'G.I. Joe': The Story of the Cartoon That Sold Wartime Heroics to a Generation of Kids

The cast looks back at the series that changed the toy business forever and left a complicated political legacy: "I'm a liberal and always have been," says creator Ron Friedman. "I felt that the Joes would be liberal and the Cobra people should not be."
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In 1982, G.I. Joe was brought out of retirement thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign executed with military precision.

The Hasbro toyline had been defunct since the late '70s, with the American public soured on the military following the Vietnam War and the toys falling victim to rising oil prices that made 12-inch figures too expensive to manufacture. As Joe sat in retirement, Hasbro watched with envy as Star Wars toys made obscene amounts of money by trading off the emotional attachments children had to the film series' colorful characters.

Hasbro chairman and CEO Stephen D. Hassenfeld was at the helm of the company when the Joes were taken out of mothballs and reconceived for a new generation. For the first time, the Joes were given a storyline: They were good guys locked in an eternal battle with the ultimate villains, Cobra. That story transformed Joes from generic figures into an intellectual-property-driven concept. 

The Joes, revamped as smaller, 3¾-inch figures, may not have had blockbuster movies, like Star Wars, but they did have a newly launched Marvel Comic from Larry Hama, which became a smash hit and drove toy sales. Next, Hasbro set its sights on the small screen, enlisting veteran TV writer Ron Friedman to create a series that would change the toy industry forever.

Friedman's five-part G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1983) and follow-up G.I. Joe: The Revenge of Cobra (1984) was followed by two seasons of the syndicated show (1985-86) and G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987). At the time, FCC rules prohibited children's programs from advertising their own brand of toys, so instead Hasbro advertised the G.I. Joe comic — to fantastic results. The success of the show catapulted Hasbro to new heights, its stock soaring and giving rise to Transformers and My Little Pony TV shows (and huge toys sales).

The Joe series would go on to inspire a generation of first responders and U.S. service members, and helped revamp the image of the U.S. military. Friedman and some of his cast were political liberals, who have complex feelings about the show's portrayal of war and its legacy. But they ultimately see the series as a force for good in the lives of the children who watched it, with its positive messages of inclusion, self-sacrifice and heroism.

Here, Heat Vision catches up with the creator and stars of the series, with many of the actors slated to appear Sept. 17 at a Long Beach Comic Con reunion panel and also set to hit the road for a tour.  

THE JOES ASSEMBLE

In 1982, veteran TV writer Ron Friedman had already solidified his name in history thanks to work on shows such as 'Happy Days,' 'The Andy Griffith Show' and 'Bewitched.' In college, he had worked on a study examining how children formed attachments to toys, experience that would become invaluable years later when Hasbro sought out an experienced live-TV writer to stoop to work in animation.

Ron Friedman, creator of the miniseries: In those years, animation was considered the boneyard for writers. Writers who wrote for TV animation were considered dummies or incompetents. Hasbro and its advertising agency, Griffin-Bacal Sunbow, did a talent search looking for live-TV writers who might have some ideas for animation. They saw over 100 people, and I got the job, and one of the reasons is I said, "You can't do this in one 22-minute slug, because by the time you introduce the characters, it's not a show. It's a roll call." I said, "You need a five-part miniseries." That will give kids the chance to start bonding with the characters and seeing them as people."

Derryl DePriest, current Hasbro vp global brand management: When G.I. Joe was reborn, it was reborn with a storyline. That storyline was what we call the G.I. Joe vs. Cobra storyline, which has been such a powerful story, the ultimate yin and yang between G.I. Joe, a group of heroic defenders, opposing Cobra. That repositioning of G.I. Joe in 1982 was a very pivotal moment for the brand. What it did not have going for the toy launch was any kind of entertainment on a screen. There was no film.  

Bill Ratner, Flint and author of Parenting for the Digital Age: The U.S. Military was at its nadir in terms of good press, because of the Vietnam War. Hasbro, located in Providence at the time, made a deal with the Rhode Island National Guard in order to get perfectly accurate attack vehicles and uniforms. When Hasbro approached the director of the National Guard in Rhode Island, they said yes, and it was a quid pro quo. It was, "You're doing a military show. We want the military to look good."

Friedman:  Hasbro sent me the shrink-packed action figures, but there was no story yet. I decided to create these groups of families. I created the bad family, who was Cobra, to whom I gave the battle cry, "Co-bra!" and the good family, to whom I gave the battle cry, "Yo Joe!" I determined who was big daddy, who was the wayward uncle, who was the snotty teenager, who was the mama, who was the swing character who does dumb shit. I also wanted more female characters, so I created Lady Jaye. I felt they needed more women because I knew girls who loved animation and loved superheroes.

Ratner: The only pushback came from parenting groups that got wind of the marketing of the toys and the creation of the show. They said, "We don't want our children to see people shot and killed on a cartoon show." When a bad guy or a good guy is shot out of the sky, they parachute over the horizon. They never die. Not only were we selling toys, but we were also selling the image of the military and militarism.

Friedman: I felt once you kill somebody, it's not suitable. We are in a universe where the bad guys get their comeuppance, but we are not standing at graveside. A little leavening humor about the violence takes the curse off of some of it.  If it's done with a knowing sense of humor, with the idea to lighten the mood, it shows they are not blank-eyed snipers working out of some attic in Fallujah.

Michael Bell, Duke: They showed us prototypes. They had artwork. Duke was the quintessential hero. I knew he wasn't going to have a high voice. I knew it was going to be a role I would never get the opportunity to play on camera. A big, buff guy with a blond crew cut. I said, "This is great. This will be fun to do." The voice was close to me, in terms of tonality, but the attitude was much more in control. Much more in charge than perhaps I would have been. If you're going to be playing a hero, you get in front of the mic and you stand solid. You may not look like that hero, but if you take on the physicality, it will motivate you. At that time, our prototypes were John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and John Payne and John Hodiak. 

Morgan Lofting, The Baroness: In the audition, I screamed, "Co-bra!!!" at the top of my lungs. And I think they went, "Her. She looks like she's willing to go to the wall." When you walk into the audition, they usually have a picture of what the character is going to look like. And a script. There must have been something on that page that said the Baroness has a European accent, because no country ever existed that sounds like the Baroness. She's not Russian. She's from somewhere in middle Europe that cannot be named or found. I just dreamed it up, and I don't know how.

Arthur Burghardt, Destro: Ever since I was a child, I wanted to play monsters. Even though I hated him, for a long time I was aghast but I was also fascinated by Hitler. But how could I play him without going mad? Being too long in that mind, one would go mad. I thought that about Destro. I was beginning to take Destro a little too seriously. I wanted to make Destro interesting, and I couldn't make him interesting if I didn't believe him, and no one would believe him if I didn't believe him. They gave Destro an intellect, which I liked a great deal.   

Friedman: When exposition was there, it was often with Destro. I tried to make it as Shakespearean and pretentious as possible. So you could just see Cobra Commander seething. It couldn't just be bald exposition or the kids would tune it out. Kids hate to be pandered to. It didn't need to be dumbed down.

Burghardt: Christopher Latta [Cobra Commander] was a genius. Chris brought the family of the G.I. Joe the cartoon together. His thing was to create plot. And the reasons for the plot. It was his idea that there was something of an adversarial tension with Destro.

B.J. Ward, Scarlett: It was one of the first cartoons that had a woman on a male team who was just as strong. It was kind of revolutionary. We didn't think at the time it was. It was just, "We're going to do a cartoon," and we did it.

Mary McDonald-Lewis, Lady Jaye: I was a heroic figure that was nonfetishized. My breasts and hips were of normal proportions and my strength and intelligence were what was treasured over my triangulation through the male gaze. There is a reason for that, and that is the writers were men who were the sons of women who had come up during second-wave feminism. They came up with Betty Friedan as their speaker. With Ms. Magazine being printed. The strong women in these young men's lives helped create these powerful figures.

Friedman: I wanted to encourage little girls, because I have a daughter, to feel that they could master that universe just as readily as a boy.

Ratner: We were pleased with the fact that there were lots of people of color: There were Asian men and black guys and lots of women who were just as high of a rank and just as much in the thick of battle as the men. That sort of fogged any issues that would have made us nervous or squeamish about being purveyors of war.

Friedman: I'm a liberal and always have been. I felt that the Joes would be liberal and the Cobra people should not be. The Cobra people are always carping about each other and their differences, and the differences create gulfs between them. In the Joe group, the differences don't matter. There is never a negative comment, one about the other. The only time there was was when somebody failed to perform his duty adequately.  Other than that, the Joes accepted their differences, never made a problem. The differences were celebrated, where the Cobras were always weaseling behind each other, badmouthing each other and were not there when needed.  

Ratner: We had no idea what kind of satanically brilliant marketing plan Hasbro had cooked up. In the very early days of television and the FCC, it was illegal for any children's show in network television or local television to advertise action figures or characters from the show, but they were able to advertise the Marvel comic books within the show.

'YOU SHOULD BUY STOCK'

With Friedman's two five-episode miniseries a hit, production begins on the syndicated TV series, which will bring G.I. Joe and Hasbro to new levels of success when it hits airwaves in 1985.

Ratner: In the initial recording sessions, one of the associate producers obviously had been deputized to tell us: "Nobody dies in G.I. Joe, so don't worry about that." And we were also told to buy Hasbro stock. Looking back on it, if they had said any more, it would have been insider trading. "Why should we buy it?" "Well, we're about to do the largest rollout of action figures in the history of the toy business." They really knew what they were doing. My biggest regret was when the woman said, "You should buy stock," we all laughed. None of us could figure it out. "Why did she tell us to buy stock?" "I don't get it." "Are they trying to get us to prop up the stock price?" Had I put out $1,000 in the fall of '82 and cashed it in in '85, my $1,000 would have been multiples of that. [Hasbro's stock rose from $0.42 a share in September 1982 to $4.36 a share in September 1985.]

Pat Fraley, Ace: There were only about 20 of us in town who could do three characters in a 22-minute show. There was a glut of shows because of He-Man pulling out a seven share. Back in those days, it was like fruit-picking. There was a season, which started May and you were done in July. Some of us had nine shows going at the same time. There weren't enough actors to do that. 

Zack Hoffman, Zartan: I knew [director] Wally Burr from the neighborhood. We're sitting at a bar and I tell him I was doing Sean Connery for an improv thing earlier. He looks at me and says, "We can't find a voice. You could probably do it!" He explained who Zartan was and he showed me this picture. It looked like a member of Kiss, but much better built. He told me he had a gang. That gang thing rippled in my head. I went home and read A Clockwork Orange, a couple of chapters of it. Just to get the vibe of Alex. He was a mix between Alex from A Clockwork Orange and James Bond.  

Michael McConnohie, Cross-Country: I was working on Transformers. They came up with this character and said come and do an audition. The character of Cross-Country took me back to my childhood, because my mother was a Georgia hillbilly. Although he was from North Carolina, there were some similarities. Wally Burr had specific ideas. Young, a higher pitch to his voice. He kept tweaking and tweaking until he finally said, "That's the guy."  

Hank Garrett, Dial-Tone: The voice just came out of the blue. I figured, "God, why don't I give him kind of a nasal sound?" I had also worked with [Columbo star] Peter Falk. I was Tony Bennett's opening act for four years, doing impressions. And so I did an impression of Peter Falk and it reminded me slightly of what I do with Dial-Tone.  

Hoffman: They would bring in the storyboard, because it wasn't animated yet. It was animated to our voice, which was totally the opposite of what was going on at the time. A lot of the stuff on other cartoons, we were dubbing, looping animation from Japanese cartoons. That was always us fitting our voices to the animation that existed. This was the first time that a company was sent the voice track and what they heard was what they animated to. You get to be looser. It's more about the character.

Burghardt: I only wish they could have taken more time on the animation so that we could have done greater things with the dialogue. If we had the character's facial and body features more nuanced, our jobs would have been easier. It wouldn't have had to come through our voices only. Sometimes the cartoons didn't look good. They were cheaply done.

'WALLY BURR KILLED ORSON WELLES'

Ron Friedman has released the reins, stepping back after the miniseries episodes. The dominant force in 'G.I. Joe' becomes director Wally Burr, a World War II hero who at just 19 rose to the rank of captain and commanded a tank battalion. He runs the recording room like a military operation, earning both the loyalty and respect of his voice actors. He also gains a reputation as one of the most exacting directors in animation thanks to his work on 'Joe' and 'Transformers.'

Fraley: Director Wally Burr was among the youngest commissioned officer in World War II. He was in the tank brigade in Belgium. Once I understood that, I understood why he was so good for G.I. Joe. I also understood why he ran the sessions the way he did. He ran them like a tank. "OK here we go. Forward!" Then I started understanding his style, his care for authenticity in exertion sounds. When there was a fight, he would have you do all the exertion sounds. He made sure it sounded like you were getting gut-punched.

Loren Lester, BarbecueHe knew exactly what he wanted, and some actors didn't like that, but I loved it. I thought it was great to work with somebody who knew what they wanted.   

McConnohie: You could expect a marathon session because he was so meticulous. He knew what he wanted and he wasn't going to stop until he got it. He would go through the storyboard and then sketch out the action in the margin of the voice scripts. So we knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Coming in to another season of Transformers, I came to a session wearing a T-shirt that said, "Wally-Thon: I survived, '85, '86, '87."

Fraley: One the last things that Orson Welles did was Transformers [as Unicron in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie] with Wally. And the joke in town was "Wally Burr killed Orson Welles. He read him to death."

Bell: I heard from a friend of mine who was working with Wally that at one point, Wally said, "You know what you need to do, Mr. Welles …" — and he moved into a line reading. And Orson Welles said, "Wally, are you giving me a line reading?" He said, "No sir, no sir. Absolutely not. no sir." Orson Welles died not long after and I spread the rumor that Wally Burr killed Orson Welles. And Wally called me up and said, "Have you been telling people I killed Orson Welles?"  I said, "You did! You gave him a line reading. That's enough to kill any actor! Even Orson Welles."

Fraley: We would get so weary, we'd play G.I. Joe golf. It was the amount of takes it would be to get that line through Wally. I'd say to somebody, "Look at my lines. That's a par four." They'd go, "OK." And chances are we'd go like bogie five. Nobody ever got a par, and certainly not a birdie.

Lofting: It was pre-cellphone, but you had pagers, so you'd use the studio's phone and call your agent. It was like the dark ages. I remember the villains used to hang together. The three of us. Chris Latta and Arthur Burghardt in the studio.

McDonald-Lewis: Our work was physical. I remember a day when I had a big fight scene, two of the boys were on either side of me and grabbed ahold of my elbows so I could struggle against them and make my fight more realistic. There was tremendous trust in the room. And happiness and excitement and enthusiasm.  

Ward: This was before the SAG strike, when you could use actors for eight hours. We could have done the whole thing in an hour and a half. But because they had the time, other people from the company would come sit in the booth and say, "I don't know, let's try it like this." Then you are in there doing 23 takes. A lot of us would just take naps on the floor. We'd been reading novels. We always knew when they would come to our page and our line number. People would get up, put the book down, step up to the mic and go, "Joe! Get back! I'm more of a man than you'll ever be!" And then we'd go back to our book and sit down.   

Ward: Sometimes there were so many of us, we would have to dance up to the mic. Whoever was up at the mic would come back when we were up. It was like being Gladys Knight and The Pips. You'd come up to the mic, do your thing and then sit down without rustling anything.

Will Ryan, Footloose: As we were doing the show, Hasbro was increasingly adding new characters and toys to the lineup. Every time we went to the studio, there would be new characters.  Many of us were doing multiple characters, and they became more and more multiple. They tried to limit them to three characters per actor per script, because otherwise that would push us into a different price range if we did four or more. Wally would just assign the new character to whoever was there. That's why many of us have inadequate memories of all the characters we played on the show.  

Ward: They might say, "We're all filled up with three voices, so, B.J. you're going to be the 80-year-old man. They had to make it work. If you did the fourth voice, they had to pay you.

Bell: We had to come up with stuff very, very quickly. You really were working in the moment. You were leaping into it. There was no time to consider what you were going to do. You just did.

Hoffman: I'm a bass baritone, a singer. There's an episode where Zartan and the Dreadnoks are a rock band and they sing. It's called "Cold Slither." It's pretty infamous. In my least wisdom, I said, "Why aren't [the actors who play the character the ones] singing?" They go, "OK." I'm used to walking into a session with a band, but [the song had] already been recorded and it's not in my key! I'm thinking, "I'm done in show business. They are never going to call me back." It took like 20 years for me to watch the episode, and now it actually works well. Because it's supposed to be bad.

Lester: I would race home to watch it on TV. You didn't have it on DVRs on those days. When a new episode would be on I didn't know if it was something I would be on or not. I would race home and plan on seeing it or record it on Betamax.

Garrett: We were really saddened when it came an end. We were shocked, because the show was so popular. And suddenly it was gone.  

THE JOE LEGACY

The show helped inspire countless men and women to become first responders, members of the armed services and others who put themselves on the line for the greater good. At the same time, some in the cast worry it painted a sanitized, unrealistic view of warfare.     

Bell: I do Comic-Cons. And people say, "Oh my God, you were Duke. You have no idea how you influenced my life. My buddy and I became cops together." I go, "Oh wow." They say, "I was a Marine," and I say, "You didn't kill anyone yelling my name, did you? You didn't shoot them and go 'Yo Joe!' did you?" They say, "Nothing like that." I've had soldiers that did duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. One came over to me and he had one leg and a prosthesis. He said, "You're my hero." I said, "I think you've got that wrong, pal." I wrote in my autograph: "To my hero."

Ratner: A number of guys and women, mainly in their 40s, have come up to me at a convention and said, "Do you realize you are responsible for 40 percent of the visitors here becoming first responders or military?"

McDonald-Lewis: That's certainly something we noticed at the Joe Cons. "She's a first responder for children in crisis at foster homes." "She's an EMT and he's an emergency room doc." 

Burghardt: When we were making it, I told a producer, "This cartoon does nothing to give these kids any real understanding of what war is all about." The producer was in Vietnam. I almost went to Vietnam, and I had a problem with that and with my draft board over that war. But my producer went to war, and he had the scars to prove it. He didn't throw me off the show. He was wonderful. But I lamented that calling it G.I. Joe [the nickname for members of the armed services popularized in World War II] really gave these kids no real understanding of American history.

Ratner: Two generations of children were given just an absolutely, warm and fuzzy family view, a cartoon, Saturday morning, afterschool view — with toys and the coolest looking cartoons — that war is cool.

Friedman: Our right-wing fans like the authoritarian order. The lines of command are clearly established, and the Iron Ceiling between various tiers is never breached. Those that are of the right-wing persuasion, they read that into anything. They still like Little Black Sambo. To them, that's just a cute children's story.

McDonald-Lewis: It was a culmination of events really that led to G.I. Joe becoming the lasting myth for the boys and girls of that era, many of whom were our nation's first latchkey kids. Women were returning to the workforce and kids all across America, whether they were rural, urban or suburban, were coming home after school, grabbing a snack and turning on G.I Joe or Transformers. They felt safe with us and as though we were part of their home life.  

McConnohie: Everyone laughs about the G.I. Joe messages — " … and knowing is half the battle!" — but today they get quoted to me. They get emailed to me. "I remember that message because I was in school and I was going to get in this fight and I just turned and walked the other way." Maybe you avoided getting your nose broken. Maybe you avoided perpetuating violence. That's a wonderful thing.

Ratner: My daughter was in a dorm in college a few years ago. She said, "A friend of mine is here and he's gay and he's 19 and he learned he was gay by playing with G.I. Joe dolls." He took G.I. Joe's clothes off. He didn't have a dick but he had pectoral muscles and he had lats. I said, "Oh great, all these wonderful, educational residual effects that Hasbro never intended." Gender equality, gender identification and doll play.

Friedman: I wanted to teach the ability to overcome impossible situations without losing hope. There is no Joe character that ever loses hope in anything I've written. Or in Transformers. The bleaker things are, the more it is essential that you do not forget what your mission is and do not lose hope that good will triumph.

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