*It's still there isn't it? Up in the attic or in that box at the back of the garage. The male of the species is a natural hoarder, so chances are not many old G.I. Joe toys have been thrown away. And we all had one, didn't we? Despite the nagging feeling that this was a Barbie for boys, we still played "war" with it.
The original idea came from Stan Weston who took it to Don Levine, then creative director of Hasbro Toy Company. Weston was hoping to tie it in with a TV series called The Lieutenant, produced by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to create Star Trek. Levine considered names like Rocky, Skip, and Ace, but it was the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe, starring Robert Mitchum, that provided the eventual inspiration. The other piece of inspiration was to call it an "action figure" because no boy was going to play with a doll. The Lieutenant never took off, but the action figure did.
Introduced at the New York Toy Fair in February 1964, G.I. (Government Issue) Joe began his first tour of duty in backyards, bedrooms, and sandpit campaigns. Standing a foot tall (about the same scale as Barbie) and already bearing a scar on his right cheekbone, America's Movable Fighting Man came in four versions: Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine. He was virtually an instant hit. Plus, to keep kids coming back to the shops, accessory packs containing extra equipment and clothing went on sale. Arguably the coolest iteration was a silver-suited astronaut with a Mercury-type space capsule that came out in 1966. However, the frogman's outfit-complete with tanks, flippers, and wet suit-was also pretty neat.
Although G.I. Joe generally had a World War II theme, he hit the trenches while the Vietnam War was going on. As this conflict became increasingly unpopular, Hasbro decided to understate the martial aura. The Adventure Team was launched in 1970. This was probably a better option than calling him Mercenary Joe and sending him off to an African dictatorship. There was even a set called: Search for the Abominable Snowman.
Joe now had flocked hair and a beard. He also sprouted kung fu grip hands made of softer plastic, allowing the fingers to hold items in a more realistic manner. In 1976, he received eagle-eye vision, where his eyes could move by operating a small lever at the back of his head.
That same year, G.I. Joe was withdrawn from American service, although the toy continued in other territories. (For example, it was known as Action Man in Britain.) By this time, Joe was fighting a losing battle against Han Solo and the rest of the Star Wars figures, making a return to active duty from 1991-2005, and sold exclusively in Target stores-appropriate name.
Hasbro released smaller figures called the Super Joe Adventure team in 1977. They stood 8.5 inches tall and were a mix of superhero and space action characters. They lasted about a year. Smaller still, the Real American Hero versions from 1982 were 3.75 inches tall.
Several men from real life were commemorated as Real Action Heroes, like Buzz Aldrin, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, umm, Colin Powell, and, ahem, comedian Bob Hope-who was actually born in England.
G.I. Joe has also appeared in Marvel comic books and TV series, and a film, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, is due out in 2009. Over the years, Hasbro created many versions, including African American models and the less successful female nurse and G.I. Jane helicopter pilot, leading Toy & Lamp and Hobby World magazines to declare G.I. Joe the best-selling toy in America. A whole world of collectors has sprung up around the toy, with vintage models going for $300. That old thing in the attic, it could be worth some money-if you could only bear to part with it.