The 'Father' Of G.I. Joe Vowed To Honor The Military

Donald Levine, an executive at Hasbro, served in the Army in Korea and thought G.I. Joe would be a way to honor veterans. (This story originally aired on All Things Considered on May 26.)

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The man known as the father of G.I. Joe died recently. Donald Levine, a veteran himself, was also a toy industry executive. In the early 1960s, he brought the iconic action figure to life. And at $4 a piece, G.I. Joe stormed playrooms across the country. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation of the man behind the legendary action figure.

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, some day, I'm going to do it.

BLAIR: That they came when a man named 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."

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 somebody 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

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

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: G.I. Joe, attack.

BLAIR: But then, the Vietnam war escalated.

ENGELHARDT: Vietman and that anti-war 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 war-like, 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 relaunched to even greater success. In 2012, G.I. Joe was voted number one in the top 20 toys that defined childhood at the Children's Museum of Indiannapolis.

Donald Levine was extremely proud of his role, bringing the plastic, moveable 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHORUS: G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe is there. G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe is there. Fighting for freedom wherever there's trouble, over land and sea and air. G.I. Joe is there.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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