How Teddy Roosevelt Became a G.I. Joe Action Figure

Jon Mayer
Jon Mayer

Hasbro's special-edition Theodore Roosevelt G.I. Joe figure from 1999 doesn't have kung-fu grip or an arsenal of tank-busting accessories to go into battle with. Instead, his signature toothy grin, glasses, and Rough Rider uniform from the Spanish-American War are all meticulously recreated on a figure that's better suited for display than play. Though the toy doesn't quite fit in with the likes of Duke, Snake Eyes, and Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe's '80s heyday, it turns out that the rancher-turned-soldier-turned-president was a perfect fit for a toy line that was ready to embrace reality again.

The "Real American Hero" Gets Canceled

At its peak in the 1980s, Hasbro estimated that two out of every three boys between the ages of 5 and 11 owned a G.I. Joe action figure. But by the mid-'90s, the once-famous "Real American Hero" line of 3.75-inch figures that had been the brand's foundation was discontinued in the face of slowing sales.

"They were losing kids to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other new brands," Derryl DePriest, the former vice president of global brand management and author of the books The Collectible GI Joe and Star Wars: The Vintage Collection Archive Edition, tells Mental Floss in an email.

A changing toy market and stiff competition were partly to blame for these cancellations, but a key shift came in 1991, when Hasbro bought rival toy maker Kenner, which soon assumed control of both G.I. Joe and Transformers.

"Kenner was a boy's toy powerhouse, having held the license to Star Wars, Batman, [and] Ghostbusters,” DePriest says. "[They] had a hot hand, and naturally with the change of management, they wanted to put their own stamp on it."

Though the company tried new initiatives in '95 and '96—like the 5-inch "G.I. Joe Extreme" line, which DePriest called "a disaster"—they were usually discontinued within a year. Joe was still a moneymaker, but it was clear that its popularity was sagging, especially now that it was under the same roof as the Star Wars juggernaut. Turns out, to evolve, the brand just needed to go back to its roots.

G.I. Joe Goes Retro

When G.I. Joe first launched in 1964, it entered the market as a series of 12-inch figures, complete with cloth outfits, 19 points of articulation, and plenty of accessories. By the ‘90s, fans of those originals were now adults with disposable income looking to recapture a bit of their youth and share the 12-inch version of Joe with their own kids. Hasbro was starting to take notice.

"The team at Hasbro was aware of the nostalgic interest in [12-inch G.I. Joes] beginning in the late ‘80s," DePriest says. "They first tested the waters with a 12-inch product at the request of Target in 1991, with a version of Duke with sound effects marketed under the ‘Hall of Fame’ collection."

That initial 1991 attempt didn’t scratch the nostalgia itch—the figures were 12 inches like the originals, but they were overly bulky and lacked the articulation of their ‘60s counterparts. So the team tried again in the mid-‘90s, but this time they fully embraced the retro look and feel for a new line called the “Classic Collection,” which launched in 1996.

The toned-down body design was far less chunky and restrictive, meaning the team was no longer shackled to only producing toys based on squared-jawed heroes with barrel chests and sleeve-shredding biceps. The new line stuck close to its vintage bread and butter: U.S. Army tank commanders, helicopter pilots, and Marine snipers were some of the early offerings.

But the team decided to take advantage of the newfound flexibility by introducing figures based on real-world war heroes, presidents, and other important historical figures, too. It was something that appealed both to older collectors and the history buffs at Hasbro.

"At one point, we had George Washington, we had done a General Patton, General Eisenhower, Colin Powell. And then we had also done Congressional Medal of Honor recipients; the first one being Francis Currey," Kurt Groen, the former designer behind the 12-inch line at Hasbro, tell Mental Floss.

The line soon found an audience, and, of course, more figures (and more media attention) followed.

"Some of the real-world personalities that got the most attention included a WWII tribute to John F. Kennedy, as well as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the voice of the common soldier, Ernie Pyle," DePriest said. There was such demand that even offbeat choices like Bob Hope and Ted Williams got the green light.

Teddy Roosevelt: The Perfect G.I. Joe

When asked why he chose Roosevelt for the 1999 line, Groen's answer was simple: "I wanted to do him." That's the type of carte blanche he was given by Hasbro on the 12-inch line. Groen also knew, as an admirer of Roosevelt, that the colorful hero of the Spanish-American War embodied the spirit the company was looking for.

"Teddy Roosevelt was a natural fit," Groen says. "He's bigger than life. So, that was an easy pick in the whole process."

The moment the design process started, Groen knew that the Roosevelt figure couldn't be just TR as president ready to sit down for a meeting at the White House. G.I. Joes need to be ready for war—so Roosevelt needed to be a Rough Rider again.

"[Before] he did the Rough Riders, he would dress up and play the part or go out West and kind of live the Remington life," Groen says. "And then after he did the Rough Riders, he was focused fully on the political side of life. So there was no other place to go then."

Picking the outfit was the easy part—next, Groen needed to pay close attention to every detail if this figure was going to work.

"[I] contacted a couple of parks, a couple historians. And then I've got books [on his uniforms] like you wouldn't believe," Groen said about the process of nailing down the design details. Every inch of the sculpt was important to get right, but some of the details that Groen still remembers more than 20 years later are Roosevelt's smile, which practically beams off the figure's head; the distinct shape of his mustache; and his glasses.

Hasbro's Theodore Roosevelt G.I. Joe figure was based on his Rough Rider uniform worn during the Spanish-American War. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The research paid off. Roosevelt’s entire ensemble from the war is represented on the figure—highlighted by the slouch hat, Colt revolver, and polka-dotted bandana that can be seen in so many paintings and photographs from the time.

"If you remember the picture of him standing with the troops on top of San Juan Hill—that's where the big inspiration came from for the figure," Groen said.

The figure would officially hit store shelves in 1999—and 20 years later, many can still be found untouched and in their original box for anywhere from $60-$80 online.

The fact that people are still buying Roosevelt and other "Classic Collection" figures in mint condition today was all by design. As Groen said, "We weren't really designing toys." Though Groen was concerned with playability during the design phase, figures like these were made for collectors who likely never remove them from their window-box packaging.

Whether or not Groen and the team at Hasbro ever imagined kids pitting Teddy Roosevelt against Duke, Snake Eyes, or Cobra Commander is anyone’s guess. But in terms of fitting seamlessly into the world of G.I. Joe, it's hard to argue against TR.

"If you look at him and the way he held himself, he was a perfect character,” Groen said. “I mean, when you talk about characters of history, he is a character of history."

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar


Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt and the Perdicaris Affair


The villa on the hill of Djebal Kebir, to the west of Tangier in Morocco, looks more like a palace than a home. Built in the Spanish style, it has white-clad stone walls, and turrets, and looks over the Strait of Gibraltar. The inside is resplendent: Rooms overflow with fine art, pristine porcelains, damasks, and Oriental rugs. There are many, many servants, and a menagerie of animals roam the grounds and the halls, among them dogs, cranes, pheasants, and two monkeys that jump into the owners’ laps and eat orange blossoms from their hands.

The villa is known as Aidonia, or the Place of Nightingales. It’s May 18, 1904, and inside the villa, 64-year-old globetrotter Ion Perdicaris, along with his wife, Ellen Varley, and her son, Cromwell, are sitting down to dinner, attended to by a servant in knee-length scarlet pants and a jacket embroidered with gold.

Ion is the son of Gregory Perdicaris, a Greek-American who made his fortune in the gas industry, and he has reaped the benefits of his family’s immense wealth by buying residences all around the world before he built the Place of Nightingales in 1877. Tonight, as every night, they dine lavishly, then retreat to the drawing room to relax—at least until the peace is shattered by the sound of screams coming from the servants’ quarters.

What happens next will soon become an international incident that garners the intervention of none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. In this bonus episode, we’ll take a look at how TR used his big stick diplomacy to make the most of an international incident in an election year. This episode is TR and the Perdicaris Affair.

When Ion and Cromwell sprint to source of the commotion, they come upon armed men standing in their home. The villa is under siege.

The bandits have given the butler a swift clubbing with their rifle butts, and Ion and Cromwell are bound and brought to meet the man in charge of this operation.

He introduces himself simply: “I am the Raisuli.”

Alternately described as a bandit, murderer, and folk hero, depending on who’s asking, the man known in English as Raisuli is a charismatic political idealist and insurgent, ruling over groups of bandits dedicated to disrupting the European influence in Morocco and waging war against the sultans who allowed it. And if you know Morocco—as Perdicaris does—you know his handiwork.

But bloodshed isn’t the motivator tonight. Raisuli has political demands he’ll soon reveal.

Ion, his stepson, and an attendant are whisked away on their own horses, leaving the staff and Mrs. Perdicaris to absorb what had just happened.

Word of the incident got out as it was happening—the phone lines to the villa had not been cut, and as Raisuli’s men tore through the Perdicaris home, one of the women of the house placed a call to the central office in Tangier alerting them to the attack and kidnapping. It wasn’t long before Samuel Gummere, the Consul General at Tangier, got involved. He became the point of contact between Mrs. Perdicaris and Washington.

The first cable from Morocco went straight to the State Department on May 19. Gummere described the situation as “most serious” and requested a Man-of-War—basically, the biggest battleship available.

The cable was received by Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis, who informed President Roosevelt. This was the era of “Big Stick” diplomacy, and Roosevelt ordered that seven warships head immediately to Tangier. But it wasn’t an act of war—it was more like an aggressive flex.

Days after the kidnapping, Raisuli contacted Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco with his demands to let Perdicaris and Varley free. He wanted political immunity for himself and his followers, the release of all political prisoners connected with his movement, the firing of a local official who had chained him years earlier, 70,000 Spanish silver dollars, and he wanted tax-free control over two of Morocco’s wealthiest districts.

The sheer extravagance of the demands, especially in exchange for the release of a foreigner like Perdicaris, was a non-starter for the sultan. When a messenger from the sultan informed Raisuli there would be no deal, Raisuli had one of his men slit the messenger’s throat.

By May 28, Roosevelt had finally read Raisuli’s demands, which Secretary of State John Hay described as “preposterous.” And while ships were on their way to speed up the talks, in reality, the men knew their hands were tied. The president couldn’t really force the sultan to accede to Raisuli’s outlandish list—he could only make strong suggestions. And he couldn’t just send troops into Morocco to retrieve Perdicaris by force—Gummere knew Raisuli would kill Ion and Varley long before they could reach him.

“I hope they may not murder Mr. Perdicaris, but a nation cannot degrade itself to prevent ill-treatment of a citizen,” Hay said.

Still, TR’s brand of pressure could be very persuasive, and early on the morning of May 30, the imposing USS Brooklyn was first seen near Tangier harbor. It would soon be joined by six other ships. Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris wrote that “some 30,000 tons of American gunmetal should soon persuade the sultan to start negotiating.”

Upon hearing the news of the arrival of American warships, Raisuli actually showed relief—with this type of pressure on the sultan, those “preposterous” demands were more likely to become a reality.

Once the fleet was settled in the harbor, Hay cabled Gummere:

“President wishes everything possible done to secure the release of Perdicaris. He wishes it clearly understood that if Perdicaris is murdered, this government will demand the life of the murderer.”

In America, the press and public were outraged at the situation and wanted action. Any crime against an American on foreign soil was seen as a crime against the country as a whole. For Roosevelt—a president both adored and criticized for his overt imperialist intentions—this was a prime opportunity to show the world what this so-called “American century” was all about.

As Barbara W. Tuchman wrote at American Heritage, “The president’s instant and energetic action on behalf of a single citizen fallen among thieves in a foreign land made Perdicaris a symbol of America’s new role on the world stage.”

The situation stretched into early June, and the number of countries involved kept growing. Now, a British warship, the Prince of Wales, had come to Tangier, and Hay had contacted the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to put more pressure on the sultan. France had been increasing its presence in Morocco, so this tactic carried plenty of weight.

Soon after, there seemed to be a breakthrough: The Moroccan government had apparently accepted all of Raisuli’s demands, outside of the ransom, which still needed to be “reasonably negotiated,” according to Morris.

But once Raisuli was close to getting what he asked for, he simply came back with more demands: He now wanted additional districts to control.

Secretary of State John Hay, clearly frustrated with Raisuli’s games, wrote to Roosevelt, “I feel that it would be most inexpedient to surrender to him. We have done what we can for Perdicaris.”

And something else was emerging at this time that may have weakened Hay’s already questionable enthusiasm for the whole episode: Evidence was mounting that Perdicaris might not actually be a U.S. citizen.

We’ll be right back.


In June 1904, with Ion Perdicaris and his stepson still being held hostage by Raisuli in Morocco, President Theodore Roosevelt was putting pressure on the sultan to acquiesce to the ransom demands to bring them back home.

But the president was about to learn that the man at the center of a potential international incident might not be a U.S. citizen at all.

This information first came to light on June 1, when Hay received a letter from a cotton broker named A.H. Slocomb who had read about the Moroccan crisis in the news. He claimed that he had met Perdicaris in Greece as the Civil War raged in America. Ion had apparently told Slocomb that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship for Greek citizenship during the war—likely in an effort to avoid being drafted by the Confederacy and have his property confiscated by the government.

Within days of the initial claims, Slocomb’s information was confirmed by Greek officials.

According to Morris, Hay sent the news to Roosevelt, who was apparently unaware of the initial whispers about Perdicaris’s citizenship … or lack thereof. Right away, everyone knew that the information simply couldn’t get out—the president had ordered American warships to Tangier, news of the kidnapping was filling newspapers, and even the French and British were involved in exerting pressure on the sultan to make a deal.

TR couldn’t just turn his back on the whole affair now—the political embarrassment would be terrible. It was also an election year, and quite frankly, backing down wasn’t an option.

As this crisis was unfolding, TR was dealing with the start of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. While TR was a no-brainer to secure the nomination, he still had plenty of enemies in his own party, and the last thing he needed was Perdicaris’s citizenship controversy coming out.

As Morris explains in Theodore Rex, Roosevelt chose to rationalize things. Since Raisuli had believed Perdicaris to be a U.S. citizen, he had, in Roosevelt’s mind, taken action against an American, whether it was technically true or not.

Hay recommended that the United States give Raisuli and the sultan one last warning before any real military action needed to be taken. Roosevelt agreed—despite these new findings, Roosevelt knew this was an issue of both pride and politics at this point.

It was up to Hay to write the ultimatum to the sultan, and it needed to be an aggressive one. The result was seven words that hit the exact right note:

“We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

Of course, there was more to the cable than just that one chilling warning. But that single sentence so perfectly captured the mood of the message that no one needed to read any further than that. TR, through the words of Hay, was dispatching a concise warning to the sultan, to Raisuli, and to anyone else who dared bring harm to an American citizen—even if they were only American in spirit.

As he prepared to send the wire to Gummere in Tangier, Hay read the draft to Edwin Hood, a news correspondent at the State Department, who loved it so much that he took a copy and sent it over the newswires right as Hay sent it to Morocco.

The warning soon made its way into the public, and it didn’t take long for Republican National Convention chairman Joseph Cannon to get a copy. At approximately 3 p.m. on June 22, he made his way near the convention stage, where Henry Cabot Lodge had just finished a vague spiel on the party’s stances on riveting topics like tariffs and the civil service.

Cannon took his copy of the cable and gave it to a clerk to read to the crowd. At the words “We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” the crowd went nuts.

Supporters stood on their chairs. The cheers were deafening. One Republican from Kansas exclaimed, “Our people like courage. We’ll stand for anything those two men do,” while another described it as “Good, hot stuff.”

The message showed action, it showed excitement, it showed that the American people had a president that meant business.

If it wasn’t already set in stone, it was now clear that Roosevelt’s nomination was secure—but over in Morocco, the cable was a moot point.

The sultan of Morocco had already agreed to Raisuli’s demands—paying a $70,000 ransom for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson. On top of that, an extra $4000 was sent to the U.S. for its expenses.

Perdicaris later wrote that “the memory of that evening is … associated with an ineffaceable sense of horror.” Still, he wasn’t terribly traumatized by the ordeal—in fact, he and Raisuli had struck up a friendship. Perdicaris would recall that he was treated more like an honored guest, rather than a prisoner. And upon parting, Raisuli told Ion that if anyone tried to harm him in the future, “I … will come with all [of] my men to your rescue.”

Later, the incident would serve as the basis for a movie starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen called The Wind and the Lion. Brian Keith, who you may know as the dad in The Parent Trap, played TR.

As for the truth behind Perdicaris’s Greek citizenship? It would remain a secret for another 30 years.


History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.