Back in the action figure heyday of the 1970s and 80s, Star Wars helped make the little 3 3/4" toys incredibly popular with kids. Just about every TV show and movie had its own line of action figures that could be sold at drug stores and toy stores all over the country. Some of these tie-in toys made perfect sense, like The A-Team, Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica, which had an element of adventure to their storylines. Why some other shows had toys was a bit of a head-scratcher.
Your Bartender, Isaac
There's no question The Love Boat was a popular show during its nine-season run. What is questionable, though, is the demand for an action figure based on "Your Bartender," Isaac.
In 1981, toymaker Mego produced a line of 3 3/4" figures that included the main characters: Captain Stubing, Vicki, Julie, Gopher, Isaac, and Doc Bricker. Mego had seen success with some of their other TV tie-in lines, like the 12" dolls based on Cher and Sonny Bono, but for some reason decided to go with smaller figures for the Love Boat line. Unfortunately, because this size was more popular for boys' action figures, The Love Boat toys were often placed in the same aisle with the likes of Superman, Batman, and Captain America, which meant the crew of the Pacific Princess had some serious competition.
In an attempt to boost sales, a plastic cruiseship playset was produced, but even this didn't help. The Love Boat action figures were sunk after only one series.
Klinger in Drag
Mego wasn't the only one making odd TV tie-in toys. Tri-Star International released figures based on the hit series M*A*S*H. The show was aimed at adults, with some fairly risquÃ© humor and mature themes for the time, so why anyone thought a line of 3 3/4" action figures and military vehicles would be popular with young kids is a bit of a mystery. However, the series is still quite memorable for one big reason—the Klinger figure came in both green Army fatigues and in an outfit with pink bloomers, ruffles, and a flower in his hair. The character on the show had stopped wearing women's clothing a few years before the figure was released. Apparently someone was just dying to see if they could get away with a cross-dressing action figure. It should come as no surprise that the "Klinger in drag" figure is by far the most popular from the series and goes for a pretty penny on eBay.
The Cast of Dallas
Luckily Mego learned from its Love Boat mishap and didn't move past the prototype phase for a 1981 series of 3" figures based on another staple show from the 80s, Dallas. The planned figures included Bobby, Jock, Sue Ellen, Pamela, Lucy, Miss Ellie, and, of course, J.R. The toys were featured in a catalog for retail buyers, but because so few were ordered, the toys were shelved before they even hit stores.
Faithfully Frightening Movie Tie-Ins
When it comes to movie tie-in action figures, it wasn't so much a matter of "Why would kids want to play with that?" as it was, "They let kids play with that!?" One of the first controversial movie tie-ins was an 18-inch action figure from toy company Kenner, based on the creature from the R-rated 1979 film Alien. The toy was exquisitely detailed and very faithful to the look of the alien from the film, including a clear head that exposed a glow-in-the-dark skull, spring-loaded arms to grab its victims, a bendable tail, and a trigger-action mouth that snapped open, allowing the alien's signature set of inner jaws to shoot out.
Aside from marketing a toy for kids based on a very violent film that had all kinds of sexual imagery, parents were upset about the toy itself. It was so faithful to the creature, that parents started calling Kenner's customer service line to report their kids were scared to death of the toy. Kenner cut its losses, stopped production, and told retailers to slash the prices on remaining stock to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
Today, the 18" Alien action figure is one of the most sought after toys on the collector's market. Most examples are missing some parts, most often the dome, sometimes the inner jaws, or a removable spike from its back. Even these incomplete figures sell for anywhere between $50 - $75. A figure without all these missing parts will run you a few hundred dollars. But find one in the box and you're looking at anywhere between $500 - $1,000.
Thanks to the disaster of the 18" alien, Kenner wisely scrapped plans for a line of 3 3/4" Alien action figures before they were released. However, a handful of prototype models of the creature and some of the crew of the Nostromo spaceship were made and have become legendary among the toy collecting community.
Cozy Up With Krueger
While not technically an action figure, another R-rated film became the inspiration for another toy—the talking Freddy Krueger doll. Freddy, star of the infamous 1984 horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street, was responsible for killing dozens of children in a small Ohio town. When he was released from prison on a technicality, the parents of the town trapped him in his boiler room hideout and set fire to the building. Now his burned visage haunts the dreams of the children of these vengeful parents, slicing up teens with his razor-finger glove. Who wouldn't you want to tuck their kid into bed at night with a plush version of Freddy?
"¨The doll, produced in 1989 by Matchbox, had a pull string on his back that made him screech such phrases as "Pleasant dreams!" and "Let's be friends!" Set to be released in time for Halloween, retailers received boycott threats from concerned parents following the lead of Reverend Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association, a watchdog group well-known for boycotting TV shows it found offensive. Bowing to the pressure, Matchbox stopped production of the doll, though plenty were still sold before the ban went into effect.
Freddy was just part of the kid-ification of many violent films from the 1980s. In the 80s and 90s, action figures aimed squarely at children were released based on such R-rated fare as Robocop, Rambo, The Toxic Avenger, The Terminator, Predator, Aliens, and later, Aliens vs. Predator.
Most of these figures were tie-ins for cartoon shows that toned down the violence from the original source material, or had simply become such a mainstay in our pop culture as to be deemed "safe" by parents.
Since the mid-90s, the action figure world has changed considerably. While there are still plenty of action figures aimed at kids, a large portion of the market has shifted focus to cater to adult collectors. The toys themselves have become more detailed, more expensive, and a lot less fun to play with, but look great sitting on a bookshelf or decorating your cubicle at work. Because the market is now targeting adult fans with more money to spend, just about any TV show, film, or video game could have its own line of action figures, no matter how violent or mature the original storyline might be. Now that it's become more common for anyone—big or small—to buy toys, very few action figures produced today could be considered controversial or misguided. Maybe someone should try selling Love Boat figures again...
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Did you own any of these strange action figures as a kid? What were some of your favorite TV or movie tie-in toys? Tell us about them in the comments!
A special thanks to Justin from WeirdoToys.com for additional research material.