Remembering The 'Father' Of G.I. Joe

Donald Levine, an executive at Hasbro when the idea for the action figure was first hatched, served in the U.S. Army in Korea and thought the toy would be a way to honor veterans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Now we're going to remember the man who was known as the father of G.I. Joe. Donald Levine was a toy industry executive in the early 1960s, when the iconic action figure stormed playrooms across the country. Levine died of cancer late last week. He was 86. NPR's Elizabeth Blair does this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Donald Levine served in the Army during the Korean War. In an interview with video producer Chad Hembree, Levine said he made a vow to himself when he returned.

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DONALD LEVINE: Someday, I'm going to do something to honor this military - these military people who fight in the wars. Nobody wins a war, but they fight in the wars. And my attitude was, someday I'm going to do it.

BLAIR: That day came when a man name Stanley Weston showed Levine his concept for a rugged-looking doll for boys. Levine and the founders of Hasbro were thrilled, especially since their rivals over at Mattel were winning the sales race with Barbie. Tom Engelhardt is the author of "The End Of Victory Culture."

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TOM ENGELHARDT: That's why you ended up with that phrase - action figure. Nobody wanted to use the word doll - nobody wanted to admit that. But he was something that you kind of dressed up. You put your weapon on him, you put his helmet on him - you know, he had his little pup tent he could go in, so on and so forth.

BLAIR: Donald Levine said he got the idea for the name while watching the movie, "The Story Of G.I. Joe," about war correspondent Ernie Pyle. He said the name had been licensed to a candy bar and a comic book, but not a toy. In 1964, G.I. Joe reportedly made Hasbro $7 million - the next year? - $28 million.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe. Fighting man from head to toe. On the land, on the sea, in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: G.I. Joe, attack.

BLAIR: But then, the Vietnam War escalated.

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ENGELHARDT: Vietnam - that antiwar movement wiped him and a lot of other war stuff out of that world. Mothers stopped buying war toys.

BLAIR: So Hasbro tried to make G.I. Joe seem less warlike by, for example, giving him a beard. But when sales didn't pick up, G.I. Joe was eventually furloughed in 1976. But then, six years later, he was re-launched to even greater success.

In 2012, G.I. Joe was voted number one in the top 20 toys that define childhood at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Donald Levine was extremely proud of his role bringing the plastic, movable fighting man into the world. In the early 2000s, he started auctioning off some of the early prototypes in his private collection. A museum in Baltimore bought one for $200,000. He was, after all, the toy that made it OK for boys to play with dolls. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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