Kenner Star Wars action figures
The Kenner toy company produced a line of Star Wars action figures based on characters in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. Over 100 unique action figures were produced and sold from 1978 to 1985, during which time over 300 million Star Wars action figures were sold.
The license for Star Wars action figures was offered in 1976 to the Mego Corporation, which was the leading company in action figures in the 1970s. Mego refused the offer and the license was subsequently picked up by Kenner, a subsidiary of General Mills.
Although the original Star Wars film had been released in May 1977, Kenner was unprepared for the unprecedented response to the film and the high demand for toys. Unable to build sufficient stock in time for the lucrative Christmas market, they instead sold an "Early Bird Certificate Package" which included a certificate which could be mailed to Kenner and redeemed for four Star Wars action figures. The box also contained a diorama display stand, some stickers, and a Star Wars fan club membership card.
By the time the action figures were offered for direct sale in shops, the range had been augmented with a further eight figures, bringing the total number of figures in the initial release to twelve. These were supplemented later in 1978 with a number of vehicle and playset accessories, as well as the J.C. Penney exclusive Sonic controlled landspeeder and the Sears exculsive Cantina adventure playset which introduced four new figures.
The four figures that were first brought out in the Sears Cantina set were released for individual sale with a further four figures later in 1978, bringing the total number of figures to 20. Demand for the action figures and accessories was such that Kenner continued to have difficulty fulfilling demand. Shortages of the toys in the lead up to Christmas 1978 lead some to claim that Kenner were deliberately manipulating the market. Sales of Kenner's Star Wars range in 1978 reached 40 million units, accounting for a turnover of $100 million.
In the anticipation of the release of the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Kenner offered their first mail-in promotion, in which five proof of purchases could be redeemed for a new action figure, Boba Fett. This figure was originally intended to feature a backpack with a firing missile, but this was abandoned due to safety fears. Similar mail in promotions were periodically offered through to 1984.
Sales in 1979 again topped $100 million. Kenner continued to introduce waves of action figures from the sequels and in 1984, the year following the release of Return of the Jedi, the range totalled 79 unique character designs.
In 1985, the figure range was renamed Power of the Force in which a further 15 figures were released. Two further ranges of Star Wars action figures were also released, based on the animated series, Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks. The Droids range comprised 12 figures (two of which were identical to figures from the main Star Wars line) and the Ewoks line comprised 6 figures.
By mid-1985, the demand for Star Wars merchandise had slowed and Kenner discontinued production of its action figures.
The Star Wars action figures were plastic, usually smaller than four inches, and typically moved at five points on their bodies, but there were many differences and unique qualities in the individual figures that departed from these norms. Kenner's Star Wars action figures were produced along with vehicles and playsets based on the Star Wars movies.
The majority of figures were sold individually attached to "cardbacks" in a plastic blister.
Variations exist for most of the different figures. These can range from major resculpts and differences in accessories supplied with the figures, to differences in paint detailing, for instance in hair color, or differences in sculpting materials. Some variations command higher prices in the collector market due to relative scarcity.
Of particular note were the redesigns of the R2-D2 and C-3PO figures. During the Empire Strikes Back run, the R2-D2 figure was altered to include an extendable "sensorscope". Similarly, C-3PO was resculpted with removable limbs. In 1985, R2-D2 was again altered to feature a firing lightsabre. Both the removable limb C-3PO and lightsabre firing R2-D2 were offered with alternate paint detailing in the Droids range.
The lightsabre-wielding characters were originally intended to have a double-telescoping sabre mechanism. This was changed to a single-telescoping mechanism early in 1978. As the Luke Skywalker figure was part of the Early Bird promotion, proportionately more of these were released with the double-telescoping mechanism, while double telescoping Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobis and Darth Vaders are comparatively rarer and more sought-after.
The Sears exclusive Cantina adventure playset was notable as it added four new action figures to the range. The character Snaggletooth, which was painted blue, was sculpted disproportionately taller than intended. This was subsequently corrected and a resculpted shorter red figure was released. Only the corrected red Snaggletooth was released on blistered cardbacks.
Early Han Solo characters had a somewhat diminutive head sculpt. This was later replaced by a larger sculpt, although small head Han Solos are occasionally found on later cardbacks.
Early Jawas were released with a vinyl cape similar to that of Obi-Wan Kenobi. This was later changed to a fabric cloak.
From the period through to mid-1984, figures sold individually in stores were issued on cardbacks that corresponded to the most current movie, with figures being sold on cardbacks with Star Wars designs through to 1980, then on Empire Strikes Back cards through to 1983, followed by Return of the Jedi cards and, in 1984, Power of the Force cards.
As the number of figures in the range increased, the cardback design would be altered accordingly. Thus the earliest figures released for direct sale in shops were issued on a cardback, the rear of which illustrated the then full range of 12 figures, known as a 12-back. The 12-back was supplanted by the 20-back, and subsequently by the 21-back, the 31-back, the 32-back, the 41-back, the 45-back, the 47-back, the 48-back, the 65-back, the 77-back, the 79-back and the 92-back.
Variations exist for each of the cardback fronts. These range from differences in promotional offer stickers applied to the card to differences in photograph illustrating the character. Similarly variations exist for all of the cardback rear designs with the exceptions of the 47-back and 92-back designs that were only available in a single version.
Currently there are 57 different cardback front-rear combinations recognised. This does not include figures released through overseas companies or the Droids or Ewoks ranges.
Star Wars figures were offered for sale in a number of countries outside of the US. These were usually sold through other companies, many of which were also subsidiaries of General Mills.
In the UK, the Star Wars licence was held by Palitoy, which imported the figures and packaged them in the UK on Palitoy branded cardbacks. Analogous arrangements were in place in Spain with the company PBP/Poch, in France with Meccano, in the Benelux countries with Clipper, in Germany with Parker, in Italy with Harbert and in Scandinavia with Brio/Playmix.
In Japan, the line was first controlled by the company Takara, then by Popy and finally by Tsukuda.  The licence was acquired in Australia by Toltoys, while in Mexico it was held by Lili Ledy and in Brazil by Glasslite.
In certain cases figures produced by the non-US licenced companies were substantially different from those sold by Kenner. Takara, for example, sold resculpted versions of Darth Vader and C-3PO. Lili Ledy used different paint detailing and different fabric accessories. Glasslite figures were molded using slightly different, glossier plastic and used different paint detailing. The Glasslite Droids range was also notable in that it included a character "Vlix" that had not been issued in other countries.
Towards the end of the Star Wars figure run, figures for the European market were issued on trilogo cardbacks, so-called as the cardback front had three logos in English, French and Spanish. The cardback rear was a unique design showing 70 characters. Trilogos are in somewhat greater demand amongst collectors due to overstock having been bought by the US company Kay Bee. The character "Yak Face" that had only previously been issued in Canada was also available on the Trilogo card.
As the figures were intended as and generally used as toys, accessories such as weapons and cloaks were often lost or stickers were damaged. Once a collectors' market had been established, some collectors started replacing accessories with reproduction items. Such items are generally considered undesirable amongst collectors, particularly where figure variations centering on differences in accessories has led to a price premium, such as with the double telescoping light sabres or vinyl caped Jawa.
A renewed interest in Star Wars was apparent by the mid-1990s, thanks to a re-release of the trilogy on laserdisc and VHS and in anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars Special Edition. Kenner, which had been bought by Tonka in 1987 and subsequently by Hasbro in 1991, took advantage of this and, in 1995, released a new line of Star Wars action figures, again under the logo Power of the Force. These figures were easily distinguishable from the vintage range due to the new figures being sculpted in more "heroic" style, with larger muscles, and are known to collectors as Power of the Force 2. The Power of the Force 2 figures continued to be branded as Kenner until 1999, when they were rebranded as Hasbro. Hasbro continue to market Star Wars action figures to the present day.
Kenner's success with the Star Wars line motivated creators of other action-adventure movies to market their own action figure line.
List of Kenner Star Wars action figures
In popular culture
In the 1982 horror film Poltergeist two children are shown playing with "Star Wars" action figures. Later that, year the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial also featured Star Wars action figures, which are included in a scene in which Elliot is introducing E.T. to objects in his everyday life. In the 1987 Star Wars parody film Spaceballs, Rick Moranis' character Dark Helmet is seen playing with action figures which represent characters within the Spaceballs film (including himself), a reference to the popularity of Star Wars action figures.
In the 1994 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa's Rival, Ralph Wiggum enters a diorama contest with a diorama made up of re-packaged Star Wars action figures. His collection includes Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Chewbacca. Ralph says "I bent my Wookiee" when he falls on his figure of Chewbacca.
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