Hasbro's G.I. Joe set for 50th birthday

Toy created to honour servicemen survives a severe shrinking and change in public opinion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 4:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 4:47am


G.I. Joe, the world's first action figure, is celebrating its 50th birthday this month.

Since Hasbro brought it to the world's attention at the annual toy fair in New York 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 market.

Still, whether it's the original "movable fighting man" decked out in the uniforms of the four branches of the US 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, former chief executive at Hasbro, whose father, Merrill, 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 a 30cm articulated figure with 21 moving parts, and since the company's employees included many military veterans, it was decided to outfit the toy in uniforms and such accessories as guns, helmets and vehicles.

Levine, who served in the army in Korea, said he got the idea for the moveable figure as a way to honour veterans. But he and his team knew the product wasn't in Hasbro's usual range, and it took years before it got the company's full backing.

G.I. Joe hit the shelves in time for the 1964 Christmas shopping season and soon became a big seller at US$4 a piece.

It remained popular until the late 1960s, as opposition to the Vietnam war intensified and parents shied away from military-related toys. Hasbro countered in 1970 by introducing "Adventure Team" G.I. Joes that played down the toy's original military connection.

Hasbro discontinued production late in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, it shrank Joe to 9cm, the same size as figures made popular by Star Wars.

It has stuck to that size, with the occasional issue of larger special editions.

Over the decades, G.I. Joe has spawned comic books, cartoons, two movies starring Channing Tatum, and a G.I. Joe Collector's Club and its annual convention - GIJoeCon - held in Dallas in April. But for many G.I. Joe fans of a certain age, the newer products hold no appeal.

"The [30cm] G.I. Joe built that company," said Tearle Ashby, of New York. "The stuff they put out now is garbage."

The exact date of G.I. Joe's introduction remains hazy. Hasbro believes it was in February 1964 - but American International Toy Fair organisers say it was held in March that year.

G.I. Joe was elected into US Toy Hall of Fame in 2004, six years after Barbie was enshrined.