The Long Stride of Tony Little, Infomercial Titan

Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Tony Little didn’t see it coming. It was 1983, and the aspiring bodybuilder and future Gazelle pitchman was living in Tampa Bay, Florida, winding down his training for the Mr. America competition that was coming up in just six weeks. While driving to the gym, Little stopped at a red light and waited. Suddenly, a school bus materialized on his left, plowing into Little's vehicle and crumpling his driver’s side door.

Dazed and running on adrenaline, Little got out and sprinted over to find the bus was full of children. After seeing that none of the kids were seriously hurt, he promptly passed out. When Little later awoke, he was in the hospital, where he was handed a laundry list of the injuries he had sustained. There were two herniated discs, a cracked vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, and a dislocated knee. He struggled to maintain his physique in the weight room and made only a perfunctory appearance at that year's Mr. America competition. Little's dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder had been derailed courtesy of an errant school bus, whose driver had been drunk.

Though it took some time, Little eventually overcame the setback, pivoting from his original goal of being a champion bodybuilder to becoming one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the history of televised advertising. Before he did that, however, he would have to recover from another car accident.

 

For someone so devoted to physical achievement, Little was constantly being undercut by obstacles. During a high school football game, Little—who was a star player on his team in Ohio—ended up tearing the cartilage in his knee after he collided with future NFL player Rob Lytle. From that point on, Little's knee popped out of place whenever he stepped onto the field or went to gym class.

Tony Little is photographed at the premiere of Vh1's 'Celebrity Paranormal Project' in Hollywood, California in 2006
John M. Heller, Getty Images

In There’s Always a Way, his 2009 autobiography, Little wrote about how that injury—and the loss of a potential athletic scholarship—caused him to act out. A friend of his stole a Firebird and took Little for a joyride. When they were caught, Little took the blame; as he was under 18, Little figured he would get by with a slap on the wrist, while his older friend might be tried and convicted of a serious crime as an adult. According to Little, the judge gave him a pass on the condition that he relocate to Tampa Bay, where he could live with his uncle and put some distance between himself and the negative influences in his life. Little agreed.

Because of his previous injury, Little was unable to play football after making the move to Florida; instead, he devoted himself to his new high school’s weight room, where a bad knee was not nearly as limiting. After graduating, he pursued bodybuilding, earning the titles of Junior Mr. America and Mr. Florida. Little envisioned a future where he would be a fitness personality, selling his own line of supplements when he wasn't competing professionally.

The school bus changed all that. Little, who was now unable to train at the level such serious competition required, retreated to his condo, where he said he relied on painkillers to numb the physical and emotional pain of the accident. More misfortune followed: Little accidentally sat in a pool of chemicals at a friend’s manufacturing plant, suffering burns. He also had a bout with meningitis.

While Little was convalescing from this string of ailments and accidents, he saw Jane Fonda on television, trumpeting her line of workout videos. Little was intrigued: Maybe he didn’t need to have bodybuilding credentials to reach a wider audience. Maybe his enthusiastic approach to motivating people would be enough.

By now it was the mid-1980s, and a very good time to get into televised pitching. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which deregulated paid airtime for cable networks. Herbalife was the first to sign up, airing an infomercial for their line of nutritional products. Soon, stations were broadcasting all kinds of paid programs. Exercise advice and equipment pitches were abundant, a kind of throwback to department stores that used to feature product demonstrations. It was not enough to read about a Soloflex, which used resistance bands to strengthen muscles. It was better to see it in action.

Now that he was back in shape, Little was ready to make his mark. He was told by his local cable access channel that he could buy 15 half-hours of airtime for $5500. To raise the money, Little started a cleaning service for gyms and health clubs. After airing installments of an exercise program, he was picked up by the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Little made his HSN debut in 1987. With his energetic pitch and trademark ponytail, he sold 400 workout videos in four hours.

 

Little was on the home-shopping and infomercial circuit for years before landing his breakthrough project. In 1996, the Ohio-based company Fitness Quest was preparing to launch their Gazelle, an elliptical trainer that could raise the heart rate without any impact on joints. People used their hands and feet to move in a long stride that felt effortless.

Little felt he would be the perfect spokesperson for the Gazelle and entered into an arrangement with Bob Schnabel, the company's president. The night before the infomercial was scheduled to shoot, Little was driving when he got into another serious car accident that required 200 stitches in his face. Little called Schnabel to break the news, and was told he’d have to be replaced.

Tony Little demonstrates a Gazelle during an MTV upfront presentation in New York in 2016
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Undaunted, Little flew from Florida to Ohio to speak to Schnabel in person. By insisting that he could make the story inspirational (and that he could cover up his injuries with make-up), Little managed to convince Schnabel to proceed with the infomercial as planned. The Gazelle ended up with $1.5 billion in revenue, with Little’s other ventures—Cheeks sandals, bison meat, and a therapeutic pillow—bringing the total sales of his endorsed products to more than $3 billion. Little later reprised his Gazelle pitch for a Geico commercial, which also served as a stealth ad for the machine—which is still on the market.

While pitching wound up being relatively low-impact, it was not completely without problems. Little once said that the accumulation of appearances—more than 10,000 in all—has done some damage to his neck because of constantly having to swivel his head between the camera and the model demonstrating his product.

Those appearances have made Little synonymous with the machine. In 2013, the Smithsonian's National Zoo wondered what to name their new baby gazelle. The answer: Little Tony.

Overall Charm: Remembering Hasbro's My Buddy Doll

Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If your toy company's boy-oriented doll doesn’t set the world on fire, you might take comfort in the fact it partially inspired a series of slasher movies. That was the case for My Buddy, an oversized doll first introduced by Hasbro in 1985 that failed to make waves on store shelves but informed the creation of the carrot-topped spree killer doll Chucky in writer Don Mancini and director Tom Holland’s 1988 film Child’s Play.

In 1985, toy stores were stocked to the brim with some of the most indelible properties of the decade. Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids were a bona fide phenomenon, ringing up $540 million in sales the year prior. Masters of the Universe was Mattel’s hit, with both the action figures and ancillary products doubling the take of the Cabbage people.

Then there was My Buddy, which seemed to straddle the gender lines the other major toy companies had drawn. The Cabbage Patch dolls were highly desirable among young girls; boys gravitated toward the veiny, sword-wielding characters of the He-Man franchise. In marketing My Buddy, Hasbro hoped to pioneer a new toy category: a doll line for boys.

The idea was not totally alien to the market. As far back as the early 20th century, boys played with dolls regardless of whether the toys were marketed specifically toward them or not. The difference was that the dolls were often depicting adult men and women. As time went on and manufacturers began focusing on dolls resembling infants, interest on the part of young male consumers began to trail off.

Hasbro reversed that trend in 1964 with the introduction of G.I. Joe, a line of 12-inch, fabric-outfit military figures intended to do for boys what Mattel’s Barbie had done for the female demographic. Though Joe would go on to inhabit smaller, molded plastic sculpts in the 1980s, the idea of boys playing with plush toys was still of interest. With My Buddy, Hasbro banked on the doll’s heft—at an imposing 23 inches, it was a fair bit larger than the Cabbage Patch line—to ensnare juvenile consumers.

My Buddy was intended to be a companion for boys perceived as more active than girls, canvassing neighborhoods on Big Wheels, clutching My Buddy as they climbed into tree houses, and possibly making him an inadvertent object in a game of touch football. Clad in durable overalls, My Buddy seemed designed for extended trips through dirty terrain.

“My Buddy is positioned as macho,” Hasbro's senior vice president of marketing Stephen Schwartz told The Boston Globe in 1985. “It’s soft macho, but it’s still macho. We show them climbing up trees, riding their bikes. We didn’t position it like a girl doll, soft and sweet.”

Excited by the potential, Hasbro backed My Buddy with an effective ad campaign led by an infectious song:

Unlike other toys with complex personal narratives, My Buddy possessed no agency. He was simply there to accompany his human on adventures. Hasbro’s intent was easily discerned through ad copy: “A little boy’s special friend! Rough and tough, yet soft and cuddly.”

Amid a competitive toy year, the $25 My Buddy fared well in 1985. While Cabbage Patch Kids remained a goliath, Hasbro had four of the top 10 bestselling toys on the market: Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and My Buddy, which ranked eighth on the list.

That success would not last. If boys did not find fault with playing with dolls, some adults did, expressing puzzlement that My Buddy would hold appeal for the blood-and-guts dominion of the boys toys market. Los Angeles Times columnist Bevis Hillier called My Buddy “an unprepossessing creature who also has overalls and freckles but has managed to get his cap on the right way round. With his big, goggling eyes, he is half winsome, half bruiser.” Hillier went on to express doubt that a boy would find the prospect of dressing the doll in his own retired baby clothes enticing.

My Buddy and his various offshoots—there was a Kid Sister—hung on for a few years before disappearing from shelves. The doll market for boys was mostly relegated to Wrestling Buddies, a line of WWE-themed stuffed companions that encouraged boys to drop elbows and grapple them to the floor. My Buddy, with his largely pacifistic persona, invited no such confrontations. Despite Hasbro’s hopes, My Buddy failed to signal a breakdown in gender-specific toys. Mattel’s She-Ra line, an action figure spin-off of He-Man targeted toward girls, failed to take off. My Pet Monster, a plush toy for boys, came and went.

Hasbro subsidiary Playskool continued manufacturing My Buddy into the 1990s. Today, the overall-clad figure is mostly remembered as a model for the murderous Chucky, the doll villain at the center of the Child's Play franchise.

While it never gained iconic status beyond being a horror movie influence, My Buddy did offer a bit of foreshadowing in how toy companies market to consumers based on gender. In 2017, the first male American Girl doll, Logan, was released. Not long after, Mattel ran ads depicting boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with Hot Wheels. My Buddy may not have been a raging success, but its attempts to deconstruct some of the persistent stereotypes in the toy world were ahead of their time.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

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