How Star Wars Action Figures Became the Toy World’s Most Powerful Force

7 Films, 140 figures and millions of blissful collectors

A long time ago, in a shopping season far away, Kenner made toy history. Yes, this is a story about Star Wars action figures. But first it's a story about how they almost didn't happen.

It was Christmas 1977, and Star Wars was on its way to becoming the top-grossing movie in history. Over at Kenner Toys, executives were in a panic. The company had negotiated the license to produce action figures of the film's characters, but the deal had been signed late, and the figures weren't ready. Which is how, on Christmas morning, millions of Americans found an empty box beneath the tree. Inside was a certificate good for four action figures—Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2—which Kenner finally had in stores in early 1978. Today, among collectors, the so-called "Early Bird Pack" is the stuff of legend. 

Photo: Nick Ferrari

"Kenner handled it masterfully. It was an incredible moment in action-figure history," said Joe Ninivaggi, and he is in a position to know. Ninivaggi is the senior global marketing manager for Star Wars at Hasbro, which acquired Kenner in 1991. Today, Ninivaggi keeps watch over a small universe of figures—some 140 in total—that, for Hasbro, is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Not only have six succeeding Star Wars films ushered in a veritable galaxy of new characters, but also film No. 7 (The Force Awakens, hitting theaters on Dec. 18) has already introduced still more.

And the original crew keeps selling, even though it's been 38 years since Luke was a farm boy and Obi-Wan lost that duel with Darth. As Ninivaggi explains it, each new film inducts younger fans, who in turn go back and watch all the preceding installments. In the Star Wars world, 1977 never ended. "Those original characters are still important," he said, "and we want to make sure they're always available."

But there's a deeper question at work here, which is why these figures and the world they represent have formed such a strong emotional bond with the public, a thing that plastic figures seldom do. Sure, Barbie (born in 1959) has her following. And G.I. Joe (an old solider of 51) still commands space on the toy shelf. But Star Wars' characters manage to keep feeling so new, so familiar. Why?

"The enduring appeal of the film's primary characters can be traced to their status as universal types that can be found throughout literature, folk tales and popular culture," said Christopher Bensch, vp for collections at the National Museum of Play. "Elements that had been pulled from The Wizard of Oz, the Camelot legend, World War II dogfights, The Lord of the Rings, among many others, [provide] layers of meaning that keep Luke, Han, Leia, Darth and all the rest appealing to generation after generation."


This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.