20 November 2008
A brief history of the beloved toy, Hasbro's Action Man. ...
During WWII Britain successfully faced down the threat of invasion from Hitler’s Third Reich but readily succumbed to the arrival of armed troops from another far off land – America. This so-called friendly invasion was followed a little more than 20 years later by the arrival of thousands of other GIs. However, these troops were much smaller than the strapping chaps who came to the aid of their ally in 1942. In 1966 the new General Issue (GI) Joes stood all of 12” tall. Actually, upon arrival they assumed a name thought to be more acceptable to us Brits and assumed the name of Action Man.
Originating in the US in 1964, first manufactured by US toy giant Hasbro in 1964, GI Joe was an overnight success. In 1966 Hasbro tasked its British subsidiary Xylonite, better known as Palitoy, to introduce its phenomenally successful soldier doll to British consumers.
‘General Issue Joe’ wasn’t going to mean much to British punters so a different name was sought. At the time Patrick McGoohan’s Danger Man was proving a big hit on British TV so a name with a similar resonance was sought. ‘Action Man’ was considered ideal. A star was born!
In 1967 Action Man, him of the ‘painted head’ variety, was awarded Toy of the Year by the National Association of Toy Retailers.
In Britain, as in the US, it seemed that boys would play with dolls! Today, anyone with a mint and boxed example from this, the earliest stage of Action Man’s genesis, is sitting on a fortune. In fact mint and boxed versions of early dolls from the mid 1960s are so rare, today they easily fetch £700-£800 plus.
Sadly, although he had long proved a perennial gold mine for both Hasbro and its British subsidiary Palitoy by the early 1980s, his popularity in the UK was waning. Despite various resurrections of the ‘fighting soldier’, but without ever giving him a gun so as to avoid accusations of the figure being overtly militaristic, the new adventurous re-incarnation of Action Man didn’t bank the receipts that the previous German Storm Troopers, Green Berets or even footballers had.
A really interesting and not widely known method by which Hasbro attempted to prevent potential infringements of its design was the inverted thumbnail on the thumb of GI Joe’s right hand, placing the nail where the fingerprint should be. This was caused by a fault in the tooling and was spotted by Don Levine when he studied early samples of the figures. Rather than correct the tooling it had decided to keep the inverted thumbnail thereby protecting GI Joe’s body from patent infringement just as the scar protected his face.
Interestingly, such was the demand for Action Man when first released in the UK, that despite the introduction of new moulding facilities at Palitoy’s Coalville factory, GI Joes from America were imported to supplement stocks. Thus many early Action Man figures, despite their packaging, sported ‘GI Joe – Hasbro’ moulded on their bottoms!
The earliest, painted haired dolls were available in a choice of hair colours: blonde, ginger, brown and black, and early bodies had painted rivets. During the period 1970-1976 Action Man’s popularity went from strength to strength.
In 1970 Action Man acquired more realistic ‘flock’ or ‘fuzzy’ hair. This development was eventually adopted in America, where GI Joes relinquished their moulded and painted hair cuts for the more tactile flock alternative.
In 1973 Action Man appeared with ‘gripping’ hands. At last the dolls could actually be made to hold their weapons accurately! Progress comes at a price, of course, and sadly the production of these early flexible hands wasn’t perfect – surviving examples of early dolls often sport missing digits! For a while Palitoy got around this problem by supplying ‘thimbles’ used to cover Action Man’s fingers whilst youngsters dressed and undressed their dolls. Fortunately the later version of Action Man are without the ‘fragile fingers’ problem!
Curiously the release of Star Wars was a factor in Action Man’s demise. George Lucas’s sci-fi masterpieces were supported by a huge range of action figures which sold like hot cakes. However, these figures were of the 3” variety and very quickly children embraced the smaller size and the more compact and affordable vehicles to accommodate them (Action Man tanks and jeeps were comparatively large and expensive).
General Mills/Palitoy’s response was to release Action Force, 4” figures intended to compete with the enormous success of the Star Wars figures. Sadly all this was in vain and in 1984 Palitoy was dissolved.
However, in March 1993, after nine years in retirement, Action Man suddenly re-appeared at Hamley’s famous toyshop in London. Hasbro (UK) Ltd brought him out of retirement with a new logo, revamped body as well as a whole new range of outfits and accessories better suited to his new environment. Gone were the military-based themes, which were no longer politically correct, and in came Action Man the hero, ready to battle with his nemesis Dr X. Action Man continued his mission right up until 2006 when it was finally decided to stop production.