PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

Levine with a GI Joe Frogman, in an AP photo
Levine with a GI Joe Frogman, in an AP photo

Don Levine passed away last Friday at the age of 86. His name is not instantly recognizable, but he is considered one of the fathers of GI Joe.

Levine was working as an executive at Hasbro in 1963 when he was approached by Stan Weston, a licensing agent, who pitched an idea for a toy based on a proposed TV show, “The Lieutenant,” a show set on Camp Pendleton and created by Gene Roddenberry. Weston came up with the idea of making a posable figure, nearly a foot tall, that could be dressed in different outfits. Levine ran with the concept and was developing an entire line when “The Lieutenant” was cancelled after one season.

Fighting Man From Head To Toe
Fighting Man From Head To Toe

Rather than drop the project, which was rather risky to begin with, Levine continued with a new name, “GI Joe,” and bought out out Weston’s interest in the concept. Levine then successfully mimicked the “razors and blades” concept of selling toys that Mattel had managed to turn into a cash cow with Barbie. GI Joe was an instant hit and was among the top selling toys for several years.

It was Levine who lead his design team to research and recreate authentic military uniforms, and in a stroke of genius, it was Levine who insisted that the word “doll” never be used in marketing the figure. The “action figure” was born because Levine knew that convincing parents to buy their sons “dolls” was too steep a hill to climb. GI Joe was more than a toy soldier, so a new term was needed, and every action figure made in the ensuing fifty years owes a debt to Hasbro and Levine.

When war became less popular among parents, GI Joe made the transition from soldier to Adventurer, and reached new heights in the early 1970s, fading mid-way through the decade as licensed toys grabbed the spotlight.

GI Joe was put on ice in the late 1970s, and revived in 1981 in the popular “Real American Hero” 3 3/4″ format, after Levine left Hasbro.

The toy that shaped a generation
The toy that shaped a generation

In the mid-1990s nostalgia for the original GI Joe lead to a series of memorable collector’s conventions, and at one of those Levine met writer, John Michlig, who convinced him to collaborate on a special project. Using Levine’s contacts, Michlig constructed a brief “oral history” of the creation of GI Joe, which was published in a book sold in a package with a carefully reverse-engineered reproduction of the original GI Joe. This “Masteriece Edition” was released in 1996, and returned an old friend to many now-grown children of the 1960s and 70s.

Don Levine with his ill-fated "Almighty Heroes" line
Don Levine with his ill-fated “Almighty Heroes”

This did wonders for the hobby of GI Joe collecting, and it brought Levine back into the toy industry, where he proceeded to strike new deals with Hasbro to use his newly-recreated GI Joe molds, and even managed to get involved in a few other action figure projects like “Top Cop,” “Max Steel.” He also created a line of biblical action figures that didn’t exactly end well.

Thanks to Michlig, Don Levine achieved a new level of celebrity and was able to be personally thanked by thousands of collectors who grew up loving the toy that he helped develop. That’s a happier ending than many folks who toil in the toy industry get to have, and for that we can be thankful.

downloadFor a much more in-depth history of GI Joe, I have to recommend John Michlig’s excellent 1998 book, “GI Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action,” which can still be found at  Amazon . This is one of the best books written on the toy industry, and is a must-have for any GI Joe collector.

I eagerly await his follow-up book on GI Joe and the world of the toy industry.