In Memoriam: Pouring Out Some Heavy Water for Don Levine, the Father of G.I. Joe

Don Levine, the toy-company executive who developed the original G.I. Joe and coined the term “action figure” to market it, died of cancer last week at a hospice in Rhode Island. He was 86.

In the popular G.I. Joe animated series, which premiered in 1985 and went on to inspire two dopey but lucrative movies starring Channing Tatum and The Rock, battle was a constant, but death was not a risk factor. When the fighting men and women of G.I. Joe shot down enemy planes, the pilots would invariably be shown parachuting to safety. Theirs was a war without apparent casualties, which helps explain why it never seemed to end. The actual G.I. Joe figures from the ’80s were significantly less indestructible. Their torsos were connected to their pelvises by a rubber O-ring that snapped easily, particularly in combat situations involving sadistic young men and firecrackers. The ritual sacrifice of childhood totems often marks the dawn of adolescence. “Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time,” wrote Dostoyevsky in Notes From Underground, although it could just as easily have been Destro.

Joe’s pop-cultural tour of duty started in 1963, when an entrepreneur named Stan Weston met with Levine — then vice-president of product development at the Pawtucket-based toy company Hassenfeld Brothers — and pitched him the idea for a line of “rugged-looking scale dolls for boys.” Levine and Hassenfeld had been looking for a way to compete with Barbie, a top seller for Mattel since her introduction in 1959. The company’s president, Merrill Hassenfeld, eventually offered Weston two choices — a small percentage of all future sales of the new doll, or a flat fee of $75,000. Weston held out for $100,000, which turned out to be a fraction of what the toy would earn in its first year alone.

The team that developed G.I. Joe at Hassenfeld — which would become Hasbro in 1968 — included a number of military veterans, including Levine, who’d landed at Inchon with the U.S. Army in September 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, and spent the next two years in combat as a platoon sergeant. He’d later tell interviewers that G.I. Joe was his tribute to the men who’d fought alongside him. The figure’s name was inspired by William Wellman’s 1945 World War II film Story of G.I. Joe, based on the writings of war correspondent Ernie Pyle (and costarring Burgess Meredith, who’d later provide the voice of the alien snake-man Golobulus, last of the Serpent Kings, in the 1987 straight-to-video animated feature G.I. Joe: The Movie).

The first G.I. Joe prototype had brown eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a unibrow. He wore green fatigues and a backpack, a sergeant’s stripes, and a grave, weary expression on his hand-painted face, like a tiny, plastic Henry Fonda. This was an action figure who looked like he’d seen action, and perhaps been irreparably changed by it. That haunted look was gone by the time Hassenfeld unveiled “America’s Movable Fighting Man” at the International Toy Fair in New York in 1964. The first mass-produced G.I. Joes were just less than 12 inches tall — or “over 11 inches tall,” according to their marketing materials — and had rounder, more implacable faces that evoked no particular story, even if a small scar on each figure’s right cheek suggested a long history of flesh wounds manfully ignored. (The scar was added to the original G.I. Joe head molds to render Joe’s appearance trademarkable. Also, the right thumbnail of a Joe is on the wrong side of the thumb, a manufacturing “birth defect” the company decided to retain as a mark of authenticity. This became a point of contention when the British toy manufacturer Mego began producing a Joe knockoff called Fighting Yank; Hasbro sued, citing the Yank’s backward thumb as proof that Mego’s Hong Kong plant had simply copied a preexisting Joe body.)

In his 1998 book, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, writer Tom Englehardt calls Joe “a warrior Adam grown from Eve’s rib.” Conventional toy-industry wisdom was that nothing could convince boys to play with dolls; Levine and his team sidestepped the issue by referring to Joe as an “action figure.” At that first Toy Fair, according to Smithsonian, Merrill Hassenfeld was overheard admonishing salesmen not to speak the “D” word in reference to Joe. “If I overhear you talking to a customer about a doll,” he said, “we’re not shipping any G.I. Joes to you.”

The company would spend decades defending this particular semantic hill. In 1989, Hasbro took on the United States government in federal court, claiming that G.I. Joe figures fell into the tariff-schedule category of “Toy figures of animate objects (except dolls): Not having a spring mechanism: Not stuffed: Other,” and were therefore not subject to U.S. Customs Service duties that applied to dolls. The court found in favor of the U.S., noting that “although Hasbro has fought valiantly that these figures are not dolls, we are unable to agree. Even though G.I. Joe has lost this battle, hopefully he will not lose his courage for combat, despite being officially designated by the United States Customs Service as a ‘doll.’”

“Hasbro was the laughingstock of the toy fair [in 1964] because no one assumed G.I. Joe would sell,” the company’s longtime marketing director Wayne Charness told the Chicago Tribune in the late ’80s, when sales of G.I. Joe figures and ancillary products had topped $2 billion. “The buyers thought we had a terrible idea, and they only bought a small amount, but that first year we had a monster hit. We laughed all the way into 1989, and we’re still laughing.”

They sold $7 million worth of G.I. Joes that first year, $28 million the next. Cribbing from Mattel and Barbie, Hasbro employed what’s known in business as a “razor and razor blade” strategy. They sold the figures inexpensively, for about $4, but also produced a vast range of accessories and weapons — not to mention specialized uniforms that Barbie’s target audience would recognize as “outfits” — for kids to nag their parents about.

The ranks of America’s preeminent foot-tall fighting force soon swelled. In 1965, the year of the Voting Rights Act and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, the first G.I. Joe with an African American skin tone was introduced, although it wouldn’t go on sale in Southern markets until years later. The first female Joe, “G.I. Nurse Action Girl,” appeared in 1967, sold poorly, and was discontinued after a year in production, making the figure one of the most valuable vintage Joes around; a G.I. Nurse in good condition will run you at least $2,000. A healthy collectors’ market in original 11-inch Joes, particularly the still-boxed, unplayed-with kind, exists to this day, complete with its own military-style argot. Enthusiasts speak of “baby feet” and “Eyeliner Joes,” “coffin boxes” and “Defenders of Bulletman.”

Studies would later suggest that sales of war toys rose and fell in proportion with popular support for military spending. As it turned out, Hasbro had launched G.I. Joe during what was just about the last moment in U.S. history when the American soldier was still synonymous with uncomplicated heroism. Sales tanked in 1968 as public sentiment turned against the Vietnam War. By then, the G.I. Joe line was already the focus of a debate about the impact of war toys on impressionable psyches. In 1966, a group of mothers dressed as Mary Poppins stormed the Toy Fair, displaying umbrellas painted with the slogan “Toy Fair or Warfare”; a similar protest at the Toy Fair five years later included members of the group Parents for Responsibility in the Toy Industry and actual Vietnam veterans.

This was as controversial as G.I. Joe ever got. It was popularly assumed that boys didn’t develop a fraught relationship with the toys the way many girls did with Barbie, her unattainable lifestyle, and her dysmorphic proportions. Thanks to flocking techniques developed by Palitoy — the manufacturers of a licensed U.K. version of G.I. Joe called Action Man — Joe grew a fuzzy, Astroturf-ish beard in the early ’70s, and in the ’90s he was accused of promoting an unrealistically and unhealthily ’roided-out physique. But in general, he’s never reflected shifts in the cultural and commercial conception of masculinity as clearly as Barbie has for femininity. There was no G.I. Joe equivalent of the mesh-shirted, ambiguously gay scandal-subject Earring Magic Ken, although there’s probably been at least one queer-studies thesis dedicated to decoding Mattel’s Joe competitor Big Jim and his camping buddy Big Josh.

He is not a contested space. He’s inspired a thousand parodies, from the mock G.I. Joe PSAs on YouTube to the Season 5 Community episode “G.I. Jeff,” which painstakingly reproduced the crummy animation of the ’80s cartoon to tell a story about a comatose Jeff Winger retreating into his childhood happy place after chasing pills with scotch on his 40th birthday, complete with Abed as a Joe code-named “Fourth Wall.” But he didn’t become an icon to be appropriated and subverted, the way Barbie did for artists from Todd Haynes to Nicki Minaj. That said, once he was retooled as part of an Adventure Team of no specific military affiliation in the early ’70s; he did hunt mummies and pygmy gorillas, fought sharks and alien invaders, and acquired movable “Eagle Eyes” and bendy fingers, a feature Hasbro called “Kung Fu Grip” to capitalize on the growing martial-arts craze. It was probably a coincidence that the Adventure Team’s groovy medallions resembled peace symbols.

The last breakout star of the 12-inch Joe era was Mike Power, Atomic Man, a bionic-superhero version of G.I. Joe created in 1975, after rival Kenner beat out Hasbro for the toy rights to TV’s Six Million Dollar Man. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carrell’s character, Andy, is mocked for owning and displaying a mint-condition Kenner Oscar Goldman, complete with plaid sportcoat. The scene in which Paul Rudd comes over and forces Carrell to accept a big box of porn makes an explicit parallel between Andy’s collection of action figures in their original packaging and his similarly sealed-up sexuality. Men hiding out in their man caves, playing with their non-dolls.

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In 1975, Saigon fell, Hasbro coped with a spike in the price of plastic following the OPEC embargo by rolling out a simpler redesign of G.I. Joe’s body that had only 15 “points of articulation” instead of 21, and Don Levine left the company to start his own toy venture. Three years later, Hasbro stopped producing G.I. Joes entirely.

He was called back into active duty in the early ’80s, when Reagan-era patriotism and the popularity of Kenner’s 3-and-3/4-inch Star Wars figures prompted Hasbro to relaunch a new, similarly scaled line of G.I. Joe toys. The company, then headed by Merrill Hassenfeld’s eldest son, Stephen, tapped Marvel Comics to produce a tie-in book for the series. The comics were an ingenious workaround; the FCC had strict rules governing the depiction of toys in TV ads, but those rules said nothing about the advertising of printed matter, so Hasbro produced lavish animated spots for the Marvel book, promoting the G.I. Joe brand as a whole while selling a comic that was itself a toy ad.

In a 2011 blog post, former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter claimed that the idea of making “G.I. Joe” the code name of a team of paramilitary action heroes was his, and that the introduction of Cobra and Cobra Commander — which gave G.I. Joe a real adversary for the first time — was editor Archie Goodwin’s. The rest of the ’80s Joe mythology was created in large part by writer Larry Hama, who spun backstories and personalities around mockup figures provided by Hasbro. Hama, who’d served with the Army Corps of Engineers in Vietnam, admitted to USA Today in 2010 that writing a toy tie-in book “was considered sort of like death,” but that he needed the work: “If they were offering me Barbie, I would have taken Barbie!”

The cartoon series arrived three years later, codifying the modern G.I. Joe universe for a generation — codenames like Shipwreck and Footloose and Recondo; the “Knowing is Half the Battle” safety-first tags at the end of every episode; the endless searches for doomsday-weapon parts like radioactive crystals and “heavy water”; Cobra’s tactically questionable insistence on decorating “secret” bases with enormous carved-stone cobras; and the increasingly convoluted power struggle between Cobra Commander, the masked arms dealer Destro, and Serpentor, an ultimate warrior genetically engineered from the DNA of several of history’s most ruthless generals and dictators, minus Hitler, because even Cobra apparently had to draw the line somewhere.

But this was none of Levine’s business. In 1992, Levine and his son Neil launched the Kenya doll line, one of the first African American dolls that wasn’t based on a white template; kids could put her hair into cornrows or straighten it with a Magic Hair Lotion. It sold briskly for most of the ’90s, and relaunched in 2012 with Beyoncé’s cousin Shanica Knowles (Amber from Hannah Montana) as its spokesperson. The Almighty Heroes — action figures based on Biblical characters like Joseph, Joshua, Noah, and Queen Esther — tanked in 2007, ultimately forcing Levine to pay back almost $1.2 million to disgruntled investors.

But that’s the toy biz. You rise and fall based on the whims of an unpredictable demographic. Or something else happens, like an actual war. In 2001, Levine and Hasbro executive Kirk Bozigian created Real Heroes, a line of original-Joe-scale figures that included an authentic New York City firefighter. Sales were slow until 9/11, after which first responders were celebrated as real American heroes and the toys became a runaway hit.

“I’m not saying Osama Bin Laden is our partner,” Levine told the Associated Press in December 2001, “but we were there at the right time.”

Filed Under: In Memoriam, G.I. Joe, Don Levine, Obituary

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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