Hola Dannie aqui,
Today we have an interview with the legendary Marty Abrams sent in from a new spy who calls himself Count Popula!
“In every revolution, there’s one man with a vision.” - Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek
It’s hard to imagine a time before Mego. The company name isn’t widely known to the general public today, nor is the name of its longtime leader, Marty Abrams. Yet, there is no denying that the modern toy industry owes a tremendous debt to the company and the man. Today, buyers can find a wide range of DC and Marvel action figures, even the most obscure characters, at any store with a toy aisle. At the dawn of the 1970s, however, that was far from the case. There were no superhero figures to speak of, and toys based on TV and movies wasn’t really a business yet either. Abrams and the Mego Corporation changed the game forever.
At its peak, the company was producing its legendary World’s Greatest Super-Heroes line, which included both DC and Marvel characters (often in the same commercials!), most of which had never appeared in toy form before. The company was also responsible for the first Star Trek action figure line, plus figures based on The Wizard of Oz, Planet of the Apes, Universal Monsters, and seemingly any celebrity who was hot at the time, including Muhammad Ali, Cher, Kiss and "Broadway" Joe Namath, to name but a few.
The company’s declarative slogan, “Collect Them All!”, could just as easily have applied to Abrams’ amazingly successful run of procuring licenses. It seemed that for children of the 70s, no matter where their interests lay, Mego had them covered. Its very recognizable 8" figures, featuring great head sculpts, full articulation and cloth costumes, made for countless Happy Birthdays and Merry Christmases across the world.
In a true underdog American success story, the small family business founded by Abrams' father in the 50s, which at first sold 88-cent endcap toys, rose up under Marty's innovative, second-generation leadership to become the sixth largest toy company globally.
From the greatest heights sometimes follow the longest falls. It was around this time that the company that had snapped up almost everything else managed to miss out on an unknown property called Star Wars. The toy empire of Kenner struck back, and by the time the Jedi returned in 1983, Mego was closing up shop. Even today, in conversation with Abrams it becomes clear that Star Wars will always be viewed, to some extent, as the one that got away.
Adding insult to injury, Abrams found himself slapped with Federal fraud charges while the company was in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings. Government prosecutors had charged several Mego officials with ''secretly misappropriating'' funds, and Abrams eventually did a little time.
Today, Abrams fondly refers to the original Mego days as his "Beatles years." The comparison is apt; if ever there were a rock star toymaker, it was a young Martin B. Abrams. His products having been prized collector’s items for decades, Abrams stunned the toy world this summer when he announced that Mego figures would be leaping back onto toy aisle pegs, available exclusively (for now) at Target stores.
From the main viewscreen of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (playset), Ain't it Cool News proudly brings you this exclusive Q&A with "the Father of Action Figures"...
AICN: It’s an honor to speak with you. I was born the year the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes debuted. And let's just say I've made several trips to Target recently.
MA: That’s good, that’s the most important thing! (laughs)
AICN: At the beginning of the 70s, you were so young. You must’ve been very excited to be promoted by your father to company president.
MA: I was exactly that. It was exciting, and within six months I realized I was scared to death (laughs), because at the end of the day I had to drive the product line and make it all happen. So it was very mixed emotions ꟷ excited that I had the opportunity, but my experience for running a company of that size, at that time, was very limited. I came out of Harvard Business School with a Master’s in Finance, but everything was very OJT, as they say in the military. On the job training.
Photo © and courtesy Benjamin Holcomb from his book Mego 8" Super-Heroes: World's Greatest Toys! (TwoMorrows Publishing 2007)
AICN: You got thrown into the frying pan, but you also started the fire. It has been standard for a long time that for most major movies, the real money is in the toy sales. I feel like Warner Bros./DC & Disney/Marvel should be saying thank you to you!
MA: (laughs) I’m very happy that they even acknowledge me! These are two great companies. If I was a small part of that (success), I’m very happy.
AICN: In 1972, you had the foresight to be the first to greenlight superhero action figures, when other major companies including Mattel, Hasbro and Kenner had passed.
MA: I can remember Stan Weston, an ally in terms of the licensing, making the presentation like it was yesterday. The recollection is so fresh in my mind of that particular moment in time because it really changed history. He came to me with everything from Tarzan, to Dick Tracy, to Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers. Literally, the last presentation he made was Batman. And I was going no, no, no, no ꟷ and Batman I went, “Yes!” He said, “Everybody’s passed on this.” I don’t know why everybody passed on it, but I want to thank everybody! I was so young at the time, I was in touch with my childhood. Weston looked at me with complete puzzlement. We went over to Warner’s and they said, ‘You want to do this?’ and I said absolutely. They basically gave it to me, 10 or 15 thousand dollars and they gave me their entire library of all DC Comics characters. From there, we just rolled. We rolled into Marvel, Paramount with Star Trek, Fox with Planet of the Apes.
The reason we got all those characters at that time is that the people who were running the toy companies were all 25 years older than me, they’d forgotten their childhoods. They weren’t listening to younger people. My kids were three and five at the time. My youth served me well. I took all the old adages and threw them out the window.
AICN: On your watch, the company rose from being ranked somewhere down in the hundreds to number six in the world. You must’ve felt great pride; you had done your dad and the whole family business very proud.
MA: Clearly, that’s a fact. We had the opportunity at that time to turn the industry on its head, because we found a lane nobody was using. Companies spend huge amounts to build their own brands, millions of dollars worth of advertising. We went down the other road, taking advantage of the brands that were already successful. If I can say we did one thing right, it was our ability to get the right licenses at the right time.
AICN: You were also first with Star Trek. Is it true Shatner & Nimoy were involved in live promotions at Toys ‘R’ Us stores?
MA: Nimoy was, Shatner was not. Nimoy was a much warmer person, Shatner was a little more standoffish. In the last few years, he’s become much more accessible, friendly. I haven’t spent much time with Shatner, but eventually, we will connect.
AICN: I’m sure you saw that Shatner recently Tweeted about the return of Mego.
MA: He did! He had no recollection of the original Mego. (laughs) It’s ok, I saw that Tweet and I reached out to some of his people to get together with him. That eventually will happen.
AICN: It’s cool that you got to know a beloved icon like Nimoy a bit.
MA: It was a little more than a bit, probably six or seven occasions, whether it be a drink or just hanging out at the studio.
AICN: Trek had already been off the air for five years when you got the license in 1974. Who’d have thought that when Mego returned in 2018, The Original Series would still be popular enough to where you could just pick up where you left off with your new Star Trek figures?
MA: To me, it’s shocking, quite candidly. We will always be the first to have made a Batman figure, Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Captain America, Planet of the Apes, Kirk, Spock. There had to be a first, and we were the first with all those brands.
AICN: I’ve always been fascinated by the big gala you had to launch your Wizard of Oz line – which included a reunion of the surviving cast!
MA: At that time, the living cast was Jack Haley (Tin Man), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) and Margaret Hamilton (Wicked Witch). The film’s producer, who became a very close friend of mine, Mervyn LeRoy, was also part of that gala. We knew that in those years, the film was played (on TV) annually, and for the week was always in the (ratings) top ten. So we knew that was going to be spectacular. LeRoy was amazing. He joined our board and he could get a meeting with anyone with one single phone call.
AICN: The urban legend is that Cher was a bit of a diva when Mego was working on her doll.
MA: 100%, absolutely not a diva. We went to her house to show her the doll. We walked in and see a picture of Greg Allman over the fireplace in her magnificent home. I say, “Holy cow, pretty cool guy.” Over my shoulder, I hear, “I’m not that cool.” I turn around and there’s Greg. I think they had just gotten married. He brought her downstairs. She was in her own home, very comfortable, very warm, very charming. We showed her the doll, she made comments to make it a better sculpt. Diva? No. Warm, wonderful person? Yes. And you can send that to her, I would love her to know that.
AICN: You’ve set the record straight. You also knew another iconic person who got the Mego treatment, Muhammad Ali?
MA: Yes. I know how to get to a celebrity, I find my way in. We were a smaller company, competing against the giants. We had to find our way in. So I reached out to Don King. We became friends, he had just moved to New York, and he introduced me to Muhammad. I’m not going to tell you it was instant love between Muhammad and myself, but it was certainly instant like. We liked each other right away. He was up in the office quite a bit. The guy you saw talking to Howard Cosell, the guy who never stopped talking … when you were with him in a room with a bunch of other people, he did not dominate that room. He was very reserved, quiet, thoughtful. Totally opposite of what you would expect. He was just one of the guys. Very unique human being, a lovely man.
AICN: Touchy subject, but let’s talk about Star Wars …
MA: The reason Kenner got the brand is because the perfect storm went against us. I was out of the country. The movie was not coming out for another six months. The guy who was shopping it wasn’t even the licensing agent, it was the lawyer for Fox. There was no footage. He shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but he came in while I was out of the country! I would probably have taken it. I was in Japan doing Micronauts, so I never even had an opportunity to see (the proposal). No one ever turned it down at the company, it was like, ‘When Marty come back, we’ll show it to him.’
The guy running Kenner, a Cincinnati company, shouldn’t have even been there (in New York)! He happened to have been there that particular day. He and I were as competitive as crazy. He would do anything to take product away from me, he would have written that check just so I wouldn’t get (Star Wars)! Again, a perfect storm.
My failure was there was nobody on point other than a lawyer at that time to say, ‘Come back to us with Star Wars.’ That will never happen again. There will always be somebody who will say, ‘Hold this for us, we’ll talk about it, we’ll call Marty and let you know tomorrow.’
When I look back, I had no shot, no ability whatsoever to be in that race. If I was in that race, I would have had it. The worst part is my number two guy, who could have stepped up and intervened, was with me in Japan as well. It is what it is. I won the race and I beat everybody for ten years, then when (Star Wars) comes out, I get knocked out of the saddle. So be it. Life goes on.
AICN: Lighter topic. The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes were my favorite, but even as a kid I found it funny that the Hulk appeared shorter than the other characters!
MA: Because of money. (laughs) He really wasn’t short, he was crouching down. If we straightened him up, he’d have been 6’6”. We’d have had to make the box bigger, it wouldn’t have fit on the endcap displays.
AICN: Of course, the figures were available in different sizes, and Mego encouraged imagination. I always just used the 12” Hulk with the other 8” heroes.
MA: That’s pretty cool. I’m thinking of doing that with Andre the Giant.
AICN: Psychologically speaking, why is it that people love action figures?
MA: Everybody wants to be a hero, the star of their own story. When you’re younger, you’re looking up to everybody, everyone’s bigger than you, even your little grandmother. The action figures are all smaller than the child. In terms of imagination, the child can be a superhero and control the environment.
AICN: For adult buyers, it's a bit like religious iconography too. It’s a physical representation of something that has personal meaning to you.
MA: There’s no question about that. It’s also nostalgic and brings you back to a part of your life that’s simpler. Music is the soundtrack to your life, reminding you what you did at certain moments in time when you hear certain songs. When it comes to collectability, it’s the same thing. Probably the best part of your life is being a child, with no responsibility.
AICN: In the 70s, you had Mad Monsters, a sort of generic take on Universal Monsters. In the new line, you have the actual likeness of Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
MA: We have found that it is imperative that we have likenesses of characters. Every one where we have the likeness is cooking, if we don’t have the likeness, there’s been a pushback.
With the new Megos, Target has been important to the process of identifying brands. We couldn’t get Marvel, we couldn’t get Star Wars. Target is helping us identify characters. The buying team, the merchandising team has been amazing. Give the people who deserve it credit for making this happen. That’s Target. Without them, this fantasy I’m going through now, this wonderful part of my life that invigorates me, would never happen.
AICN: That’s awesome. As you said, the toys take the adult collectors back to their childhood, but you are reinvigorated too.
MA: Oh, clearly. If this didn’t reinvigorate me, they would have to put me in a coffin. (laughs)
AICN: The first wave of new figures is out now and two more waves are coming. Will you keep it going for the foreseeable future?
MA: I just came back from California, all the big studios. Their support has been extraordinary. We’ve picked up newer model licenses to put into this brand. We’re exclusive to Target through the end of this year, but we’ve opened up several accounts for next year and we’re expanding the brand as quickly as we can. I’m not going to prognosticate how good we’re going to be in 2024, but certainly over the next 20 months, we’ll be rolling out some of the great iconic characters, brands, people, ideas that have been lying dormant the last 25 – 30 years that are going to be repositioned in the market place.
Photo © and courtesy Benjamin Holcomb from his book Mego 8" Super-Heroes: World's Greatest Toys! (TwoMorrows Publishing 2007)
AICN: Marvel seems less inclined to do retro-style toys than DC. It’s a shame it seems you won’t get to work with them this time.
MA: You can’t put the blame on anyone here. Marvel has a limitation on what they can and can’t do by their current contracts. The number one brand in action figures in the world today is Marvel. They've got three or four companies that have pretty much locked it all up, including Hasbro and Funko. Hasbro has not been willing to let the brand go. I can’t blame them. They believe that every item that I would sell takes away a sale from them. I don’t believe that for a second, but Hasbro has been very good to me, they’re a great company, I understand their position. At some point, I hope they relent a little bit, but if they don’t, I truly understand.
AICN: It would be amazing if, 40 years later, there finally were Mego Star Wars figures!
MA: It would be very amazing. We don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon, but I know the availability of a lot of other characters out there.
AICN: How does it feel to know that you, who secured the rights to so many iconic properties, are now an icon yourself? Even people who don’t know your name, if they’re a certain age, were brought joy by your ideas & products. You are to toys what Stan Lee has been to comics. You changed the world, Marty.
MA: I really appreciate you saying that. I don’t view myself (that way). I did what I did because I was in business. Here’s the reality: I’m just happy to be here at 76 to look back on 50 years-plus in the toy industry. It has been both rewarding and challenging, but at the end of the day, there’s been an appreciation for some of the stuff that I did.
Appreciation indeed. With the passing of Toys ‘R’ Us fresh in our collective inner child hearts, a little more Mego seems just what the world needs. For decades, Abrams has brought happiness & fun to innumerable people of all ages and, along the way, lived a life worthy of a Hollywood biopic. There should be some meetings about that.
- “Count Popula, The Professor of Pop Culture” aka Vincent Barajas
Thanks for the incredible interview Count Popula and welcome aboard AICN! ---Dannie