“Sir, your tauntaun will freeze before you get to the end of this blog post…”
“Then I’ll see you in hell!”
Yes, I was a slight latecomer to the Star Wars universe. I was a child of The Empire Strikes Back, but I was keenly aware Empire was a sequel. I knew I had missed the boat on the original (which I referred to simply as “Old Star Wars”) and ached to see it. The gap was filled somewhat by my Star Wars storybook, which told the story of the first film through lots of lavish photographs and fairly advanced and detailed text for a young reader. (The book-and-cassette read-along version helped, too, as I dutifully turned the page when I heard the chimes.) The storybook also contained some material that was cut from the final film, including the famous lost Luke-Biggs dialogue scene.
I distinctly remember the Empire illustrated storybook had its publication delayed for some reason, and my mom had to special order it from the mysterious “Random House,” which I pictured as a literal house full of storybooks. That Empire storybook and the excellent Marvel comics adaptation helped keep the plot and visuals fresh in my mind once Empire left theaters. The things we had to resort to in those dark days before home video…
The collecting fire was fueled by the TV commercials, which were in constant rotation during after-school and Saturday morning shows. They usually featured a pair of bowl-haired kids in 70s turtlenecks playing on a perfectly landscaped “backyard” set, making up atrocious dialogue (I still say “look both ways, dewback!” to myself as I approach intersections to this day), and failing to pull off C-3PO’s British accent.
“Playing Star Wars” was a common activity — but you could go down one of two paths, which we called “Real Life” or “Action Figures.” “Real Life” meant pretending to be the characters and acting things out. Actually, we were not the real characters, but rather the real characters’ kids. This was at my insistence. I could pretend to be in a galaxy far, far away, but I could not pretend to be any age other than my own. I was a peculiar child. (Or was I prophetic? This was years ahead of the “babyfication” fad that swept pop culture later in the decade.) Characters were assigned to my neighborhood crew based on age, gender and hair color. I was dark-haired so I got to be Han, Jr., Isaac had kind of dirty blonde hair, so he was Luke, Jr., Susie was a girl, so she was Lil’ Leia, and Mikey was three-and-a-half, so he played whatever he was damn well told, usually something demeaning.
“Real Life Star Wars” always ended up in a squabble, but “Action Figures” could be played peacefully for hours.
I loved my action figures dearly, but I was a little kid and treated them in a way that would make an adult hobbyist “collector” cringe. I had one small, lunchbox-style official carrying case, but the Collection soon outgrew it. For the most part, they got tossed into an old wicker basket. A big Tupperware storage container full of flour made an excellent Hoth, and cornmeal made a decent Tatooine. (I tried bringing playground sand home from kindergarten, but it was industrial-gravel gray, not Tatooine yellow.) A muddy yard after a good rain became Dagobah. Bathwater quickly removed R2-D2’s decals, so for most of his time in my possession, his little barrel body was a blank, pristine white (my original figure is pictured at right). The Parrish’s dog, Duke, chewed up my Walrus Man beyond recognition, triggering a crying jag that probably lasted the better part of six hours. (They kindly and quickly replaced him — I think that very night.) Duke also got hold of Chewbacca, but I caught him in a flying tackle and the damage was limited to a single, dimpled tooth mark.
It seems like I got a new figure every week or so for that halcyon year of 1980-81. They were inexpensive and could keep me quiet for hours. (In reality, I’m told I wasn’t quiet at all but jabbered about Star Wars non-stop to anyone who would listen and many who would not. I do not remember this, but since I’m basically doing the same thing right now in written form, I guess it must be true). Vehicles were more of a special treat. The centerpiece of the Star Wars vehicle world was the mighty Millennium Falcon, which I pined for for months. Mikey got his first, the little shit, for his fourth birthday. Before I got mine, a two-level maple coffee table served as my Falcon. I couldn’t pick it up and fly it around, but it was at least the proper scale, compared to the relatively cramped toy. Scale was very important to me. (Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars could not freely mix in my play world.) I finally got the genuine Falcon out of the blue for no special occasion.
As I indicated in the previous post, my saintly mother is to thank for pretty much all of this. I’ve wracked my brain, and literally cannot think of any other source for the Collection. Even birthday gifts bought for me under my sister’s or grandparents’ names were shopped for by mom. A few more came via her role as Santa and Easter Bunny. But, again, mostly they were just a reward for being dragged along on “errands” (which I always heard as “Erin”s and wondered what my cousin had to do with going uptown.)
Oh, and you couldn’t have just one stormtrooper. What’s the point of that? That would have looked damned foolish. You needed at least enough for a convincing squadron. The same idea applied to X-Wing pilots, Rebel soldiers, Jawas, sand people… What an amazing marketing ploy! My friends all had multiples of these figures too, so we could actually have some pretty realistic-looking battles. Of course, they would get all mixed up by the end of the day. Luckily, mine had my initials neatly written on the soles of their feet in Sharpie.
The molding and painting of the facial features on the action figures was rudimentary at best, and certainly inconsistent. And if the figures bore any resemblance to the actor that played the role, it was purely by accident. Hoth Leia had a face I would describe as “grandmotherly,” and midway through the figure’s original run, for some unfathomable reason they replaced Han’s normal-looking head with a bulbous, oversized one that looked like a middle-aged lesbian dog-trainer, or possibly Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
Then there were the white whales of Star Wars toys. The super-hard-to-find stuff. The stuff with cachet. One of Isaac’s cousins from the next neighborhood over got Bossk! The reptilian bad-ass bounty hunter who out-cooled even Boba Fett in our little world. They way his lizardy hands were molded gave the appearance that he was flipping the bird! Another bounty hunter, Zuckuss, may have been entirely mythical, as I never saw it anywhere, ever, and I suspect was an elaborate Kenner prank. He and fellow mercenary 4-LOM were pretty much the last two Empire figures released. (By the way, Kenner reversed their names. The droid figure us kids knew as “Zuckuss” was actually 4-LOM, and the insectoid “4-LOM” was actually Zuckuss. Since neither were addressed by name in the film, and appeared for something like seven seconds, the mistake went unnoticed by anyone for years.)
Isaac scored the hardest-to-find vehicle of all — Slave I, Boba Fett’s ship. It even came with a Han Solo frozen in carbonite (before they made a separate figure of that).
Isaac’s acquisition of Slave I (and the AT-AT, which rivaled the Millennium Falcon for size and desirability) is one of my last memories of My Year of Star Wars. It feels like my interest began to wane as soon as we moved away from First Street in the late summer of 1981. I definitely remember still playing with the Collection at our new house, which was where I was living when I finally saw “Old Star Wars” upon its summer 1982 re-release in theaters. But my Star Wars figure collecting slowed to a trickle, then stopped. I think I had everything that had been released at that point (with the exception of the ever-elusive Zuckuss), before the Return of the Jedi figures came out.
By the time Jedi was released in May of 1983, I was going through a distinct anti-Star Wars phase. It was one of those eight-year-old things where you suddenly decide one day you don’t like something. I’m sure it had something to do with my deep-seated terror of Jabba the Hutt, and my shame at knowing I was too old to be afraid of a rubber puppet of a giant mollusk. Even five-year-old me had made it through the wampa attack in Empire (three times, in fact.) In any case, I took a notion to no longer be “into” Star Wars and did not see Jedi until its home video debut sometime in late 1984. By then, I was older, braver, and wiser, and my toy collection had moved on to the more sophisticated G.I. Joes and Transformers. (G.I. Joes could actually bend at the knee when they sat down, unlike Star Wars figures, whose legs stuck out straight in front of them in a comical fashion most unbecoming to space adventurers.)
My ‘Joes and shape-shifting robots became my new favorites for awhile (separate from each other of course — no mixing of toy lines in my play world!), but there’s a reason I’m writing about Star Wars toys and not those others. They just didn’t have the same romance, the same depth, the same capacity for imaginative story-telling. My interest in Star Wars revived when I was about eleven. I dug out my old stuff, and even began buying the Jedi figures. The original Kenner toy line was winding down by then, and you could pick up overstocked figures in 2-for-1 packages, and “Power Of The Force” carded figures with desperate-sounding “Special Collector Coins” in the bargain racks. I had another happy year or so playing with my Star Wars stuff, and then puberty hit…
A few spaceships went out in a blaze of glory via firecrackers when I was about 13 or 14. A few figures were lost and never replaced. What remained of the Collection was placed in a couple of Ziploc gallon freezer bags and resided, untouched, in my parents’ various storage spaces as I went through middle school, high school, and college. The Collection seemed to shrink a little with every house-moving. I had kids of my own, recovered the figures out of my parents’ attic, and passed what was left on to them.
The Collection currently resides in a shoebox-sized plastic tub on my youngest son’s bedroom shelf, a shadow of its former self. Cameron is now 14 and long past actually playing with them, but he’s as nostalgic about them as I am. (My Lando Calrissian is long gone, but his familiar gray cape is still kicking around the bottom of the box for some reason. I guess I could put it on the currently cape-less Darth Vader…)
Kenner was absorbed by Tonka in 1987, and both were absorbed by Hasbro in 1991. The Kenner brand was retired permanently in 2000. Since 1995, Hasbro has been putting out a new generation of Star Wars figures — beautifully sculpted, magnificently detailed, and aimed squarely at adult collectors who will never take them out of their package. They’re not for six-year-olds who will play with them in the dirt (or flour, or cornmeal), and that’s a shame. At least they finally gave us a Grand Moff Tarkin figure and the yellow-jacketed Luke.
Casual readers can stop here.
APPENDIX A: The Action Figures
Here’s a rundown of what I had in the Collection.
Click on each figure for a look at how they appeared in their packaging as I bought them. In most cases, that would be the Empire packaging cards. (Thanks to 12back.com and rebelscum.com for the visuals.)
9. Stormtrooper — I think I had five.
10. Jawa — I had three or four.
11. Sand People — Surprisingly, I made do with one. (Shouldn’t they have been sold as “Sand Person” since there was only one per package?) By the time they began their run in the Jedi packaging, they had been re-named “Tusken Raider (Sand People)” for reasons that remain unclear.
16. Star Destroyer Commander — In its original run, this figure was named “Death Squad Commander.” By the time it appeared in Empire packaging, it was given a slightly less Holocaust-y moniker. In the film, they appeared to be bored-looking button-punchers, not really in “command” of anything.
18. Death Star Droid — Did not, in fact, appear on the Death Star at all (except for some split-second long shots), but rather in the Jawas’ sandcrawler. “Jawa Sandcrawler Droid” is just clunky and literal enough to be a good Kenner name.
20. Luke Skywalker (X-Wing Pilot Gear) — I had three or four. They did not look at all like Luke, facially, so they could be random rebel pilots. I gave one a blue dot on his helmet and he was designated as the action figure-less character “Wedge.” Others were Zev, Hobbie, Jansen, Dak, etc. as needed.
31. (Twin-Pod) Cloud Car Pilot — Had to have two, of course.
35. Rebel Commander — The photo on the packaging card was some random clean-shaven rebel officer, but the mustachioed action figure matched none other than “Major Derlin” (so named in the Empire novelization) — played by John Ratzenberger, very soon to achieve wider fame as Cliff Clavin on Cheers. Ratzenberger was one of a small group of American actors making a living within the British studio system in the late 70s and early 80s. (He was also a jeep driver in Gandhi). One of Ratzenberger’s associates in this little group was the late Bruce Boa, who can be spotted as Empire’s General Rieekan (another key action figure omission!), as the stereotypical “rude American” in the Fawlty Towers episode “Waldorf Salad,” and another military officer in the UK-filmed Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket. (Boa was actually Canadian.)
36. Rebel Soldier (Hoth) — Had three.
38. FX-7 — The “medical assistant” droid bore a striking resemblance to a hot water heater.
39. Stormtrooper (Hoth Gear) — This was my second figure, after Greedo. Looked like a much more likely candidate to be flying the TIE fighter. Ended up with three of them.
40. Imperial Commander — This figure is clearly intended to be the character known as “Admiral Piett,” played by Kenneth Colley (who once appeared as Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount in Monty Python’s Life of Brian). However, the picture on the package is of Julian Glover, who played General Veers (see below).
44. AT-AT Commander — Clearly intended to be the character known as “General Veers,” who was, indeed, the AT-AT Commander. Evidently having his picture on the Imperial Commander package was deemed good enough, because the picture here is a generic SFX shot of the AT-AT itself, one of only a few times a character is not pictured on his action figure card. (Actor Julian Glover later “chose poorly” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)
The above list represents my original collection as a 5-to-7-year-old. Below is what I started picking up a good two years after Jedi’s release as the original toy line was fading:
45. TIE Fighter Pilot — Officially released as one the last of the Empire figures. Note the offer to send away for “4-LOM,” the only source for that figure until after I had stopped collecting.
46. General Madine — Get this. According to J.W. Rinzler’s excellent book about the making of Jedi, the action figure molds of Madine were already complete by the time the film was cast, so actor Dermot Crowley had to glue on a fake beard to match the action figure. Talk about the tail wagging the gundark…
59. Weequay — There were two in the movie, so there were two in my collection
65. AT-ST Driver — Like the commander of his four-legged counterpart, the driver of the two-legged “chicken walker” also gets no respect, and is replaced on his card by a picture of his vehicle. (On the Rebellion side, the A-Wing and B-Wing pilots are also replaced with their ships.)
71. Jabba the Hutt (with Salacious B. Crumb) — Sold as a “playset” rather than an action figure. I acquired mine out-of-packaging at a flea market.
72. The Max Rebo Band — Also sold as a playset — three musicians: Sy Snootles, Droopy McCool (WTF?), and Max Rebo, along with their associated instruments. This was, I believe, my final Star Wars purchase, probably in the fall of 1987…
I got all of the original Star Wars figures, and pretty much all of the Empire figures. Here’s what eluded my grasp:
From Empire, I decided that Bespin Guard (Version 2), and the droid variations (C-3PO with detachable limbs and R2-D2 with “sensorscope”) were wastes of time. Given the option between getting an all-new figure (or an extra stormtrooper) and a slight variation on one I already had, the choice was obvious. Yes, Bespin Guard (Version 2) was black, let’s not make a thing out of it…
I was missing a significant amount from the Jedi run:
From the opening sequence in Jabba’s palace and skiff/sail barge, I did without Amanaman, Nikto, Barada, 8D8, EV-9D9, and R2-D2 (with pop-up lightsaber). And I didn’t realize a separate Klaatu (Skiff Guard Outfit) even existed until I started looking up pictures for this blog.
Like “4-LOM,” the original Anakin Skywalker figure (based on his ghostly appearance in the last few seconds of Jedi) allegedly appeared on store shelves after a long time as a mail order-only item. I never saw him.
Finally, I did without Rebel Commando, A-Wing Pilot, B-Wing Pilot, Biker Scout, and Imperial Gunner (just would’ve had to get multiples of each to play properly, and the time had passed for that level of commitment), and the incredibly creepy Imperial Dignitary.
That about wraps it up for the original 92 figures. (A 93rd, Yak Face, was produced but only sold overseas.)
APPENDIX B: Vehicles, Playsets, and Large Creatures
Due to their much greater expense, I had relatively few vehicles:
8. A-Wing Fighter* (see below)
I had a couple of the beasts of burden, too, including the Patrol Dewback and the Tauntaun (not the later edition of the Tauntaun with the hollow belly into which you could stuff poor Luke). I really, really wanted the Wampa ice creature, in spite of (because of?) being 1) deathly afraid of his appearance in the film, and 2) annoyed even at age six by another dreadfully stupid commercial in which the child using the toy makes the noise “wampa! wampa! wampa!” as he plays. Wampa was another figure that was tricky to track down.
I had the Dagobah Playset (i.e., Yoda’s house) and the misnamed “Imperial Attack Base” . In reality, it was a small facsimile of the Rebels’ snowy Echo Base (I guess you make the case that the namers meant “the base which is attacked by Imperials,” but that’s stretching it). I also (briefly) had a godawful playset called the “Creature Cantina” made very early in the SW merchandising boom, which was supposed to re-create the famous cantina scene in Star Wars, but was nothing more than one piece of molded plastic with a bar and an un-useable table (no seats), backed by a flimsy cardboard backdrop featuring a silly, over-caricatured drawing of the familiar alien band and some random “little green men”-type aliens.
Well, they can’t all be winners. Those cheap, cardboard-backed “action playsets” also came in Jawa/sandcrawler versions and Hoth/AT-AT versions, before kids wised up, decided the 70s were truly over, and demanded higher-quality toy representations of their favorite movies.
Except the (*) A-Wing Fighter, produced at the very tail end of Jedi merchandising…and by the time it actually reached stores it had been re-branded to tie in with the Saturday morning Star Wars-spinoff cartoon show Droids. Pretty sure I got it at a Kay-Bee clearance sale for about six dollars. It will forever have an asterisk to me.
I could probably reveal my deepest, darkest secrets right here because nobody would have read this far…