Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kenner Star Wars Action Figures (Original 12)


These guys changed the world. These characters changed the world of pop culture as we knew it. These figures changed the toy world as we knew it.

Much has been said about the small scale of the first Star Wars figures. Apparently, this scale was introduced in an effort to keep the size of vehicles and playsets for the figures down to a manageable size. The high cost of producing plastic, at the time, may have played a role, as well. Suffice it to say that Kenner started a revolution in the action figure industry being the first to release figures in the 3 3/4" scale. It became such a popular scale that other companies began following suit and we saw everything from Mego Superheroes to GiJoe being produced at this size not long after. This scale is even seeing a resurgence today in such lines as Mattel's DC Infinite Heroes, Hasbro's Indiana Jones figures, and many others.

When the first Star Wars movie hit in 1977, it caught just about everyone by surprise. Science fiction films were seen, mostly, as low budget "kiddie fair" at that point and no one expected Star Wars to do anywhere near as well as it did. For me, after seeing pre-release stills of pictures that included Chewbacca (all hairy and wearing an ammo bandolier), I had made up my mind that Star Wars was going to be nothing more than a Planet of the Apes rip-off. I was totally right, of course.


All kidding aside, Star Wars exceeded most everyone's expectations on all fronts.

In kind, Star Wars caught many merchandising companies by surprise, as well... and Kenner Toys was just as late as many companies in getting product to the shelves. Movies weren't quite the marketing juggernauts that they tend to be today. Previous to Star Wars, the Planet of the Apes franchise had enjoyed the largest movie merchandising push of any property up to that point. In those days, it wasn't a "given" that a big budget blockbuster would have toys and what-not released around or before the release of the film. These days, toy and collectible companies release stuff so much earlier than a film's release that they even have to be careful about spoiling plot points months before anyone actually sees the film.

Star Wars was released in May, 1977. If memory serves, Star Wars toys did not start hitting toy shelves until early spring of 1978...almost a year after the film's release. That's a long time to wait and a testament to the "staying power" that Star Wars held and still holds to this day. Kenner even sold an "Early Bird" cardboard package with vouchers inside for eventually-to-be-released figures during the 1977 Christmas shopping season. This was done in an effort to secure both money and mindshare before they could actually get figures on shelves in 1978.

The figures pictured in this feature are my actual figures from childhood (these are the same figures that were shown in the Valentines Day vintage photo). Most of them were secured as gifts during a 3 week stay in the hospital for a cracked shoulder. I slipped and hit the ice while playing hockey during grade school recess and didn't realize anything was seriously wrong until weeks later when it was discovered that my shoulder was infected and would require hospitalization. Fun. I believe I also received an X-wing fighter during that stay. Who knew a fractured shoulder could lead to so much cool Star Wars swag?


The first figures to hit shelves were Darth Vader, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Stormtrooper, R2D2, C3PO, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. In fact, prior to that, the first figures seen at all by the public were Luke, Leia, Chewie, and R2D2 when they were shown before Christmas 1977 in the television commercial for the now famous Early Bird pre-order set. It was several months after the initial release of 9 figures that the Death Squad Commander, Sandperson, and Jawa found their way to toy shelves, with the Jawa and Sandperson being the most difficult to find. Once out, this completed the initial release of 12 figures. We had no idea, at the time, just how many Star Wars figures were to come from Kenner. As far as I was concerned, I was done.


I'll never forget finally finding a Sandperson figure while on vacation in Oklahoma. There was ONE left and a younger boy was holding it and pleading with his Mom to buy it for him. Luckily for me, his Mom said "no" and the prized figure was placed back on the shelf. I held on to that figure so tightly all the way to the cash register that, if I remember correctly through the haze of nostalgia, it had to be surgically removed from my hands before I could open him and add him to my growing Star Wars figure ranks. That was a good day.

When the Jawa finally appeared in stores, most of us were very surprised to see that he no longer sported the vinyl cape that we had seen in so many promotional photos on the back of packages and in pack-in booklets (of course, a precious few Jawas with the vinyl cape did trickle on to shelves and are now worth more than my car). He was wearing a soft cloth hooded robe which seemed very odd at the time given the nature of the previous eleven figure's vinyl capes and robes. Plus, it hid the Jawa's trademark bandoliers that were part of the base figure's sculpt. Ah, but it was good to finally complete "The Twelve."

Today, we are looking back on 30 plus years of Star Wars history (has it REALLY been that long?) and there have been hundreds and hundreds of different Star Wars figures produced in that same time period. However, there was a point a long, long time ago when kids who loved Star Wars didn't have any Star Wars toys to play with and waited anxiously for them to be produced...not really knowing IF they would be produced. These old figures are the epitome of "vintage" with their limited articulation, screen inaccurate weapons, simple sculpts, and uncomplicated paint jobs. However, to many "kids" from the 1970s, there will never be better Star Wars figures produced...ever.

More Star Wars features to come.

29 comments:

  1. Man you took good care of your toys.

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  2. I was getting a little older (11-ish), at this point, and most toys like this ended up being mostly shelf decoration. Although, I was pretty surprised to see how much paint is missing on these when I started looking at the blown-up photos.

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  3. I haven't gotten any older yet.

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  4. I love the last picture with the close-up of the faces. Really takes me back to my childhood - I got my first figure (Ben Kenobi) when I was four. Lots more figures followed! If you get a chance, have a look at my new blog on Star Wars vintage action figures.

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  5. Thanks!

    I like your blog. Very informative!

    I'll be doing a post on the next set of 9 vintage Star Wars figures soon.

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  6. I remember getting the Jawa as my last of the 12, too. Woolworth's had an endcap with the figures hanging on pegs and a large bin full underneath them. I remember digging through and finding a lone Jawa, another boy was watching and when he saw me with it he got very excited and dug through but to no avail, I had the only one. Then he broke out in tears and screamed. I kind of felt bad for him but bought it anyway.

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  7. Your photography of the original 12 and the second 9 is outstanding, and brings back memories although I have all of the same figures displayed in my toy room anyway! To all of us, these were the characters from the movies! The last three of the original 12 shipped in a later wave, which is common today. Back then, when they advertised the 12, we expected them to be available all at once. Kenner put that disclaimer on the back of the 12 back package telling us that all 12 figures may not be in the store at the same time. I actually got the Jawa before the Stormtrooper and Tusken Raider! (Late 1978). My first figure was Darth Vader from Feb. 78. These 12 were shipping at the same time as the Mego Star Trek Aliens, which no kid seem to want.

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  8. Great post! Way to have the cool looking version of Han Solo; when they redid his head he looked like such a doofus. I'll never understand why they did that. (hmmmm. must investigate now)
    When my friend brought his home I thought it was some kind of mistake.

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  9. Of course, these figures are the "12 Apostles" of Star Wars action figure collecting!!! I could forgive Kenner for giving us "Death Squad Commander" over Governor Tarkin.

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  10. Some very cool figures !!! Thanks !!!

    Another great site fo find tons of great rare Star Wars collectibles here:

    http://www.myfantasyweb.com/starwars/starwars.html

    Cool site for real SW collectors !!

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  11. Just found this blog and this particular posting today. It's always nice to find others who cherish the same memories. This is a great site you've got here!!

    My memories of my very first Star Wars figure are still clear as day.....it was R2 and I got him from K-mart, February 1978. Up until that fateful, magical day I had only been aware of the Early Bird figure offer and the four figures included with it. Imagine my absolute amazement when I looked at the card back and saw the painting of the other 8 figures to come!! I have almost all the original vintage figures and many of the 'modern era' figures released since 1995 but nothing will ever compare to the original 12.

    Pure magic.

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  12. The one and only time I ever shoplifted from a store was an R2-D2 action figure... got away with it from the store but mom found out and dad beat the living shit out of me.

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  13. advice please, dug out my extensive collection from 70's & 80's, some paint missing in obvious spots, feet, hands, heads etc. Will touch up paint ruin authenticty & subsequently value? I have all the original 12 with date stamp 1977 also many more from following years.

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  14. You can't imagine what I would have given to have that collection myself... It's just so cool, just what my inner child loves, but checking on it i see that Darth Vader has no cape am I right? why is that?

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  15. Vader does have his cape. It's a vinyl robe-like thing that is kind of tightly wrapped around the figure.

    BTW - I appreciate your comments. However, I'm not sure what to make of your screen name that links back to a Viagra sales site and not to a blogger account.

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  16. Just been 'playing' Star Wars with my 8 year old son and he wanted to know what the original star wars figures looked like from when I was a kid. I typed in 'star wars action figures 1977' into google and fell upon this site - thanks for posting the pics, they sure take me back. My Son recognised every one (except the imperial officer dude) and I have to kick myself nowadays as I gave away a vast collection to my neighbour's kid some 20 years ago after clearing out my parents attic! Does anyone remember the special edition Boba Fett and other bounty hunters only available by mail order after collecting tokens (perhaps it was a UK thing)? I remember always wanting, but never getting, the Millenium Falcon, my parents just didn't have that kind of money. But I do recall Mose Eisley Canteena playset, Luke's Speeder, Tie fighter and X Wing. Ah those were the days. Thanks for the memories guys!

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  17. Hey, does anyone know the actual MONTH in 1978 when these 12 were actually available in stores? Also, what month in '78 did the x-wing fighter, tie-fighter, and landspeeder each become available in stores respectively?

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  18. As a testimony to just how COOL(est-of-all-time) toys these Star Wars action-figures and their spaceships actually were, not only did they rule my world as a 70s kid, but even as an early TEEN in the early 80s off the momentum of 'Return of the Jedi', I along with a friend or two my age actually caught ourselves actually still...(please don't tell anyone)...PLAYING with them from time to time when we weren't chasing the girls at the public swimming pool, gathering up the nerve to buy a porno mag at the cigarette shop or sneak into an R-rated flick, or simply bein 'cool' walkin down the street crankin up Van Halen and Def Leppard with beat-box on my shoulder. Man, that's just how COOL they were! And, yes, those classic 12-backs.....last day of school 1st grade I also thought I was 'done' when I was given Ben Kenobi to 'complete' things only for months later the bar monsters, r5d4, death star droid, that blue box-shaped droid with the little rubber antenna and two legs (lamest of all of them, I thought), the taller (blue) Snaggletooth, BOBA FETT (which you could only order by mail), Luke x-wing pilot, and so on....(and so wished at the time that them gun-metal-grey TIE-FIGHTER pilots would have been available; not having to wait til 'Empire') Definitely the coolest time ever to be a kid toy-wise in the 70s. Always pityed even back then those kids a decade ealrier and their huge, 'unmanageable' GI-Joes and yes I DID NOT like the also-available large Star Wars figures AT ALL! What was the point? Yes, 'The Adventure People' Series did come first as far as the 3 3/4 figures/suited vehicles were concerned, but Star Wars PERFECTED things, kicked the door down, changed the way toys were played with FOREVER! And Brian, am I EVER jealous at the way you kept them up. Sadly for ME, there was a creek in my backyard and I would often times, let's just say, 'bathe' them (yes, even MORE sadly, r2 and r5 included).

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  19. Anonymous - I don't know the exact date but it must have been in February or March because snow was still on the ground. The Xwing and Landspeeder were on shelves when the figures first hit. The tie-fighter came out a few months later... at least in my area.

    shhhhhhhh - Ha! I went through that same awkward period where I had just turned into a teenager (13) and Empire Strikes Back came out the same summer. I remember being a bit covert about buying Star Wars figures... but I still had to have them.

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  20. rizo - I didn't get the Millenium Falcon either... but my little brother did. I was "too old" to receive Star Wars toys as gifts anymore.

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  21. Actually, Brian A, here's ANOTHER 'excuse' for 'still' playing them when I did....as much as I still LOVED Star Wars during the 'Empire' period when I was still an elementary schooler, I kind of took a 'break' from not only playing them, but asking my parents to BUY me them as well (only was ever given the Han Solo snow figure and it was without my even asking). Started getting more into sports and riding bikes and stuff by then. Perhaps this 'withdrawal' led to what would end up happening again only 3 or so years later (6th/7th grade). And also these two friends of mine I would 'still' play them with, they themselves never got a chance to ever have or play with them when they first came out so it was, I guess, their way of fully 'reliving' the childhood they never had if only that childhood being just a few years prior. No joke or excuse, if it weren't ever for their initial inspiration to do so ('come on, let's get out your figures, there's NOTHING ELSE to do....') I would have never made that 'comeback'. But though I hesitated at first and responded, 'are you nuts', once I took them out of the case and wheeled out the Landspeeder, X-wing and Tie-fighter, that 'jones' for the coolest-toys-of-all-time took over me and I was now into it again just as much as they were, lol. One summer day (summer btwn 7th & 8th, year after 'Jedi', mind you; yeah...I know..) another (non-SW-playing, that is) friend of ours came over to the house to see if we wanted to shoot some hoops, my sister downstairs whispered for him to sneak upstairs to my room and told him that we were playing Star Wars. Upon his surprise entrance and teasing, my buddy (a big dude and a year older than I may I add) put him in a headlock and threatened him to not tell anyone else from the neighborhood or else....(LOL). Although he kept quiet, I do think that was the last time we ever played them (and simply focused our attentions back to the '84 Olympics and how we were gonna get that Vanessa Williams Playboy issue like EVERYONE ELSE was doing). This all reminds me of what Kevin Smith (Silent Bob) who grew up a huge Star Wars fan also of the same age bracket - he pretty much said that 'Jedi' came and went he felt kind of sad that it was all over but a little releived in that he can now get rid of his SW bed-spread, especially if was now going to try picking up chicks, lol.

    I will, however, play them again and Rizo.....no better excuse for that NEXT TIME being when I play them.....WITH MY KIDS.

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  24. Great article but I have a problem . Your write up on the large scale Star Wars figures was fantastic but incomplete. Please give us more. It's my favorite of all your toy articles. Keep up the great work and post again soon!. Best, J.Z.

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  25. In 1977/78 I was a young teenager feeling that I missed out in playing with these wonderful figures due to my age and new found interest in all things girls, music and fashion. 35 years later I am starting to collect them again as a distraction hobby and the photograph the figure as featured on this page. I am starting with loose/complete in very good condition the guys from the Cantina bar; Greedo, Walrus Man, Snaggletooth (Red), Hammerhead and of course the wonderful wookie, Chewbacca. What a bizarre collection of fellows!

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  26. Was 5 when ANH came out and had all nearly all the figures by the end of JEDI. Now at 40, I have all but I think two of the originals. I have all from the TPM but stopped after that as the figures switched companies or something and took a major drop in quality. Still fun to collect and peruse over them every so often.

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  27. Como me gustan estas figuras!!! Las tenia todas de chico salvo el detah commander que lo consegui hace poco, ya que empecé a coleccionar.
    Muy buena la foto de las caras.
    Te invito a mi blog: www.juguetesdelcoleccionista.blogspot.com.ar
    Saludos.

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  28. Brian, I don't know if you still view this blog or not but I wanted to give you kudos; and I thought I'd throw in a few words myself.
    I turned 10 the summer of 77' and like several kids in my neighborhood, got the Star Wars bug. I didn't get to see the movie until it was almost done showing in our area. One of the other neighbor kids caught the first showing and of course he was also one of the first to get the toys when they hit the market. I remember when I got my Chewbacca he made a comment about the eyes being a different color. I guess his were green or something like that, and my figure had the blue eyes. Later when I got the Jawa he talked about the cloth coat being funny looking. His figure had the plastic cape thing. In the end though he wanted to trade with me because when we played with them, I took the coat off and used it as a dead Jawa for Luke to carry. Ha ha funny how we remember the little things. Anyway it took me a long time to get all of the original 12; in fact, I believe I got some of the other later released figures before I completed the fabulous first's. I sure wish I knew what happened to my collection. Last I remember seeing them was in my mom's old house up in the attic. After she moved (I was in the military at the time) I never saw them again. I guess she gave them away or sold them at a garage sale or something.
    One last rant. Do you remember the trading cards that came with a small strip of gum? In my neighborhood that was the thing to collect. I had an almost complete collection of cards. I had all but 1 or 2 of the original black out line cards and most of the blue, red, green, yellow, and orange series. The later series had puzzle type pictures on the backs that you tried assembled to make a poster sized picture. Man did we ever do some trading, that was fun!! I chewed a lot of gum in those days.
    Thanks for the memories!!! Mike

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