I am still thinking about action figures. One thing I have been pondering is whether G. I. Joe can be considered the first action figure. It is true that the marketing people at Hasbro invented the term "action figure" for G. I. Joe, but it seems to me that action figures may have existed even before there was a word for them. Off the top of my head, I can think of two toys that could be considered "action figures" prior to G. I. Joe. The first was a Popeye "doll" made in 1932. The "doll" was jointed and made of wood. There was also a Superman "doll" made in 1939 by Ideal. It was made of wood, with cloth cape. And the joints at the elbows and knees were articulated. In both cases, I would assume that boys, rather than girls, were expected to play with these "dolls." They also displayed a degree of articulation seen in the "action figures" of the Sixties and Seventies. I would then say that these were indeed action figures that were simply created before there was a term for them. It is quite possible G. I Joe was not the first action figure, but simply the first one to be termed such.
Another thing I was thinking is that long before Star Wars, licensing went hand in hand with action figures. One story has it that G. I. Joe was created as a possible tie in with Gene Roddenberry's show The Lieutenant. Television also apparently played a role in the creation of Marx's Johnny West line. Marx had intended to create a series of action figures based on various characters from TV Westerns. They had planned to create action figures with the likenesses of Fess Parker (Daniel Boone), James Arness (Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) and so on. Unfortunately, the licensing proved too expensive for Marx to afford. They then went ahead with a Daniel Boone action figure (as a historical figure he was in public domain). And while their deals to procure the rights to produce action figures based on various TV Westerns fell through, Marx went ahead with the successful Johnny West line.
Given the fact that G. I. Joe may have originated as a tie in to a TV show and Johnny West originated out of the failure to procure such a tie in, it was an eventuality that someone would produce action figures based on a TV show or movie. In the wake of G. I. Joe's success. I have no idea what the first such company to produce an action figure as a tie in to a movie or TV show was. I do know one of the earliest was Gilbert, which produced a James Bond action figure in 1964. A year later they produced one of Oddjob, the heavy from the movie Goldfinger. In all they produced ten figures, including Miss Moneypenny, M, Dr. No, Emilio Largo (from Thunderball), Auric Goldfinger, Oddjob, Domino (the girl from Thunderball), and three different versions of 007. They also released several playsets.
Of course, James Bond was not the only spy on the block in the mid-Sixties. A veritable spy craze had overtaken both the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the airwaves of both countires were filled with them. In America, the most successful such series was perhaps The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. The makers of the James Bond line of action figures, Gilbert, also produced action figures based on the heroes from The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in 1965. Another licensing tie-in for the Gilbert company was the Honey West action figure. Although Honey West was not a spy, she was a detective who used many of the same gadgets.
In 1966 The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was spun off from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. This added one more spy to the airwaves and one more action figure to store shelves. Marx manufactured an April Dancer figure in 1966.
Marx also issued action figures based on the popular show Rat Patrol. Rat Patrol followed the adventures of a jeep patrol as they fought their way across North Africa during World War II. Marx made two figures based on the series, Sgt. Sam Troy and Sgt. Jack Moffitt.
Even though spies had overwhelmed the airwaves, Westerns continued to be popular on televison. In fact, the number one show for many seasons was Bonanza. In 1966, then, American Character released action figures based on the characters of the successful show: Ben (Lorne Greene), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon). Reportedly, there was to have been an action figure based on Adam (Pernell Roberts), the eldest son of Ben Cartwright. Roberts left the show just as the figures were going into production. American Character simply added a moustache to his action figure to create a generic "Outlaw."
Of course, Ideal's entry into the action figure field, Captain Action, totally relied on licensed characters. He could be dressed as Aquaman, Batman, Buck Rogers, Captain America, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Sgt. Fury, Spider-Man, Steve Canyon, or Tonto. When it came to licensing, Captain Action must have been a logistical nightmare...
In the days before Star Wars, it was Mego that was the king of character tie-ins. In the wake of the failure of Action Jackson, they created the World's Greatest Superheroes line in 1972. The initial action figures included Batman, Superman, Captain America and Spiderman. The line soon grew to include many more heroes. Mego followed the success of the World's Greatest Superheroes with more tie ins.
In 1974 Mego started a successful line based on Star Trek. There were action figures based on the bridge crew (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and so on) and various aliens from the show (a Klingon, a Romulan, and so on). That same year Mego started a line of Planet of the Apes action figures. They issued figures based on astronauts Burke and Verdon (from the short lived TV series), as well Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, Galen, General Urko, Zira, and others.
Mego relied heavily on licensing for most of their products, with action figures based on Starsky and Hutch, The Wizard of Oz, the rock group KISS, Happy Days, and others. Unfortunately, licensing would play a role in Mego's downfall. They procured the rights to movies and series that proved to be flops, such as the movie The Black Hole and the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Mego filed for bankruptcy in 1982.
Mego's failure hardly stopped other companies from pursuing the licensing of characters. In the time that Mego spiralled downward, Kenner had introduced the Star Wars with resounding success. With the success of Kenner's Star Wars line, companies sought even more licences for movies and TV series. And with those licences came even more action figures...