Creation of He-Man action figure
I was still a little boy when He-Man action figures stormed into every department store & TV sets during the early 1980s. I do not remember the how, who & why He-Man was created and have always wondered how He-Man the action figure idea was born. So I decided to do a little HE-MAN CSI into it’s creation.
This blog is a brief collection of interviews from Roger Sweet, a lead designer working for Mattel’s Preliminary Design Department throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. These interviews show insights into who, when and how created the idea of HE-MAN
Who is Roger Sweet?
Roger Sweet was one of the lead designer who was task with coming up with a new toy line to revive Mattel toy business after Mattel declined to pay for rights to produced the highly successful Star Wars toy line. He claims to be the one who designed He-man action figure.
[ The following are excerpts from Roger Sweet interview with ToyFare Magazine – Issue #97 / Sept. 2005. ]How was the idea of He-Man created?
[Mattel president] Ray Wagner had passed on Star Wars because the license property apparently required $750,000 upfront. At the time, for an unproven property, that was a highly exorbitant sum. So Wagner had Mattel’s Prelimary Design Department – of which I was a member – Come up with viable male action figure concepts. I had been real impressed by Frank Frazetta paintings and I [submitted an idea] that I called monster fantasy. But it was actually a barbarian fantasy.
How did He-Man go from idea to toy?
The only way I was going to have a chance to sell this [to Wagner] was to make three 3D models – big ones. I glued a Big Jim figure [from another Mattell toy line] into a battle action pose and I added a lot of clay to his body. I then had plaster casts made. These three prototypes, which I presented in late 1980, brought He-Man into existence.
Were there any big differences between the finished product and your early prototypes?
The very first prototype He-Man was black haired with a deeply tanned eastern European or Middle Eastern appearance. His helmet had no horns. Later, at the direction of Tom Kalinske, then in Mattel’s upper management, He-Man was made more clean-cut and changed to a blond… Plus, He-Man’s skin was lightened, though definitely still tanned.
How did you come up with the name?
At the time I did the first prototype figure, I still didn’t have a name for him. So I brainstormed 40 or 50 names. Among those names were Mighty Man, Megaton Man, Strong Man, Big Man, but the instant I got that name He-Man…
What did you think of the finished He-Man product?
When I first saw the [first year of the] Masters of the Universe line all together I thought it was somewhat weak because it was low-tech and it was conservative. My concept of MOTU was that it combined everything- low-tech, high-tech, past, present and future. I wanted MOTU to be as expansive as possible and do anything that was appealing. I would love to see a G.I. Joe segment in MOTU. I wouldn’t mind seeing a character like [Child’s Play] Chucky in it.
In other words, anything could go into it. When I became the manager in charge of creativity for the line in 1983 I worked real hard to change that.
[ The following are excerpts from Roger Sweet Interview with the Institute of Design, September 2005 ]
So you designed the entire He-Man property yourself?
What I always say is, I originated and named He-Man, and originated the general concept of the Masters Of The Universe. I constructed three prototype figures at nine and a half inches, which I first showed at a product conference at Mattel in late 1980. These three prototype figures brought He-Man into existence. They were all of He-Man in different themes and configurations. One had a barbarian theme from the ancient past (low tech), another had a current military enhanced theme (mid tech), and the other one had a futuristic military, a la Star Wars, enhanced theme (high tech), showing that He-Man can go anywhere, and do anything, at any time, in any theme. These figures were nine and a half inches tall, and the figures in the line from 1982-87 were five and a half inches. But I knew if I showed these figures at the height they ended up being, I would have a very poor chance of selling the concept, so I made them very tall, huge, and very impressive.
I read that Masters sold 55 million figures. In all its different product variations it sold supposedly over $2 billion worth of product. I also read that the Mattel Masters product sold $1.2 billion world-wide, and over $800 million of that was in the U.S.
What was the initial reaction to the models at that internal conference?
Very non-committal. There were three other concepts shown by other members of the design group, of which I was a member. Ray Wagner [the president] ran the show. The different members showed their concepts and when we were all finished, Wagner said all the concepts should be market-tested for preference. But then right at the end of the meeting he pointed to my models and said, “Those have the power.”
And nobody said a thing or batted an eye. But the next day marketing was after me to start developing that line. There was a guy who was a vice president of engineering and visual design who wanted to take the line over from my preliminary design group and develop it. This was totally counter to Mattel policy. Mattel had always let our prelim group develop products from concept to a working prototype, an illustration, and then a preliminary name plus a cost. Then we passed it on to the visual design department to develop in conjunction with engineering. But this vice president in charge of engineering and visual design got Ray Wagner’s permission to take the product over and develop the line just after I’d done these three prototypes.
How did you feel about that?
I thought… that’s the way the ball bounces. [Laughs] It’s like, hey. I’ve had a lot of different experiences throughout my career and this was just another experience. Also, after what I’ve seen, nothing surprises me. Although my boss told me to get off the He-Man project altogether, I worked on the concept for two or three months on the sly with visual design to develop it, and worked with marketing to develop the general direction of the characters. It was a very dicey period. Here was a line that was so different, nobody knew where it would go or what would happen next, it could have been dropped at any time, and here I am spending two or three months on it. My prelim statistics for the year were very low, and your raises and compensation in those days was based on statistics: dollars worth of products in the line, how many concepts presented, how many illustrations done. And I’m spending all my time on the side working on He-Man. But, it was a big gamble on my part that paid off.
You ultimately had a huge impact on a lot of young people, myself included.
The way I conceived these guys, they were very gutsy. Later on a lot of different designers got their hands on them and made them much more pre-school-y, or weakened the line in other ways. But my original prototypes were three huge, tough guys. My concentration was to make the thing appeal as much to adults as to kids. The line evolved to go younger, when I would have preferred it more adult, like Star Wars, or Spawn [which appeal more to collectors as well]. It would have had a much broader base. If you design something really gutsy and appealing to a man as much as a boy, little kids will love it too.
When I was a kid there was no such thing as pre-school. When you were a boy, you were a “small man”. Nowadays psychology has taken over, all this childhood development stuff, and now kids are treated like little boys and babies, rather than men. When I was growing up, even when we were very young, we were treated like young men. Kids were not coddled. That had a great bearing on my originating He-Man. Where I grew up in Akron, Ohio, with the rubber factories, there were thousands of guys there who were factory laborers, and they were tough guys. And I saw a lot of tough stuff happen. And I’ll tell you another thing. I’ve always been slender. And when I saw or got into tough situations happening, there were many times I wished I was a He-Man. That had a very strong bearing on my originating this concept.
You can find the original intervew with Institute of Design here.
[ The following are excerpts from Roger Sweet also did an interview with He-Man.de, 7 Feb 2006 ]
Mattel re-released some of the classic characters in a commemorative edition in 1999.
To do so, they had to buy some old toys on e-bay and then create copies of these. Does Mattel never keep copies of their released toys? I can’t imagine DaimlerChrysler or General Motors would have to buy a classic car on e-bay to see what they had built some 20 years ago.
I cannot comment on Mattel’s policies regarding what toys and tooling they have kept, orkeep, as I was not in the Mattel department(s) that managed that function. However, I agree with you that it seems a good idea to keep samples of all past product done and the tooling and paint masks for it, etc., as well. Conversely, those items can take a lot of storage space. Sometimes, companies get rid of old product and tooling, etc., to economize on space and storage area. Mattel did that one major time that I know of, in about 1986. The occasion was that Mattel was moving its headquarters and office location from its former location In Hawthorne, California to its new location in El Segundo, California. At that time upper management communicated to its employees that past product development items in the Mattel design storage area, aptly named, “The Morgue”, could be taken by Mattel employees. I, for one, took advantage of that directive.
Click here for He-Man de Interview Part 1
Click here for He-Man de Interview Part 2