Postcards from a 70s Childhood

It wasn't easy being an action figure in the 70s
July 06, 2010
Spike TV was showing all three old school Star Wars movies the other night. I watched most of the first one, Episode IV. A New Hope. Even all these years later, it still surprises me at how entertaining that movie is. I've seen it a million times and still get sucked into watching it.

I'm old enough to have seen that in the theater, first run! What better age than 10 years old to see that come out. I was such a Star Wars junkie. My mom can attest to this, as she probably drained a fair portion of her paycheck on Star Wars toys for me. I still miss my X-wing fighter with my small collection of action figures. Actually, even as a 40-something, I still miss many of my toys I had in the 70s.

I once pretended that Greedo broke into a Rebel base and stole the X-Wing. I never had the Millennium Falcon I so desperately wanted, so I used my Big Jim camper to soar through space, track Greedo, shoot him down, and salvage the X-Wing. Yeah, a camper! In retrospect, Douglas Adams would have been proud. It was a very "Hitchhiker's" moment.

Big Jim, in case you don't know, was not a porn star. He was an action figure from the 70s, and man did he look like it. He was basically Mattel's answer to Hasbro's GI Joe. But GI Joe was all militant, dog tags and camo fatigues. Big Jim? He was into motocross and martial arts. He didn't have a buzz cut. He had hair over his ears and sideburns! He had a tattoo! He basically looked like a cross between Burt Reynolds and the Marlboro Man. And he had cool friends. One was a Native American dude, another was an African American badass, and a third was some sort of Australian big game hunter. I don't remember their names, but think: Tonto, Shaft, and Crocodile Dundee.

Then there was Dr. Steel, a bald villain who had a metal hand and a huge dragon tattoo across his chest. Mattel actually intended Dr. Steel to be a good guy; just another one of Big Jim's kickass buddies. But any kid who got a look at Dr. Steel immediately knew that he was a bad guy, and he sustained some serious beatings at the hands of Big Jim's gang. Somehow, this never seemed unfair to me, four huge badasses kicking the crap out of one bald dude with a disability. Not very "pc." Eventually I paired up Dr. Steel with Darth Vader. Even though Vader was about half the size as the Big Jim figures, he more than held his own in battle, using his Sith powers to repeatedly push Big Jim down a flight of shag carpeted stairs.

Man, those Big Jim guys were fun. And unlike GI Joe, these guys had lots of special features. You pressed a button on their backs and their arms did this bitchin karate chop action. You could flex their muscles. Ok, so they were all built like Chippendale's dancers on steroids. But they rocked. With the amount of time I played with those guys I guess it's amazing I'm not gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But hey. I was an only child! I needed friends. Back then, my friends were all plastic and under 12 inches tall. Ahh...good times! So anyway, if it weren't for Big Jim, one X-Wing would have fallen into the hands of the Empire, and then, well, let's not even go there.

Another toy I loved as a kid was the Evel Knievel stunt cycle set. I received that as a birthday gift when I was about 11.

That big ring of fire you see in the picture was made of cardboard, so it lasted about a week. But I think I put more mileage on that motorcycle than the real Evel did on his. It was everything a toy should be: durable, detailed, and freakin' loud. And it came with a handful of accessories. Although I don't know why toy makers always feel compelled to include crap like the little plastic gas c an. Like any kid is going to sit around pretending to gas up the bike when you could be sending Evel careening down the driveway! Unless you're going to include REAL gas or some other flammable liquid, spare us the little gas can and tool set. I mean, if they really wanted to make it true to life, they should have included a bottle of bourbon, some pain pills, and a pair of crutches.
To get your fun out of this toy you first attached Evel to the motorcycle, which meant wrapping his little rubber hands onto the handlebars, and jamming his skinny dare-devil ass onto the seat. If you were rebellious, you'd leave his helmet off, although the helmet was really too cool to leave aside. Then you shoved the bike onto the red thing that geared into the rear wheel, cranked the hell out of it, and when you were pretty much out of breath and the little motorized engine was whining and growling like an angry Rottweiler, you released the safety and Evel went careening across the living room, usually straight into the coffee table, wall, or occasionally, cat. If you were lucky, Evel would go flying off the bike, soar through the air, and collapse in a heap in the corner with a satisfying THUNK (much like the real Evel would do on horrifying occasions).

As anyone who has ever owned action figures knows, they take a lot of beating. They're tossed from 2nd floor bedroom windows onto the concrete driveway below. They're drowned in bathwater while fending off rubber sharks. They get tossed down staircases. They're sometimes shot at with boys with bb guns. They sustain such a range of injuries, they're completely uninsurable. Broken limbs, twisted torsos, and head injuries are common. Yet like the real Evel, my little toy Evel stood up to whatever life (or me) threw at him. But one problem with Evel was that his sparkling red, white, and blue jumpsuit was actually made of cloth. This was a nice attention to detail, but it resulted in Evel getting so filthy he looked like he had spent three days sleeping off a serious bender under a bridge somewhere. The other problem was that he was about three inches shorter than the rest of my Big Jim guys. So if Evel happened to show up during one of Big Jim's adventures, it was a little like Frodo showing up at an Orc convention. And Big Jim couldn't ride Evel's motorcycle without looking like he was dad on a Big Wheel. Being imaginative, I compensated by deciding that Evel had undergone some secret government experiment involving a shrink ray. In spite of his smaller stature, Evel did take part in several Big Jim escapades. Once, he was assigned to rev up his bike and plow through a handful of plastic dinosaurs that were threatening to trash Big Jim's Rescue Rig. It was a suicide mission, of course – the dinosaurs chomped Evel's leg off and played keep away with it.

Another action figure I was fond of was my Six Million Dollar Man figure. For those of you who don't know, The Six Million Dollar Man was a TV show airing from 1974 to 1978 starring Lee Majors as "Colonel Steve Austin" (NOT the pro-wrestler "Steve Austin, who is, as far as I know, neither a colonel, nor bionic).

Steve, as everyone could plainly see from the opening credits of the show, was involved in a little fender bender while test piloting some new sort of advanced aircraft. Ok, so that's a little bit of an understatement. He actually smeared himself and millions of dollars in Air Force technology all over a runway after a serious mechanical malfunction in the aircraft he was testing. During the violent crash, he managed to lose both legs, an arm, and an eye, but somehow survived. His friend, D r. Rudy Wells, just so happened to be an expert in the field of "bionics." So when Steve disintegrated himself, Rudy stepped in and rebuilt him. "We have the technology," said Rudy while the opening theme music played, "we can rebuild him. We can make him better than he was. Better. Stronger. Faster." And all for a measly six mil! So they scraped what was left of Steve off the runway and replaced his missing human parts with biomechanical parts. His new legs and arm were endowed with super strength, and his eye was replaced with a bionic eye capable of seeing like a telescope. And he goes to work for the OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence - you know, as opposed to those dorks over at the Office of Scientific Ignorance) to combat, umm, bad guys?

One oddity I do remember is that the show featuring Bigfoot in a few episodes. You heard right: Bigfoot. Now, I happen to have a certain fascination with all things Sasquatch-related. So with regard to the Six Million Dollar Man, the addition of Bigfoot to the roster of recurring characters was just a dream come true for me as a 9 or 10 year old.

Watching the slow-motion, overly dramatic fight scenes between Bigfoot and the bionic man, I felt so many of my inner personalities being satisfied (cryptozoologist, hand-to-hand combat expert, technology geek, 70s stud with sideburns, etc.) Bigfoot was actually played by Andre the Giant (and sometimes by the guy who played Lurch from the Adam's Family, I think). I really don't remember why or how Bigfoot made it into the storyline for the show, but I didn't care a bit. I suspect the whole thing stemmed from one of those, "Hey, who would win in a fight? Bionic Man or Bigfoot?" kinds of debates among the show's writers.

Anyway, the show was highly successful, so of course there had to be a Steve Austin action figure. He wore a red jumpsuit (what the hell was with all the jumpsuits in the 70s??), had a bionic grip, and a bionic eye you could look through thanks to a hole in the back of his head, which provided some degree of magnification - but also made Steve look a little like a cyborg pirate. But as with Evel, there was a height discrepancy, although on the other end of the scale. Steve stood 13 inches tall; massive by most action figure standards. Even though he was a lot bigger than my other action figures, he was also a little more fragile. The joints of his arms and legs seemed a little less durable than Evel's or Big Jim's, so when Steve went tumbling down the stairs, he'd end up a pile of tanned limbs in a twisted red jumpsuit staring back at you with that one pirate eye glowing and one arm laying in the opposite corner. It could take awhile to re-attach and straighten out his arms and legs back to what looked like a normal human being (I was no Rudy Wells).

Steve's bionic arm was covered in some kind of soft rubber you could pull back to see his "bionics." This was cool, although with time, this stuff began to loosen and flake off into little rubbery bits, which wasn't pretty, and which caused my mom to worry that the cats might eat it. I wish I had held onto this figure, because the word is that they're relatively rare these days and fetching a pretty penny with collectors. Sadly though, my Steve Austin action figure suffered a severe head injury when I inadvertently ran over him with my bike. Bionic or not, he didn't fare well. His head was broken into pieces, the lens for his bionic eye lost, and he was beyond repair. However, my Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox survived longer, and made me the envy of my friends in 4th grade. I can still remember making the "bionic" sound as I unscrewed my thermos in slow motion- "Cha-cha-cha-cha-sst-sst-sst..."

As a kid, these toys were a part of my world. I thought of them as possessions and playthings, which they were. But I guess as I get older, I also see them as childhood memories in their own right. They were a part of the substance of my world and the world of thousands of other kids my age. So I guess in one way, they do hold some cultural or developmental significance. I can't say my life in any way reflects that of Big Jim, Evel Knievel, or Col, Steve Austin. But in a way, I suppose a carry around a little of each of them in my psyche somewhere. You'd think my life would be a little more exciting! But hey, isn't that what toys and imagination are for?
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