SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – G.I. Joe is turning 50.
The birthday of what’s called the world’s first action figure is being celebrated this month by collectors and the toymaker that introduced it just before the nation plunged into the quagmire that would become the Vietnam War – a storm it seems to have weathered pretty well.
Since Hasbro brought it to the world’s attention at the annual toy fair in New York City in early 1964, G.I. Joe has undergone many changes, some the result of shifts in public sentiment for military-themed toys, others dictated by the marketplace.
Still, whether it’s the original movable fighting man decked out in the uniforms of four branches of the U.S. military, or today’s scaled-down products, G.I. Joe remains a popular brand.
Joe stood for everything that was meant to be good: fighting evil, doing what’s right for people, said Alan Hassenfeld, the 65-year-old former CEO for Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Inc. His father, Merrill Hassenfeld, oversaw G.I. Joe’s development in 1963.
But it’s Don Levine, then the company’s head of research and development, who is often referred to as the father of G.I. Joe for shepherding the toy through design and development.
Levine and his team came up with an 11 1/2 -inch articulated figure with 21 moving parts, and since the company’s employees included many military veterans, it was decided to outfit the toy in the uniforms of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.
Levine, who served in the Army in Korea, said he got the idea for the moveable figure as a way to honor veterans.
But he and his team knew the product wasn’t in Hasbro’s usual mold. It took years of pitches before Merrill Hassenfeld gave it full backing.
Most boys in the ’60s had a father or a relative who was or had been in the military, said Patricia Hogan, curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, home to the National Toy Hall of Fame.
G.I. Joe hit the shelves in time for the 1964 Christmas shopping season and soon became a big seller at $4 apiece.
It remained popular until the late 1960s, as opposition to Vietnam intensified and parents shied away from military-related toys.
Hasbro countered in 1970 by introducing Adventure Team G.I. Joes that played down the military connection. Into the ’70s, G.I. Joes featured lifelike hair and kung-fu grip and were outfitted with scuba gear to save the oceans and explorer’s clothing for discovering mummies.
Hasbro discontinued production later that decade. In the early 1980s, Hasbro shrank Joe to 3 3/4 inches, the same size as figures made popular by Star Wars.
It has stuck to that size, with the occasional issue of larger special editions. Through the decades, G.I. Joe has spawned comic books, cartoons, two movies starring Channing Tatum, a G.I. Joe Collector’s Club and its annual convention – GIJoeCon – held in April in Dallas.
But for many G.I. Joe fans of a certain age, the newer products hold no appeal.
The 12-inch G.I. Joe built that company, said Tearle Ashby of the New York village of Ballston Spa. The stuff they put out now is garbage.