In 1976, Mark Boudreaux was a University of Cincinnati design student on the hunt for a local work-study gig — and he hit the jackpot. He landed a job “down the street” at Kenner Products‘ “Prelim” design department. Before long, he was at ground zero of the Star Wars toy boom, helping conceptualize some of the signature products in the Kenner line, including the Millennium Falcon. Four decades later, Boudreaux is still “on the boards” as senior principal designer of Star Wars/action brands at Hasbro (which acquired Kenner in 1991). For the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, Boudreaux met with Yahoo Movies to talk toys. Here, in Boudreaux’s words, is a first-hand history of Star Wars playthings.
By the late-’70s, Kenner was banking on TV-related toys, as bigger rivals like Mego and Mattel locked up the most famous film and comic-book characters.
Mark Boudreaux: At the time, Kenner would have been working on Six Million Dollar Man — Steve Austin — and we also came across a property called Man From Atlantis with Patrick Duffy. … I was given the responsibility of “Hey, he needs some sort of vehicle, what can you come up with?” … So one of the first things was this toy concept called the Aqua-Terra Pod.
Those toys would soon be an afterthought. While Mego and Mattel ultimately passed on the Star Wars license, Boudreaux’s boss, fellow University of Cincinnati alum Jim Swearingen, trekked out to Lucasfilm headquarters, read the script for A New Hope, and was hooked.
I started working at Kenner in January ’77. In February, we first saw the trailer of Star Wars and all immediately became fans.
My direct design manager [Swearingen] had the opportunity to go out to California and he got a really good idea of what Star Wars was all about. He quickly realized that this was not just a movie about characters, but it was also about their ships and going from world to world. You had classic good and evil, you had great characters and environments and ships — something you could really sink your teeth into.
But with the film’s May 25, 1977, release looming, Kenner faced a big problem.
Once Kenner started getting into Star Wars it was pretty much all hands on deck, 24/7. As I mentioned, we didn’t see the trailer until February ’77 so that didn’t give us much time to actually put product on the shelves. It became very apparent that even though we put all resources to bear on developing Star Wars, we really weren’t going to get plastic product out until ’78.
I recall being in brainstorms with the rest of the designers and said, “How might we go about putting Star Wars under the tree for that holiday season in ’77?” The idea was to come up with the Early Bird Special — it would essentially be a promise of four figures [Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2] mailed directly to you and in that envelope was included a cardboard display with little plastic clips that as you purchased your initial wave of characters you’d be able to display them proudly. I think there were some membership cards, maybe some stickers and things.
And they asked me to put together some preliminary conceptual documents — some artwork, fabricate some envelopes so that we can show our management team what the thoughts were. And it was quite an interesting conversation, if I recall, going to upper management and saying, “Hey, you know, we want to sell an empty cardboard box for under the tree.”
In addition to Luke, Leia, Chewie, and Artoo, the first wave included eight other action figures: Han Solo, C-3PO, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, Death Squad Commander, Sand People (a.k.a. Tusken Raider), and Jawa. The earliest vehicles soon followed: Luke’s landspeeder, X-wing fighter, and TIE fighter.
Design, engineering, manufacturing all came together and sat down — I wasn’t always privy to the top-level discussions — but I believe they started and said, “You know what, it’s really about the characters. What are the core group of figures we can execute first? Obviously that included the core heroes, the core villains, and some of the ancillary characters — Jawas, things like that.
Swearingen realized early on that the size of the toys would need to be scaled down to work within the scale of the Star Wars universe.
He understood that for us to be able to develop really meaningful playsets and vehicles, the figures would need to be something other than our traditional 12-inch figure. For a long time G.I. Joe was 12-inch as well. It was the gold standard for a lot of product that had been developed. But he had the insight to say, “We have to take a different approach to this,” and he started thinking about this, he made some mock-ups. The team got together and decided that having that 3 3/4-inch scale would really allow us to create the type of product we were looking to do. That 3 3/4-inch scale made the figures large enough so you could have a recognizable portrait, which the design team thought was very important.
It also let you hold a lot of characters in your hand all at once. If you were kids running around the block you could just stuff the figures in your pocket, grab a couple of vehicles, and you were off. One of your friends was in a TIE fighter, you were in an X-wing, and you’d have dogfights running around the neighborhood. It was that intuitive design sense that my boss had.
Watch: The Best Vintage Star Wars Toy Commercials:
Team Kenner then established a template for its future Star Wars saga toy-making.
As you might recall, the movies were out for over a year at the theaters at the time. There was no such thing as computers and DVRs and Blu-rays and all that fun stuff.
We were three years in between films, so we had time to backfill product if we couldn’t do it all at once. We went for landspeeder, TIE fighter, X-wing because they were a little easier to execute. Something like a Millennium Falcon or a Tydirium [Imperial] Shuttle, those are a bit more complicated, a bit more expensive… those tend to be in the second and third year of the line. And that’s pretty much how it worked for those first three films.
Boudreaux, who became a Kenner full-timer in 1978, was asked to take on a big assignment for the second phase of A New Hope toys.
Members of our design team and marketing would talk with Lucasfilm about what product we should try to shoot for, what really were the core vehicles and figures we should do first. They said, “Hey, Mark, we got this Millennium Falcon to do. Would you like to go ahead and do it?” And I’d go, “Yeah, yeah, sure. Why not?” We were fortunate. We didn’t start this until ’78, so we fortunate to know what the Falcon was all about. It was a character in its own right. It was such an important story element. To have all of our heroes come together there, to have a base of operations that allows them to go from place to place. We knew about all the features: we knew about the gunner station, we knew about the remote probe, things like that. So we tried to incorporate those into the toy.
My responsibility was to take a big blank sheet of paper on our drawing board and determine how large should it be based on our character sizes, what type of features could we incorporate, how would we do the gun turret, how might we open the cockpit, how would we have landing gear.
Lucasfilm has always been a really great partner with Kenner and Hasbro. They would give us as much conceptual art as possible. Back in the day it was usually 8x10s, hopefully in color, a lot of times in black and white, and we would just go from there.
As I mentioned, we had our own model shop. So I would go ahead and do pencil drawings, to do layout, and those layouts would then be given to our model shop and they would make a one-off model of the Falcon. We used that model to demonstrate the features to all the folks in management. Once it got the go-ahead it went to the production designer who would create the actual toys.
Kenner had the opportunity to essentially allow fans to relive what they had seen on screen by producing the vehicles and figures and creatures and playsets — that was something really special. All of a sudden, now you could continue the fantasy that you saw on the screen or you could adapt it to your own. Heck, you could have Greedo flying the Millennium Falcon. That was so cool about Star Wars. There were so many points of entry [for] the fantasy.
Like the film, Kenner’s Star Wars line became an instant smash. Stores struggled to keep shelves stocked with product. And George Lucas and his crew were just as psyched by the toys as everyone else.
Lucasfilm was always very, very helpful [trying] to determine what would be the best product to come out with for the first year, second year, third year. We would go through an approval process. We have conceptual approval. Then we usually do a first model or there are some renderings. There was one trip where we actually went out to Mr. Lucas’s home for Empire Strikes Back and had a presentation for Mr. Lucas. That was quite a fascinating trip, to be a twentysomething designer in the midst of Mr. Lucas and all of his friends and partners and also [Lucasfilm concept artist turned filmmaker] Joe Johnston and other designers that were there. It was cool having the actual Star Wars designers come up to us and say, “Hey, this toy is really cool.”
And while those early toys had their issues, they also had their charms.
I’m in love with 1977 figure sculpts because they were at the forefront of design. They’re just as nice in a lot of ways as our most elaborate Black Series figures at this point. Each time we’ve done something, it’s the very best we could do within the technology.
Because Star Wars has been around for 40 years, it gives us the opportunity to do updated characters, updated vehicles, where it’s appropriate. We’ve done five Millennium Falcons. I’m just as proud of the first one we worked on as the one we just did for The Force Awakens. They’re each a little different but we put our hearts and souls into all the things we do. As fans we say, “We haven’t done this for a while, maybe it’s time to do an updated version,” but it’s never because we felt disappointed in the first version that we did.
Boudreaux had a hand in several of the most significant toys in Star Wars history, yet some of his favorites are more obscure.
The Millennium Falcon is obviously No. 1. I’m a lover of Boba Fett and I’ve had the opportunity to work on multiple Slave Is — those are the big vehicles. But from a personal point of view, we were able to develop a series of smaller vehicles, called Mini-Rigs, back in the day. And a vehicle called the Cruisemissile Trooper. Those were items that I was given permission to develop, “inspired by” vehicles, what we call “off-camera.”
Things that would fit right into the Star Wars universe but you never saw on screen. They could very easily fit into the story. So, from a very personal perspective, to be able to pen a design that was in an official Star Wars package and related to Star Wars or Empire or Jedi, that was something I always just really appreciated. You don’t get a chance to do a lot of that in the Star Wars universe because it’s so rich on its own. But for someone like myself back in the ’80s to be able to do a design from a fresh piece of paper was really quite cool, something I’m proud of.
Meanwhile, the Hasbro team is cranking out a new line of toys for ‘The Last Jedi.’
Obviously, we’ve been working on the product for quite some time. Lucasfilm is a very good partner. They give us just the right amount of information that is required to do appropriate product but as a fan there are still a lot of things that I don’t know about, and that’s OK. I want to be entertained and surprised just like all the other fans when we see the film. But we can’t wait to see it.
Everybody has put a lot of really hard work into it, and we’re all really excited for it. After seeing Rogue One, that really inspired us even more with all the great content that Disney is generating for Star Wars. We see a bright future for this brand and I hope to be involved with it for many years to come.
Read more from Yahoo Movies: