Ever since the first "Star Wars" movie was released in 1977, this franchise has been a collectibles juggernaut. From action figures to board games, "Star Wars" images have found their way onto an endless number of everyday items and movie memorabilia. Indeed, it is difficult to come up with an object that hasn’t become a "Star Wars" collectible.
Absolutely no one was prepared for smashing success of the film and the pop-culture craze that followed. Toy makers, in particular, scoffed at licensing another science-fiction film, which they figured would soon be forgotten.
Twentieth Century Fox offered toy licensing rights to Mattel, the makers of Barbie; Hasbro, the makers of G.I. Joe; and Mego, the biggest action-figure maker in the country, known for it superhero characters and movie-licensing deals. All of them refused to take a risk on this "space opera" by a little-known director with a cast of unknown actors. Besides, sci-fi was considered a dead genre...
Bernie Loomis, then the president Kenner Products, maker of 12-inch "Six Million Dollar Man" action figures, also didn't believe that the "Star Wars" movie would be remembered after two months. However, he thought the characters and their vehicles were well suited to toys and might sell well regardless. Kenner signed a deal—based on Fox's plan to also make "Star Wars" a weekly television series—that gave the company exclusive worldwide rights for all toys related to the franchise.
While toy executives were less than thrilled about "Star Wars" sales potential, the toy designers at Kenner were over the moon about working with George Lucas. Many of them loved his first movie, "THX 1138." David Okada, Kenner vice president of preliminary design, and Jim Swearingen, designer of the toy X-Wing and TIE Fighter, would get more excited with every piece of the film that was revealed to them.
Despite their enthusiasm, the toys were not ready for the May 25, 1977 limited release of "Star Wars," or even the May 31 nationwide release. This is because the movie wasn't even finished until the last minute. Kenner designers were working feverishly at the same time wizards at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic were putting the final touches on the movie. Many of the toys were made before the designers saw them in context.
Overnight, "Star Wars" became the biggest blockbuster in history, and a pop-culture phenomenon with tremendous staying power. By the late fall of 1977, Kenner was able get out some jigsaw puzzles, paint-by-numbers sets, and a board game, but no action figures. Other unlicensed fly-by-night manufacturers stepped into the void, selling cheap light sabers, action figures made from old molds, and spacecrafts repurposed from 10-year-old toys.
Naturally, the public wanted the licensed action figures for Christmas of 1977. In response, Kenner Products issued "Early Bird Certificate Kits," with a "Space Club Card." Sold for as much as $16, the kits were basically empty boxes. Two months later, the certificate holder would receive four action figures in the mail—Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2. These days, a sealed certificate kit and follow-up action-figure package are highly prized by collectors.
Initially, Kenner intended to make 12-inch action figures, like its Six Million Dollar Man toy. The designers even developed 12-inch Luke and Leia prototypes. They ran into a problem when they were working on Han Solo, though. Han Solo would have to pilot the Millennium Falcon—a 12-inch action figure would need a ship five-feet in diameter that would cost hundreds of dollars.
When the designers asked Loomis how big he thought the figurines should be, he is said to have shown a space between his pointer finger and thumb, measured to be 3 ¾ inches. That would be the height of Luke, and all the other figures were scaled from him. In order to save time and money, Kenner sacrificed bending knees and twisting waists on these small toys.
Making the vehicles, spacecrafts, and other play sets required quite a bit of ingenuity, too. Toy designers weren't sure how to get the characters in and out of the Imperial snow walkers known as AT-ATs (All Terrain Armored Transports), so they added a side-hatch door. The Millennium Falcon needed built-in compartments for hiding and space for Luke to fire the laser cannon.
By the end of 1978, Kenner had produced 12 action figures, and that year, it sold more than 26 million of them. They went for $1.96 a piece at the time, and Kenner was surprised to find that kids didn't want just their favorite character—they wanted all of them. More and more action figures were released as the movie sequels, 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back" and 1983's "Return of the Jedi," increased the fervor.
In total, Kenner made 93 "Star Wars" trilogy figurines, and sold 300 million of them by the end of 1985. Only one, Yak Face, is particularly difficult to find, as that character was only released in Europe and Asia.
Over the years, vintage "Star Wars" figurines underwent numerous changes. For example, the first Luke Skywalker figurine had a plastic light saber built into his arm that telescoped twice, but it was too complex and costly, so the next version changed to a light saber that telescoped once. Later versions of Luke held snap-on weapons instead. The first Han Solo had a head that seemed disproportionately small compared to his muscular body, so later versions featured a larger head. And the first Jawa figure initially featured a vinyl cape, but later Jawas wore cloth. Today, vinyl-caped Jawas go for hundreds of dollars.
There were also goofs. The first Snaggletooth, found in the special Cantina Adventure Set, was completely wrong: He was the same size as other figures and wore gloves and boots—in the movie, Snaggletooth was a dwarf with hairy hands and paws for feet. The Snaggletooth action figure mold had to be recast to get it right.
One of the most talked about action figures is Boba Fett, which was promoted as having a missile-firing feature. This bounty hunter appeared the TV "Star Wars Christmas Special" and was supposed to have a large part in "The Empire Strikes Back." A mail-in promotional offer for Boba Fett promised a spring-loaded missile-launching backpack.
However, when Mattel had to recall "Battlestar Galactica" vehicles, due to parents' complaints that the missiles had hurt their kids, Kenner work quickly to recast its Boba Fett molds and cover all the missile promotions on the packaging with stickers. The only missile firing Boba Fetts available are unpainted test production figures.
Kenner offered even smaller action figures, die-cast and only 1 ½ inches, as part of the Micro Collection in 1982. These came with play-set worlds that could be fit together to make Bespin, Hoth, and the Death Star. The Micro Collection were initially intended to be used as display items and not so much as toys.
The vintage 3 ¾-inch figures can often be dated by the bubble card on the back, and how many characters it promotes. The earliest action figures are called 12-back, as only 12 characters are promoted on the back of the card, and the 1985 series is referred to as a 92-back.
For several years after the 10-year anniversary in 1987, the "Star Wars" action figures were well out of production and the franchise seemed to be dead. Then, in 1994, Lucas announced he would be working on a prequel to the first trilogy. Kenner Products, now a part of Hasbro, tentatively released a die-cast Action Master line. By Christmas 1995, the company was putting out a hugely successful series of 3 ¾ and 12-inch "Star Wars" characters, as well as vehicles and play sets—this time, many were purchased for adults nostalgic for their childhoods.
By the time the first film of the prequel trilogy, "The Phantom Menace" had come out in 1999, Hasbro Lucasfilm (which had consumed Kenner Products completely) was ready. Unlike in 1977, toy designers were given unprecedented access to Lucasfilm's design and production departments. The toys were even released ahead of the film so collectors could get a jump start on the general public. Naturally, more action figures were created for 2002's "Attack of the Clones" and 2005's "Revenge of the Sith."
Vintage "Star Wars" characters, like all action figures, are more valuable when unopened in their blister packs. The toy, whether in the box or out, is also graded on the condition of the action figure itself (its paint and joints) as well as the state of the plastic blister and card that held it.
Naturally, over the decades the “Star Wars” merchandising empire—with its beloved characters like Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, C-3PO, and Yoda—has encompassed much more than just action figures, model spacecrafts, and play sets. “Stars Wars” images and logos have been produced on everything under the sun—hats, t-shirts, lunch boxes, backpacks, Halloween costumes, mugs, dishes, and linens. Topps put out “Star Wars” trading cards, Lego produced a special “Star Wars” set, and Monopoly even came out in a “Star Wars” edition of its venerable board game.
Replica light-up light sabers, often made of plastic, have been hugely popular over the years, as has wearable Storm Trooper armor, seen everywhere at comic-book conventions. For collectors, the more obscure the “Star Wars” item the better. For example, the rare Vlix action figure from a short-lived television series, replica Wookies, model Death Stars, Boba Fett’s backpack, and even Jar Jar Binks chocolate bars and Tusken Raider piñatas are highly collectible today.
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