Nearly as famous as the films themselves, vintage “Star Wars” figures have a following of their own, and helped revolutionize the action figure industry into the thriving business it is today.
Conventional wisdom of the mid-’70s saw movies (even those aimed at kids) as a merchandising gamble, and Fox and Lucasfilm had trouble finding a suitor when it came to toy manufacturers, but Kenner Products took a chance. When the film debuted in May 1977, it became an instant surprise hit. As “Star Wars” fever swept the world, fans clamored for any paraphernalia relating to the film. Except for some cheapie games and puzzles, Kenner was unable to deliver toys in time for Christmas that year.
In the meantime, Kenner offered a strange alternative: It presold a set of four figures (Luke, Leia, Chewie and R2) in an empty box dubbed the “Early Bird Certificate Package.” Kids and collectors could purchase the box, which they could later exchange for the four figures. The ploy worked, and Kenner sold out of its “Early Bird” run. Fan anticipation was further sated soon after, when the first 20 figures were released.
Size matters not
Eschewing the larger size of such successful figure lines as Hasbro’s 12″ G.I. Joe and Mego’s various 8″ figures, Kenner opted to sculpt the “Star Wars” figures at 3¾” tall. While the size didn’t allow for great detail, it lowered the price of each toy, and quickly became the industry standard. Chief among the converted was Hasbro, whose hugely successful 1982 relaunch of G.I. Joe stood at 3¾”.
In addition to a number of small production variations, the first wave of “Star Wars” figures contained a number of oddities. The initial pressings of Luke, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi came with what came to be known as “double-telescoping” lightsabers, which could be extended to nearly twice their original length. These figures are now extremely rare. Also, the Imperial officer figure originally known as the “Death Squad Commander” was later renamed the less sinister “Star Destroyer Commander.”
The 21st figure of the initial line was the as-yet-unseen-on-film Boba Fett. Destined to become a fan favorite, Fett had been shown only in a brief animated clip on 1978’s “Star Wars Holiday Special.” The Fett figure was initially slated to include a “rocket-firing” feature, but Kenner scrapped the idea over safety concerns. While the rocket-firing Fett never made it to production, various prototypes made their way into the public, and they typically fetch a bounty numbering in the thousands on eBay.
‘Power’ is on
1980’s “Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” each yielded new figure lines, yet after “Jedi” left theaters, excitement for the toys began to wane. Kenner introduced a new line, dubbed “The Power of the Force” which re-issued the old figures with new packaging. The POTF line also offered 15 new figures, mostly featuring briefly-seen background players like Amanaman, Barada and the elderly Anakin Skywalker, whose ghostly image appears in the last scene of “Jedi.”
In 1983, Kenner produced two other “Star Wars”-related lines, based on the animated spinoffs “Droids” and “Ewoks.” The “Droids” line provided for one of toy collecting’s strangest occurrences. A second line of figures failed to make it past the prototype stage, but somehow a mold of the portly minor character Vlix made it to Brazil, where it was produced several years later. Now considered the Holy Grail of toy collecting, the little-known character commands obscene amounts of money on the secondary market.