April 18, 2006

The Birth of He-Man

Steve,

I was watching VH1's "I Love Toys" tonight and I found that number 53 really caught my attention. He-Man.

I remember my brothers had He-Man curtains and comforters on their beds when they were little and then I started thinking about He-Man and what an asinine name that is.

I mean really...can you just picture the "creative" people at Mattel sitting around a big table throwing out ideas for the new long blond haired, Arnold Schwarzenegger looking, steroid taking action figure? I often lie in bed at night envisioning how that creative process went - it usually ends in tears for me. The best they could come up with is He-Man. Sad Mattel...very sad.

Deann

Deann,

You're in luck because someone gave me a magazine a few months ago that just happened to have an interview with Roger Sweet, THE CREATOR OF THE HE-MAN TOY LINE.

I'm willing to wager he'd disagree with you on the name.

The following are excerpts from ToyFare Magazine - Issue #97 / Sept. 2005.

How was He-Man created?

[Mattel president] Ray Wagner had passed on Star Wars because the license property apparently required $750,000 upfront. At the time, for an unproven property, that was a highly exorbitant sum. So Wagner had Mattel's Prelimary Design Department - of which I was a member - Come up with viable male action figure concepts. I had been real impressed by Frank Frazetta paintings and I [submitted an idea] that I called monster fantasy. But it was actually a barbarian fantasy.

How did He-Man go from idea to toy?

The only way I was going to have a chance to sell this [to Wagner] was to make three 3D models - big ones. I glued a Big Jim figure [from another Mattell toy line] into a battle action pose and I added a lot of clay to his body. I then had plaster casts made. These three prototypes, which I presented in late 1980, brought He-Man into existence.

Were there any big differences between the finished product and your early prototypes?

The very first prototype He-Man was black haired with a deeply tanned eastern European or Middle Eastern appearance. His helmet had no horns. Later, at the direction of Tom Kalinske, then in Mattel's upper management, He-Man was made more clean-cut and changed to a blond... Plus, He-Man's skin was lightened, though definitely still tanned.

How did you come up with the name?

At the time I did the first prototype figure, I still didn't have a name for him. So I brainstormed 40 or 50 names. Among those names were Mighty Man, Megaton Man, Strong Man, Big Man, but the instant I got that name He-Man...

You knew that was it.

[Long Pause] I cannot tell you... [breathes deeply]... how big a bell rang in my head. The whole line came together. Here was a highly generic name that had a kinda brute-force feel to it. And what could be more of a direct name than this for a heroic figure? It's just one in a million.

What did you think of the finished He-Man product?

When I first saw the [first year of the] Masters of the Universe line all together I thought it was somewhat weak because it was low-tech and it was conservative. My concept of MOTU was that it combined everything- low-tech, high-tech, past, present and future. I wanted MOTU to be as expansive as possible and do anything that was appealing. I would love to see a G.I. Joe segment in MOTU. I wouldn't mind seeing a character like [Child's Play] Chucky in it.

In other words, anything could go into it. When I became the manager in charge of creativity for the line in 1983 I worked real hard to change that.

In 1987, MOTU annual sales plummeted from $400 million to $7 million. Why?

Mattel far oversold the product to the trade, which sells it to the toy stores. It swamped the shelves and there wasn't the demand for it. Some companies lead their lines conservatively and keep them going for many years, like the G.I. Joe line. Also the children's He-Man cartoon had lost popularity.

Looking back, how did it feel to work on the original MOTU?

I was like a flyspeck on the elephant's rear end in relation to all the work and talent that other people put into this line. But I supplied the seed from which the Masters tree grew and that's all that I claim at the beginning of Masters. A huge number of talented people worked on this and without them the line wouldn't have been the huge success or failure [laughs] that it was.

So, the question that's on everyone's mind... why didn't He-Man wear pants?

Who needs them? [Laughs.] If he wore loose pants you wouldn't be able to see his muscles. And I believe Prince Adam wore pants. But if He-Man really wanted them, for sure he would have put them on. What He-Man wants, He-man gets. [Laughs.]

Big big thanks to the gang at ToyFare Magazine for granting permission to reprint excerpts of their terrific interview! Check out their site right here.

And for the complete story of the Masters of the Universe toy line, check out Roger Sweet's book: "MASTERING THE UNIVERSE: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea".

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