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Nixon as Skeletor? 7 Great Actors in Movies Promoting Toys

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Every actor may dream of winning an Oscar, but it's safe to say not quite as many aspire to someday portray an action figure or video game character on the silver screen. This doesn't mean that only hacks end up playing He-Man, though. Quite a few great actors have lent their faces or voices to these feature-length commercials. Have a look at a few of our favorite thespians' forays into the toy aisle:

1. Frank Langella as Skeletor

Stage and screen actor Frank Langella has enjoyed a sterling career that has included two Tony nominations and worldwide acclaim for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. He's also played Skeletor! When the popular Masters of the Universe toy line became a feature film in 1987, Langella lined up as He-Man's nemesis.

Langella later told reporters that Skeletor was one of his favorite parts ever and explained that he accepted the role because his young son was obsessed with He-Man at the time. Have a look at Langella's performance, and be sure to enjoy the special effects. I think you'll agree the snappy script is every bit as good as the one for Frost/Nixon.

2. Orson Welles in The Transformers: The Movie

Talk about a sour note to go out on.

Orson Welles' last theatrical role was voicing the antagonistic planet-eating robot Unicron in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie. Welles was so sick during the recording sessions that the film's sound crew actually had to run the illustrious actor's voice through a synthesizer to get a usable sound out of it.

For his part, Welles seemed to realize the role was absurd. He described it to his biographer as, "I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen." Here's a look at Welles' final theatrical line:

3. Mickey Rooney in Care Bears

Mickey Rooney is one of the select group of actors who have won Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes, but that doesn't mean he was above shilling for the Care Bears. When the world's children demanded an animated Care Bears feature in 1985, who better to play the kindly narrator/orphanage proprietor than the former vaudeville star? Check him out here:

4. Burgess Meredith in G.I. Joe: The Movie

Meredith was beloved for his performances in Rocky as well as strong showings in a number of Otto Preminger movies. Even his performance as the Penguin in the Batman TV series was nearly perfect in its campy way. His voice work in 1987's G.I. Joe: The Movie? Not so much. Not even Burgess' enthusiastic readings could save the character Golobulus, who could best be described as "farfetched even by G.I. Joe standards." If you ever wanted to hear Meredith say, "fungusoid," here's your chance! (See a clip here.)

5. Dennis Hopper as King Bowser Koopa

Just because Dennis Hopper is known for his work in movies like Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, and Hoosiers doesn't mean that he takes himself too seriously. He's not afraid to tackle a meatier role like, say, a germophobic T-Rex descendant in a movie adaptation of a video game. In 1993, Hopper brought his considerable chops to the role of King Bowser Koopa in the big-screen version of the Super Mario Bros. franchise. Take a look for yourself; this scenery chewing makes Hopper's work in Waterworld feel like his turn in Apocalypse Now.

6. Jon Voight in Bratz

Voight's sterling resume speaks for itself: Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance, and a Best Actor Oscar for Coming Home. Something's telling me he doesn't get quite as excited when he talks about his role as Principal Dimly in 2007's Bratz. Yes, the Midnight Cowboy decided to try his hand at promoting dolls with massive noggins. A clip of Voight actually acting in the movie proved hard to come by, but skip to the 1:30 mark to hear his take on the film:

7. Drew Barrymore in Star Fairies

It wasn't all E.T. and partying for a young Drew Barrymore. She may not be in the same class as Frank Langella or Mickey Rooney, but she did voice a little girl in an animated movie to support Tonka's Star Fairies toy line in 1985. If you want to hear Barrymore, skip to about 1:20:

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”