Stanley Weston, whose idea in the 1960s of a doll for boys became G.I. Joe, the world’s first action figure and a toy chest icon of American reverence for the fighting man of the military, died May 1 at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 84.
The cause was complications from surgery, said his daughter, Cindy Winebaum.
G.I. Joe — one of the most popular toys of all time — was often credited to two creators: Weston, an Army veteran and licensing agent who pitched the concept to the toy maker now known as Hasbro, and Donald Levine, Hasbro’s chief of research and development who shepherded it to production by Christmas 1964. The price was $4 a figure.
Millions of American boys found G.I. Joe — he could be dressed as a soldier, a sailor, a pilot or a Marine — under the tree that holiday season and in birthday boxes in the succeeding years. With his rugged look and facial battle wound, his changeable uniforms and military gear, the 11.5-inch Joe was a quick favorite for youngsters only one generation removed from the American triumphs of World War II.
His 21 movable parts and opposable thumb, designed to grip a bazooka, made him considerably more appealing than tin soldiers of yore.
Weston traced his inspiration in part to Barbie, the glam and buxom, if unrealistically proportioned, doll for girls introduced by the toy maker Mattel in 1959. Along with Barbie came a universe of accessories, promising endless hours of fun for children and endless purchases by their parents.
Elliot Handler, a co-founder of Mattel, enlightened Weston on the moneymaking potential of a doll with variable garb, whether Barbie’s bathing suits and pink convertible or G.I. Joe’s field jackets and bivouac sleeping bags.
“Stan, you’ve got to sell ’em the razor. Then you can sell them a lot of blades,” Weston recalled Handler saying, according to the volume “Mego 8” Super-Heroes: World’s Greatest Toys!” “I never forgot the lesson,” Mr. Weston remarked.
Weston took his idea for an outfitted military figure to Hasbro, then called Hassenfeld Bros., which purchased the concept for a reported $100,000. Sales later reached into the billions.
Critical to the success of G.I. Joe was the decision to market him not as a doll, but rather as an action hero suitable for boys. Also critical was Joe’s timing. He hit toy shelves before much of the U.S. public turned against the Vietnam War.
“Parents didn’t feel uneasy about buying G.I. Joe,” Levine once told The Associated Press. “They considered G.I. Joe to be a surrogate father or a big brother or a hero.”
Hasbro soon updated its G.I. Joe line with the introduction of an African American character and a nurse. But as the Vietnam War descended into quagmire, what was once a children’s toy became fraught with decidedly grown-up political connotations. “Toy Fair or Warfare?” read signs carried by some mothers protesting G.I. Joe at a toy convention in New York City.
Hasbro responded by recasting G.I. Joe as an adventurer — an archaeologist hunting mummies, a diver plumbing the depths of the sea, an astronaut braving space.
He was retired in 1978, then reintroduced in the early 1980s as a 3 3⁄4 -inch figurine. A Marvel Comics book series and TV show, “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” spurred a resurgence in popularity. Today G.I. Joes are collected mainly by adult aficionados.
Weston reportedly did not share in the riches his idea brought to Hasbro.
“Should he have sold for that set amount, instead of taking a small royalty in perpetuity?” his brother, Jay Weston, wrote in the Huffington Post in 2012. “Of course not. But remember he had not seen the toys they developed when making that decision. Who is to say? That’s life.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Weston sued Hasbro over rights to G.I. Joe and reached a settlement last year.
Stanley Alan Weston was born in Brooklyn on April 1, 1933. His father worked in the garment industry, and his mother was a homemaker and a jazz pianist, according to his brother.
Stanley Weston loved comics as a boy and displayed an early talent for business.
“When I was [a] kid, I used to sell my comics out of a milk crate,” he recalled. “The other kids could buy them for 3 cents, or they could rent them for a penny. Kids would sit in front of my apartment in Brooklyn and read them.”
He received an undergraduate degree and an MBA from New York University, according to his family. After Army service, he worked for the advertising firm McCann Erickson before starting a licensing company, Weston Merchandising.
Weston later founded another firm, eventually known as Leisure Concepts Industries. He served for a period as the exclusive licensing agent for Marvel Comics.
In 1966, Weston and a colleague, Larry Reiner, designed Captain Action, a figure sold by Ideal Toys and described in the encyclopedia “The Superhero Book” as “the original superhero action figure.” He also was credited with creating, in the 1970s, the “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes” line manufactured by Mego.
A complete list of Weston’s survivors was not immediately available. Levine, of Hasbro, died in 2014.
In 2004, G.I. Joe was inducted into the toy hall of fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
“For some critics, Joe’s message of ‘might makes right’ is the wrong one to share with children,” its citation reads. “Other adults counter that Joe encourages kids’ stories of good triumphing over evil and fosters creativity, imagination, and self-esteem. But while grown-ups argue over Joe’s merits and flaws, kids play on, and hundreds of other ‘action figures’ people the toy landscape.”