiting) when they’re suddenly worth a fortune to collectors. This article is not about that, but rather, how this little toy empire got started, and how it grew seemingly as large as the galaxy it depicted.
You must understand first that almost nobody anticipated the huge success of Star Wars. When the film came out in May 1977 it was truly an “organic blockbuster,” that is, an accidental one, not ginned up by waves of promotion or artificial attempts by studios to gin up “buzz,” like they do now. I wrote an article back in May about this phenomenon. Although George Lucas and 20th Century Fox did try somewhat half-heartedly before the film came out to clinch some sort of merchandising deal, the attempt was pretty tepid by the modern standards of film merchandising. First off, film merchandising, especially for toys, was a comparatively small market in the 1970s. Secondly, no one really thought this strange sci-fi Western was really going to have legs at the box office, so who was willing to risk capital on making toys from it?
Indeed, when Lucas and the film company offered the Star Wars property to a company called Meco, they were turned down flat. Though you may not have heard of it, Meco was a big toymaker in 1977, and had garnered some success with its line of Star Trek toys (which were also extremely cool, and which I also had as a kid). Meco didn’t think Star Wars was worth its time. The second string choice was Kenner, a smaller toy company owned by General Mills, most famous for making kids’ breakfast cereals. In contrast to Meco, Kenner saw a potential cash cow in the shed, and jumped at the chance. Before Star Wars came out, the company had begun to task toy designers and account people to develop a modest line of small collectible action figures based on the characters. Time from project initiation (May 1977) to the day the toys would hit store shelves: 12 to 15 months.
This is a commercial for the original Star Wars action figures from 1978. Check out the 70s haircuts on the kids.
Fast-forward to summer 1977. Star Wars was a gigantic hit, lining up moviegoers–many of them children–down the block week after week. The whole country was nuts for Star Wars, and toy retailers began hearing that this little company called Kenner was developing toys based on the movie. But the designs were still on the drawing boards. Kenner, realizing that potentially tens of millions of dollars were at stake, simply couldn’t speed up their process fast enough to have the toys out for Christmas, far and away the biggest toy buying season of the year. So, they did a daring thing: they offered certificates instead, promising to deliver the toys themselves by February 1978.
This turned out to be a good move. The certificates themselves sold out before Christmas! The “Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package,” which sold for about $10, almost couldn’t be had at all in big cities. Kenner did rush some Star Wars products to the market for Christmas, including jigsaw puzzles and a hokey board game. They too sold out almost immediately. Kids wanted Star Wars, and their parents seemingly would pay any price to get it.
When the figures themselves finally did come out, it was a big deal. There were only eight at first: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Chewie, Ben Kenobi, C3pO and R2D2. They were four inches tall and extremely primitive by modern action figure standards. I remember seeing an ad for the figures in a Star Wars comic book from spring 1978, and the ad was more exciting than the rest of the comic. I also remember the day I got my first figures. Luke and Han Solo were the first ones I had. I was 6 years old.
This video shows the action figure ad in the exact comic book I remember reading back in 1978.
The rest is history, and history that you probably know. From these eight originals, a vast progeny sprang up, with Kenner eventually modeling every major character (and many minor ones) from the original Star Wars movies. By 1985, when the original line of toys ended, Kenner had made something like $1 billion on the toys. George Lucas bitterly complained that he’d given away the toy rights for a song, so he saw much less of that billion than he probably thought he was entitled to. Economically speaking it was the gift that kept on giving: when Lucas decided to make the dreadful prequels in the 1990s, Kenner had a whole new universe of figures to make and sell, and an excuse to reboot all the old ones. Whoever signed on the dotted line for Kenner in May 1977 made one of the most epic decisions in business history.
The Star Wars action figures and their story, moreover, became the blueprint for the almost relentless waves of toy merchandising that have spewed like geysers out of every Hollywood franchise that could possibly warrant it (and a lot that didn’t). Three decades after getting my first Star Wars figures, my nephew, then age 4, was clamoring for toys based on the animated Disney movie Cars–a merchandising empire that finally eclipsed Star Wars in scope and dollars. Like me in 1978, he had to have every single one. Who knows what chunk of manmade climate change has resulted from the manufacture of all the plastic that has gone into the millions of toys that tried to follow in Star Wars‘s footsteps, but, thousands of years after our civilization is dead, an alien archaeologist somewhere will exhume an old midden of human detritus, and pull out a little four-inch effigy of Darth Vader. The empire of Star Wars toys will probably outlast us.