The enduring charm of vintage Star Wars figures

Ryan Leston
Yahoo UK Movies Features
Toy story... classic Star Wars characters in plastic form (Credit: Rex Features)

The ‘Star Wars’ movies earned more than £3 billion dollars at the box office, but the merchandise made much, much more.

From lunchboxes to colouring books, trading cards to ‘mask and smock combos’, Lucasfilm slapped Luke Skywalker’s face on anything it could think of. It’s quite possibly why Disney thought Lucas’ empire was worth all that cash.

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Most 'SW' merch was tat, but the vintage action figures are an exception. They are still fondly remembered by big kids of a certain age and a few are worth thousands.

With ‘Return of the Jedi’ celebrating its 30th birthday, I looked back at the most popular ‘Star Wars’ birthday present of all, and what those plastic fellas gathering dust in lofts might be worth today.   

A long time ago...

Back in 1977, an American toy company bit off more than it could chew with a merchandising deal that would eventually see them produce ‘Star Wars’ action figures by the millions. Kenner Products was responsible for the original line of ‘Star Wars’ toys, creating an original set of four figures which was later expanded to a total of 12 that would tie in with ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’. But it seems nobody was expecting the demand that followed… even George Lucas himself.

Steve Sansweet, who owns the largest private collection of ‘Star Wars’ toys in the world and has written several books on toy collection, told us that the partnership had some initial teething troubles.

“The contract Kenner signed with Lucasfilm was only signed a month before ‘Star Wars’ opened in the US,” he explained. “They had already started preliminary work but back then, to do a line of 3D moulded toys from design and final approval to manufacturing, carding and distribution took a minimum of twelve months… and Kenner took the contract thinking that ‘Star Wars’ would be in theatres for a short while and that by the time these figures were out, people would probably have forgotten them.”

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But as we all know, that definitely wasn’t the case. “Obviously, the fire that ‘Star Wars’ caught was a surprise to everyone, including George Lucas… so there was this insatiable demand for anything ‘Star Wars’.” And the folks at Kenner found themselves with incredibly high demand for a product they simply hadn’t made yet.

After putting together some boxed cardboard puzzles and a few board games, Kenner set to work on their model-making… but they knew that would take quite some time. “President of Kenner, Bernie Loomis, decided on what we now call the empty box – a sealed, early-bird certificate kit. Inside was a tacky cardboard stage and a fan club card for a non-existent fan club signed by Luke, and most importantly, a coupon that you sent away, guaranteeing that you receive the first four ‘Star Wars’ action figures as soon as they were ready.”

It was this early-bird boxed set that sparked such an incredible passion for ‘Star Wars’ action figures in children and parents across the world… and happened to earn Kenner a lot of money in the process. From the sales of ‘Star Wars’ action figures, Kenner made over $100 million in 1978 alone… and went on to sell over 300 million figures between 1977 and 1983. God only knows how much money George Lucas - who secured a cut of the all the merchandise sales - made from the toys.

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Because so many figures were sold, most are worth only a few quid.  “Don’t collect because you think you’re going to make a fortune,” Steve explains. “Because I can practically guarantee that you are not.” However, there are some exceptions. As you’d expect, Steve owns most of them, which he displays at ‘Rancho Obi-Wan’ - a museum in California that contains the world’s largest privately-owned 'Star Wars' collection. Some of the more expensive exhibits include...

Double-Telescoping Figures
Early in production, Kenner decided that the Luke Skywalker figure should have a telescoping lightsaber made of two distinct parts that would extend from the figure’s forearm. This feature was replicated for the Obi-Wan and Darth Vader figures but was quickly phased out due to fragility and difficulty in production. Kayleigh Francis of Aston’s Toy Auctions values this figure at £6000… with a whopping £7000 to £8000 for the Obi-Wan and Darth Vader versions.

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This rare figure was part of Kenners' ‘Droids’ line – based on the spin-off animated series. Unfortunately, the toys were cancelled before it could be mass-produced… save for one exception. “I got the entire set of fourteen unproduced ‘Ewoks’ and ‘Droids’ figures from 1986… they were never produced with one rare exception in Brazil,” said Steve. The entire set cost him $10,000 but Vlix alone is worth £6000 today.

Vinyl-cape Jawa

One of the most commonly faked action figures. The vinyl-cape was the Jawa’s original outfit and similar to the one commonly seen with Darth Vader and Obi-Wan figures. But by the second wave of production, the vinyl-cape was replaced with a cloth version… and that made the vinyl-caped Jawas a lot harder to come by. “A mint, on the card, vinyl-cape Jawa that I bought on the card for $45, would now go for $2000 plus.” And in the UK market? Around £800 to £1000.

Rocket-firing Boba Fett

I wasn’t sure this mythical figure even existed… but Steve managed to get hold of one of these highly sought-after figures. After Mattel faced product safety issues with one of their rocket-firing toys, Kenner’s rocket-firing Boba Fett faced the same problem. “Kenner had come up with a prototype,” explained Steve. “And it was an unpainted version with a missile that went into a slot and a very weak spring with a lever that you press down that fired the missile a short distance.”

But despite changes to its design, the figure still wasn’t granted approval. “I don’t know what they were thinking, frankly… they used the same sized missile but they changed the back to what they thought was a locking mechanism… But the problem was that the missile was the same size.” Of course, the prototype Boba Fett is one of the rarest action figures in history. And while we’re unsure of the current UK value, the unpainted version cost Steve just under $10,000.

Do you have fond memories of the classic Star Wars figures? Let us know below...