In 1982, toy stores began to receive stock for a peculiar new line of action figures. With a hyper-muscular frame nearly as wide as he was tall and crouched in an attack stance, He-Man was a radical departure from the long and lean heroes of G.I. Joe or the puny dimensions of Luke Skywalker. Here was a burly swordsman whose story—defending Castle Grayskull from the demonic Skeletor—blended classic myth with spring-loaded punches that could knock other figures senseless.
He-Man made a respectable $38 million for Mattel in its first year. By 1984, it had earned over a billion. Though He-Mania was not engineered to last, it remains one of the biggest toy success stories of all time. If you’ve ever hoisted a sword (or a spatula) in the air and called upon the Power of Grayskull, you need to check out these 17 facts. Do it for Eternia.
1. He-Man Was a Result of Mattel Passing on Star Wars.
When George Lucas’ space opera went shopping for licensing partners, Mattel was one of several companies that passed on the rights to make action figures. The industry watched as Kenner turned Star Wars into a toy supernova, leaving Mattel to pick up the plastic pieces and eager to develop their own hit.
2. Mattel Had to Choose Between Three Very Different He-Men.
Mattel preliminary designer Roger Sweet and in-house illustrator Mark Taylor—who designed packaging for Barbie—both had ideas about a chiseled warrior who wielded swords in the Frank Frazetta mold. While Taylor’s sketches (some of which dated back to his childhood) were fantasy-based, Sweet envisioned a character who could be placed in any number of eras or genres. For a presentation to Mattel executives, Sweet applied clay muscles to an existing line of boy’s action figures. Each represented the character, which he named He-Man, in military, fantasy, and space settings. Despite the story possibilities of a time-traveling hero, Mattel's marketing research pointed to the guy with the pawn on his head. With Taylor’s sketches and ideas for supporting characters, a barbarian was born.
3. He Was Originally a Viking.
The Power and the Honor Foundation
Based on sketches from Mark Taylor, sculptor Tony Guerrero initially fashioned He-Man as a stern-looking individual. But his scowling expression and horned helmet were deemed too menacing: he looked too angry to be played with. Before being softened up with a blonde haircut, the prototype was used in market research testing, and one kid was so enamored with the brute that he tried to stuff him in his winter coat. The would-be thief was caught, but not before Mattel realized they were on to something.
4. The Animated Series Was a Result of a Bad Meeting with Toys ‘R' Us.
Confident in their He-Man line-up, Mattel marketing director Mark Ellis showed their concept to buyers at Toys 'R’ Us. To help flesh out the back story and clarify who was good and bad, Mattel had commissioned a series of mini-comics to insert into product packaging. But TRU executives were not impressed, arguing that young children may not be willing or able to read. Improvising, Ellis said they had a one-hour cartoon special in the works. How hard could it be to get one made?
5. Everyone Turned Down the Cartoon.
After being rejected by Hanna-Barbera for the special, Mattel turned to a company that had produced an animated commercial for them: Filmation. The company behind Fat Albert was economical but savvy: After being turned down by CBS, NBC, and ABC for a Saturday morning slot, Filmation president Lou Scheimer suggested they produce a 65-episode first season they could syndicate for stations to run five days a week. The model was so successful that at the height of its popularity in 1984, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was seen by more than nine million viewers every afternoon.
6. Castle Grayskull Was Built by a Giant.
Mentioned in reference documents but never explained onscreen, He-Man’s palatial turf was built by Tytus, a giant who fought in a massive battle centuries before the events of the cartoon series. Mattel later issued an action figure of the character that stood 12 inches tall.
7. When One Station Stopped Airing It, Kids Rioted.
KTXS-TV found out the hard way what happens when you deprive He-Man fans of their fix: anarchy. The Abilene, Texas station took the series off-air in the fall of 1985 owing to cooling ratings. When fans complained, the channel resumed airing it and tried to appease viewers by arranging for an appearance by a Mattel-endorsed actor. After 8000 rowdy kids engulfed him, organizers had to cut the event short. “He-Man left early because we became very concerned about the safety of the children,” KTXS owner S.M. Moore told the Lethbridge Herald.
8. Filmation Used Bodybuilders for Character References.
Models pose with Filmation employees. Image courtesy of Andy Mangels.
In order to animate He-Man’s impossibly-developed musculature, Filmation director Hal Sutherland scouted gyms and assembled a crew of bodybuilders so they could be filmed performing stunts as a reference. The photo above is most likely the only time you’ll see any version of the character sporting a mustache.
9. The Slime Pit Really Upset Parents.
Despite never actually being seen in He-Man (though it did pop up in sister series She-Ra, Princess of Power), the Slime Pit was a popular toy torture chamber: unfortunate figures would get doused with some proprietary goop that was first marketed back in the 1970s. But as parents soon learned, the Slime packaged with the toy eventually ran out—and the only way to get more was to buy two more action figures. Consumers cried foul; retailers didn't help the situation, selling cans of free promotional Slime for $3 to $10 each.
10. There Was One Toy Filmation Refused to Animate.
Despite criticism that they were simply producing a half-hour toy commercial, Filmation retained the right to ignore suggestions from Mattel. When the toy company pitched Lou Scheimer on a prototype for an attack vehicle with a sphere that could pummel opponents, he flat-out refused. Filmation, he insisted, would never animate anything named the Ball Buster. Common sense prevailed and the toy was re-named the Bashasaurus.
11. There Was a Comic Strip.
Running from 1986 to 1991, a He-Man strip was syndicated so Mattel had a way of keeping the franchise visible after the cartoon (which ran for 130 episodes) wrapped production in 1985. Unfortunately, it only ran in 10 newspapers.
12. Dolph Lundgren Dubbed Himself.
The 1987 film Masters of the Universe was partially funded by Mattel after they realized they could co-finance a movie for only a portion of their advertising budget. Football star Howie Long was rumored to be in the running for the role, but producers ultimately went with a post-Rocky IV Dolph Lundgren. The actor was physically imposing, but his heavy Swedish accent made his lines hard to understand. Before he could be dubbed by another performer, Lundgren’s contract specified he could try re-recording up to three times. Eventually, his voice became intelligible—but it didn’t do the movie much good. With He-Man hysteria dying down, it made only $17 million in theaters.
13. Prince Adam Wasn’t Part of the Movie—or the Original Toys.
Though he existed in Mark Taylor's sketch art, He-Man’s royal alter ego wasn’t introduced into the canon until writer Michael Halperin brought the concept to the comics and cartoon story guide. (Instead of transforming into He-Man using his sword, he'd duck into a cave, Eternia's version of a phone booth.) Prior to that, the DC mini-comics portrayed the character as more of a tribal warrior without the need for a secret identity. He also failed to appear in the live-action film, though director Gary Goddard said a sequel might have introduced the prince.
14. There Was Nearly a He-Ro, Son of He-Man Series.
See that radical dude surfing an alligator? That’s He-Ro, star of a proposed 1996 animated spin-off series. Prince Adam is a king and married to Teela; the couple adopts an orphan named Dare. After hoisting the Power Sword, the boy is transformed into a hero almost as buff as his dad. Though Mattel has updated the series twice, it never went forward with the He-Ro concept.
15. There’s a Non-Profit Foundation to Preserve He-Man’s Legacy.
Toy packaging painting by artist Rudy Obrero. Image courtesy of The Power and the Honor Foundation.
Founded in 2010, the Power and the Honor Foundation is dedicated to preserving the work of artists who helped define the He-Man franchise. Original illustrations, toys, and documents from Mattel and Filmation are digitally scanned and stored for safekeeping. Want to make a donation? As a federally recognized charity, it would be tax-deductible.
16. In 1987, Sales Fell Off a Cliff ...
Theories abound as to why He-Man’s fortunes disintegrated, going from $350 million in 1985 to bottoming out by 1987. Competition from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and video games was heating up; Mattel had also flooded the market with second-tier character inventory that retailers couldn’t move fast enough.
17. … But That Was After He Made Two Billion Dollars.
Roger Sweet once estimated that when sales of all He-Man products—toys, clothing, electric toothbrushes, sleeping bags—were tallied, the franchise brought in over $2 billion before the bubble burst. Not bad for a plastic guy who started out in a bad mood.
Additional Sources: Mastering the Universe; The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; He-Man.org.