Collecting Kenner Star Wars Action Figures became my entire life starting in Christmas 1978. That was the first Christmas that Star Wars toys were widely available in stores. The modern day equivalent would be the recent phenomenon of Frozen, where Disney had no idea how popular the movie was going to be and didn’t have enough merchandise ready for the film’s release. Star Wars took everyone by surprise from Fox Executives to Kenner Designers. No one on the planet had any idea that the odd space movie was going to be a cultural and merchandise juggernaut…no one except the film’s creator and director, George Lucas. George had the idea while writing the first film that it might be neat to have a Chewbacca coffee mug or an R2-D2 cookie jar, so he traded the money he would have made directing the film to Twentieth Century Fox in exchange for the merchandising rights for Star Wars. Fox, after having seen Dr. Doolittle merchandise rot on shelves years after the film’s release thought George was crazy. Before home video, DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming, theatrical movies had a pretty short shelf life. Toys were more for long term television shows like The Six Million Dollar Man or C.H.I.P.S. Imagine the look on the executive’s face when he saw the insane demand for Star Wars toys a long year after the actual film debuted in theatres. And it would be a buying frenzy unlike any seen in the history of merchandising…almost anything! Star Wars instantly became a brand as big as Superman, Mickey Mouse and Batman.
One of the more bizarre effects of the rush to get Star Wars toys to market was that designs, sculpts and molds had to be done in half the time as normal. Pictures from the set, of characters and props became invaluable to not only toy designers but to the Marvel Comics artists as well. Consequently, in that first year of producing Star Wars merchandise, some rather strange items rolled off the assembly line and into buyer’s hands…
Not only did it have the coolest backdrop this side of Mos Eisley, but it also contained 4 brand new Star Wars Action Figures! I had no idea that the taller blue jumpsuited, silver booted Snaggletooth would be one of the most legendary figures in the entire vintage Kenner Line. When Kenner rushed to make figures beyond the original 12, they turned to the most obvious scene in the movie: the Cantina. Filled with imaginative aliens from a thousand worlds, the Cantina was a kid’s dream. Monsters and aliens, bounty hunters and scoundrels all bellied up to the bar to grab a drink in the strangest bar this side of Los Angeles. But with only a few production stills to work from, the sculptors and designers at Kenner had no idea that the torso up photo of Snaggletooth gave no indication that the figure was not only shorter than imagined, but barefoot as well. The infamous Cantina Exclusive Blue Snaggletooth figure would quickly be replaced with a more screen accurate version for the single carded offering. Gone were the silver boots. Now fully visible were his hairy clawed feet. His blue jumpsuit was now a more dynamic red. I used to play with my Snaggletooth very carefully. Even back then I knew he was something special. This rare variation has only gone up in value since its initial release and mint in box examples can be priced as high as $1,000 and beyond. Recently, Gentle Giant released a very accurate 12” version in their oversized line of collector figures. The larger Snaggletooth was a Comic Con Exclusive that I rushed to add to my collection on the first day of the Con!
Walrusman – while the vintage Walrusman never went through any running changes like Snaggletooth, the figure that Kenner released bore no resemblance to the actual character seen in the movie. Walrusman is the unfortunate fellow who bullies Luke and gets his arm cut off by Obi-Wan for his trouble. The character in the film is fully clothed with the same jacket that Luke wears in the Rebel medal ceremony at the end of the film. The figure that came in both the Sears exclusive Cantina and the single carded version has webbed feet, a silly orange swimsuit outfit and is comprised of almost day-glo colors. Walrusman is another casualty of the rush to market that Kenner went through with the Star Wars line. They simply didn’t have the reference materials to sculpt a screen accurate figure. As a kid I loved this figure.
I didn’t know the film well enough to get that he didn’t look exactly right. I only knew that he was cool and that my Obi-Wan figure was constantly trying to chop ol’ Walrusman’s arm off. (Kenner/Hasbro would eventually release a figure with a removable arm in the modern line.)
Greedo – are you seeing a trend here? Yet another reason why toy manufacturers meet with the filmmakers over a year before the film is finished. Pre-production art and careful reference photos of both costumes and masks could have saved poor Greedo from emerging the way he did. Appearing virtually nude, the Greedo figure in the vintage Kenner line was striking in his cool sculpt and bright green color, but he offered none of the menace of his onscreen persona. A cool feature of the vintage figure was his almost closed blaster holding hand that never dropped his weapon. Important for those rougher interstellar battles, let me tell you.
Kenner/Hasbro would make amends in the modern-day line with a pinpoint screen accurate sculpt of both his costume, mask and even the bullet wound from Han Solo, who shot first, thank you very much.
How Kenner extrapolated that into the swimsuit-wearing figure that emerged from the factory is a mystery even Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t solve. Hammerhead was a very good sculpt for the vintage line, even if his costume is completely fabricated. One can only assume that the sculptors were given nothing but a headshot to go on. Fun fact: I used to turn the head of Hammerhead completely around and pretend he was the H.R. Giger Alien. With the amazing Reaction Figure from Funko, I don’t have to pretend anymore. (Shameless mention, yes, please send me a case of Alien figures, thanks!)
R2-D2 – there’s simply no excuse for what Kenner did to everyone’s favorite R2 Unit. The figure that was released in the Early Bird Set and every carded variation, from Sensorscope to Lightsaber had the same ridiculous head that looks nothing like the character seen in the film.
I can only assume that when they sat down to create the Star Wars line they simply noted that R2 was a robot and they got the basic body design from the publicity photos. The figure’s actual head looks nothing like the iconic character from the film. The sticker on his body looks fine, but the silver dome almost has a face. Every kid who got an R2 figure thought the same thing: “What the heck is this?” But, hey, it was all we had. I used to turn him upside down and make him into a cannon. Kenner made a later version for the Droids Cartoon show that was even more ridiculous looking. As a kid if you wanted the best R2-D2 figure available, you had to beg your parents for the Droid Factory Playset, a plastic base that came with a few dozen parts to make your own robots.
Nothing in the set had anything to do with the film, except for the parts that allowed you to build R2 with his retractable leg! I made many of my friends jealous when I pulled out that bad boy. He just looked so cool! Too bad we wouldn’t get an actual carded R2 with retractable leg until 1995! A full 18 years after the film’s release!
Kit Bashed Boba Fett – sadly, this isn’t a figure you can add to your collection. But you can track down a very rare photo of him that was included in the first release of the Star Wars Collector’s Case. Not the more common Darth Vader case that dominated the line after its release. No, this is the far cooler set of 2 trays in a vinyl case that flipped over to let you stand up your figures. Included in the case was a paper insert that showed figures you could one day purchase – and in that photo is an unbelievable cool Boba Fett made from parts of other Star Wars figures!
Don’t get me wrong, the Fett that finally found its way to my house through the mail was very cool, but the first version was incredibly different. Less sleek and rougher around the edges, the Kit Bashed Boba Fett made me drool as a kid.
What a figure! A shame that Kenner has never revisited this design that never made it past the prototype stage, it would have made a very cool addition to any collection. This was also sort of the figure pictured on the artwork for the Boba Fett Mail Away Offer, but more tangible.
Bespin Security Guard – wait, what could be so odd about a space cop figure? Sure, he’s just a guy in a helmet with a gun, but there are actually 2 Bespin Guard action figures in the Kenner line. The first one looks decidedly Hispanic with a handlebar moustache.
As a kid this puzzled me – when I saw the second version on the pegs I did a double take, as I was sure I had already collected the Bespin Guard! I begged my mom for the second version to keep my collection complete.
A real oddity and a cool moment for both Lucasfilm and Kenner as they did the right thing and offered diversity that was more than just Lando! The only odd thing about the figure is his stance – he’s very hard to keep on his feet due to his spread out legs.
Han Solo – hold on, Bub, what’s Han Solo doing on this list? He’s wearing his signature vest and pants. Even his gun is accurate! Ah, but what about his head? Did you know that the Han Solo figure you played with as a kid was probably the second version of the iconic character? The original Han Solo figure issued on the Star Wars 12-Back card had a much smaller head. For whatever reason it was changed quickly and most kids never even knew the first version existed. For my money, Kenner got it right the first time. The second one always looked to me to be one of The Beatles.
FX-7 – The Rebel medical droid was irresistible on the pegs. He had multiple arms that folded out and a spinning head. The only problem is that as a kid I had no idea where he was in the film. Even now he’s a blink and you’ll miss him part of the Hoth action. Odd that Kenner put so much effort into a character with so little screen time.
Prune Face – this Rebel Alliance member is seen so briefly in the Rebel Briefing Room (see what I did there?) that I used to get into arguments with my friends over whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. The packaging gives no indication as to his affiliation and for years his allegiance was a mystery. But hey, he had both a cool rifle and a poncho and figures with accessories were always popular.
Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band – does it bother you that poor Droopy McCool is the only guy not getting billing in this line up? While the choice of figures is not odd here, the way that Kenner sold them is. After years of buying figures as carded singles, it was amazing to walk into the toy aisle and find the entire Rebo Band available for one price. Not only did it allow Kenner to pack in the proper instruments but it also enabled collectors to get them all at once. The Max Rebo band’s inclusion on this list is simply for the way it was sold…and for Rebo’s inexplicable diaper. What the heck were they thinking??!
Beyond just the Kenner figures, there was another big company that suffered from the rush to production deadline: Marvel Comics. As a kid I tore into my Star Wars comics and read them until they fell apart. With amazing covers and a full adaptation, aside from the follow along record sets, the comics were the only way to relive the excitement of the Star Wars movie. But since they had only the script to go off of and not the final cut of the film, there’s one scene that always mystified us kids – the Jabba the Hutt scene. It would take years for most folks to see the deleted scene of Han Solo being confronted by the King of the Underworld, but those of us who read Marvel Comics knew from the beginning that Jabba was supposed to make an appearance long before Return of the Jedi or the insufferable Special Edition.
Jabba became a guy with mystifying facial hair and a Snaggletooth like cohort at his side (both aliens that were seemingly picked at random from a group shot of ILM aliens). It’s amazing that Hasbro has never mined this scene for a Comic Con Exclusive – fans who grew up knowing this scene would love to have a set of figures designed from it.
Star Wars revolutionized the way films are made, marketed and merchandised but those first steps they took into a larger world were not as graceful when you really look at them. It would take some synergy between Lucasfilm and Kenner to really get things right. By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around they had a much better working relationship and were able to offer more screen accurate sculpts and vehicles. They had to – we collectors were watching…
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.