Vintage Star Wars! The first 12 Kenner figures from 1978!

Not very long ago and not terribly far away, Star Wars wasn’t the massive iconic juggernaut that it is today. You can visit any toy shop in this day and age and you’ll probably find Star Wars toys somewhere on the shelves, even for upcoming Star Wars movies that aren’t due out for months. But back in 1976, in the run up to the release of the first Star Wars movie, it was a very different story. Very few companies were interested in producing toys for a movie that could very well be a complete flop and so Star Wars had little in the way of merchandise to promote the upcoming film. Eventually a relatively small company called Kenner toys agreed to pick up the license, but not in time for the release of the film. Come the run up to Christmas 1977 there weren’t enough toys manufactured to meet demand, so Kenner decided to release the (now highly sought after) early bird certificate. It was essentially a certificate that would guarantee kids four Star Wars action figures when they were finally produced, between February and June of 1978. Could you imagine kids going for that in this day and age? I think you’d be scorned if you presented a young family member with a coupon, but back in ’77 the idea was a huge success and many kids excitedly waited for their new Star Wars figures to arrive.

After the success of the early bird coupon, stores finally saw a release of twelve figures in first ‘series’ of Star Wars toys and I think they are probably my favourite of the entire line

I was sadly born too late to experience the initial release of Star Wars, and the toys had stopped being manufactured by about 1985 and weren’t produced again until a decade later. It wouldn’t be until 1997 that any major kind of merchandise would be available on shelves again, when the films were re-released as the infamous special editions. So any Star Wars toys I had before that were finds I’d scored from digging in the bottom of boxes at carboot sales or at flea markets. Because of this I have a vast appreciation for the original line (now coined ‘vintage’) and will be looking at the first twelve figures from the original film!

  1. Darth Vader

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I don’t think anything from Star Wars is as iconic as Darth Vader’s mechanical and soulless mask. Even in 1978 with limited sculpting techniques, I think they did a pretty spot on job of nailing the look of the character with this toy. It’s also convenient that his mask was gas mask, as the amount of dust on this toy could very well have proven fatal to him. Like all of the Star Wars figures back then, he only had five points of articulation.

I loved this figure as a kid, though being second-hand mine didn’t have the lightsaber that it originally came with, so I was forced to use a red cotton bud or Q-tip with the cotton part snipped off. The lightsaber had a neat little feature where it slides up or down, in effect turning it “on” or “off” using a lever on the back of the arm.

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Although it looks crude and rudimentary by today’s standards, (and somewhat akin to a tampon applicator) you can still tell the lightsaber is supposed to be a lightsaber. And I really love that it turns on and off (something I don’t think has been done like this apart from an Attack of the Clones 2002 Anakin Skywalker figure which I once owned). There is often a misconception these days that this figure is worth thousands, because an extremely limited amount of this figure (and the other two lightsaber wielding characters) were released with a double telescopic lightsaber feature, which meant the lightsaber could be protruded twice, making it much longer than the standard telescopic feature. These are extremely rare though and are often broken these days as these sabers were extremely fragile. The amount of people I have seen on ebay asking for huuuuuge sums of money for a very common figure believing they have stumbled on some extremely rare and expensive toy is incredible. If you find one of the lightsaber wielding figures out in the wild, either Luke, Ben or Vader the probability is that it isn’t rare but a fairly common (but still very awesome) figure. But you never know!

2. Luke Skywalker

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This was probably many a child’s first Star Wars figure. Sporting a bizarre yellow hair colour, and an equally strange non-screen-accurate yellow lightsaber, this was the protagonist of many of my bedroom floor battles. There were variants of him, some with more realistic looking hair and some rarer ones with ginger hair (surely being ginger would be very dangerous growing up on an extremely hot and sunny desert planet like Tatooine?). I love this version though and I really like that he seems to have consciously based his hair colour on the colour of the weapon he is wielding. I don’t think many people do that. What a fashionably stylistic young Jedi. Luke was one of the first four figures that came out in the early bird certificate package, along with Princess Leia, R2D2 and Chewbacca.

3. Princess Leia

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I don’t want to ever meet a real life princess (or any other monarch for that matter) mainly because I think my childhood idea of what a princess is would be forever ruined. I loved Princess Leia as a kid. She was feisty, she could shoot bad guys, she was pretty but wasn’t the conventional princess that needed to be rescued (I know they helped her get out of her cell, but she kind of took control then). There was some outrage that the protagonist’s of the newer Star Wars movies are female, (As I am writing this, Episode VII The Force Awakens came out last year, and Rogue One is out this December) but I think even back then Leia came across as a fantastically strong female character that little girls could aspire to be, and she really set the standard of what on-screen heroines should be like.

This toy is definitely not the worst representation of Princess Leia in action figure form (the POFT2 line did that!) but this one isn’t really the best. I like that her dress would have been quite tricky to replicate in toy form, so they opted to just give her 70’s style flares/bell bottoms. Her blaster pistol is extremely hard to find as it’s very small and doesn’t fit into her had very well so would be often lost. (The one accompanying my figure is a reproduction sadly). This isn’t my favourite toy in the line, but it’s pretty good and a decent enough representation of everyone’s favourite space monarch. My Leia’s hair paintwork is kind of off, so looks like she has dyed her hair recently and it has dyed her forehead a bit. S’okay Leia. It happens to Earth people too.

4. Chewbacca

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I love this figure. I found it for 50p at a car boot sale around 199, which I thought was fairly expensive for a figure back then. But with his toothy face, and neatly combed hair, I cannot help but smile looking at this toy. Even though Chewie only ever looked this tidy in the first film, this figure was released throughout the entire trilogy. It looks pretty screen accurate for the time, and comes with his bowcaster rifle, which looks less screen accurate as it would have been more costly and time-consuming to mould the ‘crossbow’ parts. But it does the job just fine. What I like about this figure’s weapon is that it has a little hook on the stock, which secures nicely on Chewie’s hairy arm making it harder to fall off. A really awesome figure.

5. R2D2

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As I type this, I am still saddened by the recent demise of Kenny Baker who amazingly managed to bring R2 to life in the original trilogy, as well as playing Paploo the Ewok in ROTJ and characters in Labyrinth and Willow.

I have fond memories of when I first picked up an R2 figure. It was mid ’90s I think, and me and my Dad had nipped into a supermarket to get something and my Mum waited in the car. We had to pass through a flea market on the way to the shop, and coming back I noticed that a stall had Star Wars figures on the table, and one of them was R2D2 priced at £6.00, which back then was a pretty high for a loose and slightly battered figure. But my Dad knew I really wanted it and I think he haggled the guy down to just under £5.00 as that was all the money he had in his pocket, and I walked away with an R2 gripped tightly in my hand. Even to this day I get phone calls off Dad if he has found something Star Wars at a carboot sale and to see if I own it or not, usually because my Mum has made him.

This figure isn’t exactly like R2 on the screen but it’s a pretty good representation. I always thought it was a shame that he didn’t have three legs like he usually did in the films, but it didn’t really matter. This figure was released a few times over the original trilogy with a few tweaks, for The Empire Strikes Back he had a had pullout sensor-scope which came out of the top of his dome, and in ‘The Power of the Force’ line he was fitted with a pop up lightsaber (This figure is now very sought after and can fetch a high price if complete with the original saber which was easily lost). There was also a cartoon version based on the animated Droids television series which was just a repaint of the pop up saber version. Though all of these figures had their various added features, they all generally retained the mould of the original R2D2.

Not a lot more to really say about this little guy. He’s a nice simplified version of the little droid we have come to know and love in films, in a time where he didn’t have pop out rockets or any other crap that the prequels decided he should have.

6. Ben Kenobi

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I actually need to get half decent camera. If you go blind by how bright the face on Ben looks in this picture, I am really sorry. Maybe he is just glowing because he is one with the force. Or maybe it’s because I use a shitty camera phone to take photographs, instead of using a decent one that can actually focus. But I will spend my money on old toys instead of decent tech, so we just have to deal with it.

So this is Ben or Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is very simple representation of Alec Guinness’s on-screen character, though I think Ben did have lighter coloured under-robes in the film, more creamy colour and less brown. But who really cares. The point of this toy was to make it have a lightsaber fight with Darth Vader, not scorn it for its lack of accuracy.

I never owned Ben as a kid and always wanted him or Yoda, but never got either. It’s a wonder Luke could battle Vader at all considering both of his teachers were never there to actually teach him. But never mind.

7. C3PO

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If your eyes survived Ben’s glare, then maybe C3PO will finish them off! I am amazed that after nearly forty years, this figure is as shiny as he is. A lot of the chrome figures from the vintage line lost the paintwork very easily, and their limbs also go all floppy. But this one looks real nice. He looks like he could have been torn off his card last year.

I think this is one of the more screen accurate figures of the line, probably because it is easier to make a good copy of an inanimate face than it is a real one. I never owned C3PO as a kid either and I’m not too bummed about that. I like C3PO enough, but he wasn’t a figure that I really needed.When your playing on the floor, in the midst of an awesome scene and the Stormtroopers are chasing after Luke and Han, I was never like “Shit, I wish I had a C3PO to be a whiny bitch right now, that would really make this adventure better.” Like R2, they reused the design of the figure for The Empire Strikes Back, but made it so you could remove his arms and legs and put him in a little bag on Chewie’s back like in the movie.

8. Han Solo

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Jesus, I didn’t realise the pictures I had taken were so bloody awful. Here is Han Solo sporting an almost bowlcut hairstyle. An interesting fact about this figure is that there are two versions of Han, one with a smaller head and one with this head. I actually prefer the look of the smaller headed Han and think it looks a bit more like Harrison Ford, but the folks at Kenner must have decided that it looked too small and instead released this bigger headed version.

I love this figure, and the reason for the that is that it’s the only figure which has it’s arm bent like he’s shooting from the hip. I don’t think it’s that obvious from the picture, but his right arm is at a ninety degree angle which looks awesome.

There were better versions of Han Solo which came out with the ESB and ROTJ lines, but as a first version, it really isn’t awful. I would have been the happiest kid ever if I was born early enough to experience these toys first hand and I got Han and Chewie for Christmas. And a Millennium Falcon playset would have topped it!

9. Stormtrooper

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The cannon fodder of the line! I am sure that kids back then wanted quite a few of these just to ‘pewpew’. For the first ever incarnation of a Stormtrooper, it isn’t bad but suffers a little by not having an articulate head like most of the other figures. One problem with this figure is due to the plastic, it can yellow over the years but this one isn’t too bad. In recent years there have been reproductions of this figure manufactured in China, so if you are wanting to pick up one, check to ensure that it is definitely legit if you are a stickler for originals.

They made a few different Imperial figures in the whole of the vintage line, but this is probably one of the must-owns that you should definitely have in your collection. The stormtrooper is the backbone of the galactic Empire after all.

10. Jawa

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As a kid, I saw a picture of a whole bunch of Jawas in one of my Mums collector magazines. I wish I knew what it was called as it was such an awesome scene somebody had made, with a Sandcrawler which had lights in it, and sand and some droids and stuff. It was brilliant and made me really want a Jawa figure, but I only managed to find one in the last few years.

Supposedly this figure was initially meant to come with a vinyl cape which I think looks much better, but due to the size of the figure it apparently didn’t look like kids were getting their moneys worth, so they decided to go for a fabric cape which bulked the figure out a bit. I think is a shame that you don’t get to see the detail under the fabric.

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See, look how sexy the Jawa looks disrobed! I can’t see the point of sculpting nice details if you are just going to chuck a big piece of brown cloth over the top of him. The ESB figures had a few smaller characters in it, like Ugnaught and Yoda but they made it look more worth the money, by enclosing some nice accessories in with them. As I type this, I realise that Ugnaught came with what looks like a lunchbox, so I am talking crap there, but Yoda had a removable belt, a fabric robe, and a snake! Oh the amount of fun that kids could have had by undoing Yoda’s belt, removing his robe and playing with his snake! (Oh dear…)

If only they had thought of something extra for the Jawa, like some junk or something and he would have looked worth the money without having to wear what looks like a dirty woolen sock over top of him.

11. Sandpeople (Tusken Raider)

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“Urrrrrrrrrrgh! Urrrgh Urrrgh Urrrgh Urrrgh!”

That was a Sandpeople noise, or the noise you make if you accidentally swallow the Jawa figure and are trying to bring it back up.

I really like this figure. This was one I remember getting for 20p from a car boot sale many years ago. I never felt like you found out enough about the Sandpeople in the original film. What was under the robes, why were they so savage and why did they sound like donkeys? Most of these questions would be answered as time went on, but I like characters or civilizations with a bit of mystery about them, and the Sandpeople are definitely mysterious.

Interesting fact, In the first film when Luke gets attacked, the Sandperson only ever raised his weapon above his head once, but they looped it so it looked like he was raising it up and down. There was a sandpeople variation with hollow facial tubes, which I think is more sought after, but it isn’t something I ever felt the need to acquire.

This was an awesome figure, and I wish they had made a Bantha for it to ride. You definitely need to pick a few of these up if you are having a Tatooine display.

12. Death Star Trooper (Death Squad Commander)

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I totally forgot about this guy when I was taking pictures and just went to write-up about him and realised that somehow he had evaded my camera and had to go and quickly take a picture of him.

He was originally released as Death Squad Commander which I think was changed due to it sounding a little dark and a little too much like some real life fascist soldier.

This guy is supposed to be one of the guys with the silly helmets on the Death Star, but I always thought that they had black suits, not grey ones? Maybe I am wrong. I could look it up but I don’t really care enough to google it. I have been typing for ages now, and I would rather believe that Kenner might have messed up than to actually confirm it.

Although not as recognizable as the Stormtrooper, if you wanted a variation of bad guys to kill then this would have been a good way of going. I managed to get one as a kid from a flea market but his paint had faded on his helmet, so he had one huge massive flesh coloured head, which from behind looked somewhat like the tip of a penis.

I have seen a few people online use this figure to make one of the rebel troopers from the start of the first film, the ones that were either killed or taken prisoner. That just made me think actually, why didn’t Luke or Han or Leia open up a few more cell doors in the original movie? Like a few rebels were taken prisoner, were they all executed before Leia (as she was scheduled to be), or did they die when the Death Star was destroyed? It wouldn’t have killed Luke, Han or Leia just to open a few doors and let a few prisoners out. Assholes. Even if they weren’t rebels, and were just random aliens, I am sure a few would have been grateful to be released and would sign up to the cause if they had escaped on the Falcon with the rest of ’em.

So that was my look at the first twelve Star Wars action figures that were ever made. I think any Star Wars fan owes their appreciation to these first toys as without their success we may not have the universe that we know and love today.

These days when a movie finishes its run it will be released on DVD, but back then home video wasn’t really an established thing, so unless movie theaters decided to show the film again, kids only had the action figures or comics to keep them interested and keep the galaxy alive in their heads until the next movie came out.

Before these toys, action figures of this small size and scale weren’t the norm at all. But being smaller, it made it made figures more affordable and opened up way more opportunities with vehicles and playsets. After the Star Wars line, quite a few other lines went down the 3 3/4 inch scale line, the most notable probably being G.I. JOE, but these days you could go to any store and find action figures around this size. And because the toys were so small and affordable, it gave Kenner the opportunity to create a fairly vast variety of figures. Some of the characters that were immortalized in action figure form only graced the screens for a few seconds but looked interesting enough that kids could flesh out their back stories or make them have their own adventures or make them enemies or allies to Luke and his friends.

In all, there were 96 action figures released over the course of the original trilogy, and a Droids and Ewoks line of figures based upon the animated series. Though they do look a little ‘clunky’ by today’s standards, I LOVE these toys. They are charming and detailed enough, and they display really nicely. There are enough rarities to make the collecting aspect fun, and you can still find rarer figures for good prices (providing that you do keep an eye out!). There is also a fantastic community of Vintage Star Wars collectors, and many websites dedicated to the toys.

So if you have an appreciation for the Star Wars saga and its legacy and are ever walking around a flea market or a carboot sale or an old store somewhere and you see a battered Luke Skywalker or any of the vast array of characters or creatures, then pick it up and hold it in your hand and appreciate it. It’s a real life, tangible, plastic little piece of history of the galaxy you love, and if it had never existed then perhaps that galaxy far far away would be a lot further away and a little more forgotten.

2 thoughts on “Vintage Star Wars! The first 12 Kenner figures from 1978!

  1. Pingback: Final Fantasy VII Extra Knights action figures, from Bandai, 1997! – The Forgotten Starship

  2. Pingback: Modern Star Wars figures that are weird but not terrible! – The Forgotten Starship

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