Thursday, 18 May 2017

Godspeed Stan Weston, Godfather of Action Figures

Stan Weston, the licensing agent who was one of the creators of the action figure G.I. Joe, and who also created such action figures as Captain Action and "The World's Greatest Super Heroes", died on May 1 2017 at the age of 84. The cause was complications from surgery.

Stan Weston was born Stanley Weinstein in Brooklyn, New York on April 1 1933. He was only five years old when Superman first appeared in Action Comics no. 1 (June 1938) and he became a huge comic book fan. He was particularly a fan of the companies that would one day become the modern day DC Comics. He even rented comic books to other children in his neighbourhood from a makeshift stand on his front stoop. He attended  New York University and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Advertising and Journalism. He served in the United States Army and afterwards he returned to New York University and earned a Master of Business Administration degree. He took the surname "Weston" in order to avoid anti-Semitism.

Stan Weston went into advertising at the agency McCann Erickson. It was while he was at McCann Erickson that he met Allan Stone, whose brother Martin Stone was a producer on The Howdy Doody Show. Allan Stone founded Stone Merchandising Associates, which licensed movie and television properties. In 1959 Stan Weston went to work at Stone Merchandising Associates. He worked there only for a year before founding his own company, Weston Merchandising, in 1960. It was in 1962 that Weston Merchandising merged with the company Trans-Beacon. Stan Weston remained with Trans-Beacon for three years. As a licensing agent he was rather successful, and represented the TV series Dr. Kildare, The Kingston Trio, and comedian Soupy Sales, among many others.

It was in 1963 that Stan Weston would become involved in his most famous creation, the action figure G.I. Joe. Stories vary as to the origins of the famous action figure. According to one story, Stan Weston received inspiration for G.I. Joe from Elliot Handler, founder of Mattel. Mr. Handler, who was one of Mr. Weston's mentors, told him, “Stan, you’ve got to sell them the razor, then you can sell them a lot of blades." Of course, Mattel had seen great success in not only selling the Barbie doll, but in selling numerous outfits and accessories to go with the doll as well. Stan Weston looked through the Encyclopaedia Britannica seeking an idea for a toy that would also include numerous accessories, and fell upon the idea of a military themed toy. By making a military themed toy there could then also be several different uniforms, weapons, and other accessories sold to go along with it. 

According to another story it was  Larry Reiner, who was an executive at Ideal Toy Company, who came up with the initial idea for G.I. Joe. Mr. Reiner thought of an idea for a soldier toy and tried to interest Ideal in it, only to be told that boys would never play with a "doll". It was after the 1963 Toy Fair that Larry Reiner met Stan Weston, who liked his idea for a military toy. Mr. Weston then went to work on finding someone to buy the concept. Yet another origin story is that G.I. Joe began as a possible tie-in to the short-lived TV show The Lieutenant. Quite simply, Stan Weston approached Hasbro with the idea of a soldier toy based on the show. Regardless, Stan Weston always credited Larry Reiner with having come up with the idea that the soldier toy should have articulated joints.

Whoever initially came up with the idea of G.I. Joe first, Stan Weston and Larry Reiner approached Don Levine, then Creative Director at Hasbro with their concept for a movable soldier toy. It was Don Levine, a veteran of the Korean War, who ultimately came up with the name "G.I. Joe," remembering the movie The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Because of fears that boys would not play with a "doll", Hasbro came up with the term "action figure", which has been used ever since for movable figures made for boys. G.I. Joe hit stores on  February 2 1964 and proved to be a huge hit.

The success of G.I. Joe saw the emergence of several more action figures in the mid-Sixties, among them another created by Stan Weston. He developed an idea for an action figure to be called "Captain Magic", a character who could transform into different superheroes. Mr. Weston pitched it to Larry Reiner, still an executive at Ideal Toy Company. Larry Reiner was not initially fond of the idea, and thought that children wouldn't be interested in an action figure that lacked its own identity. Larry Reiner eventually capitulated to Stan Weston, although the action figure was renamed "Captain Action". Introduced in 1966, the basic Captain Action figure came with a costume, a hat, boots, a belt, a gun, and a sword. In the first year outfits for The Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman, Sgt. Fury, Aquaman, Captain America, Steve Canyon, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon were sold separately.

In 1967 outfits for Spider-Man, Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet, and Tonto were added to the Captain Action line. Also added were new action figures. Captain Action was given a sidekick in the form of Action Boy, for whom outfits for Superboy, Aqualad, and Robin were made. Captain Action was also given an archenemy in the form of Dr. Evil (not to be confused with the villain from the "Austin Powers' movies). Unlike Captain Action and Action Boy, Dr. Evil could not change into different villains.  Captain Action would not repeat the success of G. I. Joe. Ideal ceased production on the line in 1968, after only about two years on the market.

In 1970 Stan Weston founded Leisure Concepts with Mike Germakian.  The company would have such licences as The Lone Ranger, Farrah Fawcett, James Bond, Charlie Chan, Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and many others. In 1995 the company changed its name to 4kids Entertainment Inc. In 2012 it became 4Licensing Corporation.

It was in the early Seventies that Stan Weston conceived an idea for a series of action figures called "The Worlds' Greatest Super Heroes". At the time Leisure Concepts had the licences for Marvel Comics' characters. Mr. Weston approached Jay Emmett, head of Licensing Corporation of America, which handled the licences for DC Comics' characters and struck a deal on a handshake to use their characters. Unfortunately, Stan Weston found "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" difficult to sell. Mattel, Hasbro, Kenner, Gabriel, and Ideal all turned the idea down. He then took the idea to Mego Corporation, a small toy company then manufacturing an action figure called "Action Jackson". Marty Abrams, the head of Mego, liked the idea. Leisure Concepts then set about getting the necessary rights from DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate in order to proceed.

It was during the Christmas shopping season that the first action figures in "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" line were introduced in tests in the New York area. The first batch of characters were Superman, Batman, Robin, and Aquaman. In the autumn of 1973 the characters of Spiderman, Captain America, and Tarzan were added. "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" proved enormously successful, so that yet more characters were added to the line. In the end "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" line included over 30 different heroes and villains. "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" continued to be manufactured until 1983. Production on the line ended not because the action figures had declined in popularity, but instead because Mego Corporation had gone bankrupt after several bad business decisions.

Stan Weston would also do some work in the film industry. He was an executive producer on the films Vision Quest (1985) and Gardens of Stone (1987), and a co-executive producer on The Shadow (1994). He also appeared in front of the camera. As an actor he appeared in the films The Power (1984), Torment (1986), and The Book (2010). 

There can be no doubt that Stan Weston revolutionised the toy industry. Arguably, articulated figures meant for boys existed before G. I. Joe. In 1932 there was a wooden Popeye figure and in 1939 Ideal manufactured a wooden Superman figure complete with a cloth cape. That having been said, G.I. Joe was the first to be called an "action figure" and the one that created the demand for action figures that has persisted to this day. Stan Weston's "World's Greatest Super Heroes" line would transform Mego Corporation from a rather small company to the biggest manufacturer of action figures in the Seventies, with licences for Star Trek and Planet of the Apes action figures, among others. While Captain Action would only be manufactured briefly, the action figure developed a cult following that has persisted to this day. While action figures have certainly changed over the years (today's action figures are generally much smaller than the original 12-inch G.I. Joe), it seems that they might not have been possible without Stan Weston.

No comments: