Very cool! Thanks.
Many who worked at Mattel during the 1980s seem to have a story about the origins of Masters of the Universe. It’s always fascinating to hear the different perspectives from people who were there at the time. Derek Gable played a role in helping to make MOTU happen. In fact, Castle Grayskull might not have been produced at all if it weren't for him. Gable, who was the Director of Preliminary Design responsible for male action figures, was present for the beginnings of He-Man at Mattel. In the following interview, he shares his in-depth views on the origins of the toyline.
Interview with Derek Gable
by Danielle Gelehrter
Interview conducted October 18, 2013
Can you tell us what your position was at Mattel?
My position at Mattel was director in Preliminary Design responsible for Male Action Figures – Small Dolls – Games – Novelties etc
You worked at Mattel before the genesis of Masters of the Universe. Could you describe the atmosphere at Mattel during this time?
In those early years at Mattel mainly the 50,s through the 70s the creative atmosphere was amazing. Mattel which stands for Matt and Elliot was formed by Elliot and Ruth Handler plus another partner who dropped out when they first went into the toy business.
We were given permission to do all kinds of outrageous things as long as we produced the wonderful new concepts that kept Mattel at the front of the industry. The company was full of young, creative mavericks who were chosen for their cutting edge ideas and willingness to step out of the box and take chances.
Under the stewardship of Elliot Handle [an extremely creative individual and awesome leader who personally came up with and named Hot Wheels ] Mattel assembled it’s own think tank [Preliminary Design] which was responsible for creating new items for all the existing lines and coming up with amazing new lines to Wow the trade at Toy Show in New York. At its peak Prelim, as it was called, had about 100 designers and the department reported directly to the President Elliot.
Other departments involved with design were R&D who took the ideas originated in Prelim and engineered them – Visual Design that was responsible for designing the product from a graphics and aesthetic point of view.
Prelim generated about 90% of the new concepts in those days the other 10% coming from outside inventor groups. Mattel today has no dedicated independent Preliminary Design department and licenses a much higher percentage of their new ideas from outside inventors.
The company was known for it’s crazy interactive events and parties that were encouraged to foster enthusiasm for keeping it vibrant and a fun place to work.
For example we had an Annual Great Race where departments designed built and raced vehicles powered and manned [or womaned] by teams from each department. There were prizes in many categories such as the best theme, the best decorated, the most scandalous and of course the fastest.
If this event was held today it would have probable resulted in half the company being hauled off to jail!.
Other things were also celebrated with over the top events including Valentines, St Paddies, Halloween, Cinco d mayo, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This was truly an atmosphere that brought out the creativity in the designers who generated home runs for the company over and over.
How did Masters of the Universe come about?
Now for the REAL story of how Masters came about!
It is a well known saying a success has many fathers where a failure is just an orphan.
It is no different with Masters with dozens clamoring for parenthood!
Up to this point, however, I think the true story has been hidden in a cloud of unwillingness to give credit where credit is due.
It saddens me to see a number of the truly deserving, major contributors to this amazing success basically throw their lives away in the pursuit of being given sole credit for Masters! Let’s face it nobody really cares!
Masters is not a typical invention but more like a love potion or witches brew, neither of which has much chance of working unless all the ingredients are present.
Lets start by setting the scene:
I was in charge of the Male Action Figure category at Mattel which at that time consisted of Big Jim and the Pack
Hasbro our main competitor had GI Joe. At the time Masters was born, Elliot had left Mattel and the new President was Ray Wagner a nice guy and a good friend. The Company was still smarting over not licensing Star Wars which is a story unto itself! Star Wars was brought to Mattel first!
It was in it’s embryonic stage, a simple 30 second film clip and the Bible [what they call the written story and sketches of the characters]
At that point in time no feature length movie had been a success in the world of toys [Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a small exception maybe]
I was there at that presentation along with Ray Wagner and Denis the head of Prelim.
Star Wars even at that stage was very new and exciting - a true frame breaker!
Ray asked us a few leading questions
What do you think? – Fantastic!
When is the movie to be released? – November
When is the earliest you can get product ready for shipping? – next March
"Well!" said Ray, "what is the point the kids will be clamoring for product at Christmas! by March they will have probably forgotten all about it!" – PASS
Star Wars was then taken to Hasbro (Kenner) where the same type of meeting took place.
At Hasbro, where the President was Bernie Lomas, an Ex Mattel VP and my counterpart in Prelim was Dave an old colleague who also worked in Mattel’s Prelim at one time. This time Bernie gave Dave a couple of weeks to put together a toy presentation based on what he saw.
Based on the great potential demonstrated by Dave Bernie made a mad decision.
We will give the little rug rats coupons at Christmas which they can trade for toys in March
Well did they ever luck out! The kids were still clamoring for product in March and a new phenomenon was born.
Ray called a special meeting with Denis and me and made it clear we must find or create something to compete with Star Wars that had basically taken over the whole Male Action Figure market – squashing Big Jim our only contender.
Month after month I developed and presented all kinds of concepts in the category from robots to blood sucking bats to people eating giants none of which were considered strong enough to compete with Star Wars which had become an Icon in it’s market.
One of the designers in my group of 15 was Roger Sweet who liked to think of himself as a bit of a weight lifter and he came to me with a basic idea.
Big Jim and the characters in Star Wars are all wimps he said - I would like to have sculpted a figure that is massive – as wide as he is tall with huge muscles.
I tried to have Mattel’s sculpting department sculpt something up but they were too busy so Roger had a go himself I believe using clay over a Big Jim figure. After he completed the sculpting he made some weird space like accessories that clipped on like a gun turret head gear etc
He also did some drawings and called his oversized muscle bound fool He Man!
Roger also created other characters along the same lines, Vicon etc.
Once again at our regular monthly Toy presentation meeting we presented Roger's creation.
Ray Wagner’s reaction was one of complete frustration “ I have absolutely no idea what these boys want” turning to Marty Miller head of Marketing Research he said “Do a test with a bunch of boys in our target age range to see what they like.”
After the meeting Marty came to my office. “ It’s alright for Ray to ask me to do a test but what do I test?!” Marty blurted.
"Leave it with me. I will put together some drawings of different themes we think boys would like for your test."
Roger and I along with others in my group put together 12 different lines with figures vehicles and play sets covering themes such as Robots, Swat teams, Military, Western, Knights, etc along with space represented by Star Wars and the He Man line which by this time I believe called Space Fantasy.
Marty took our concept drawings up to Mark Ellis who was VP for Marketing in the Male Action area to plan the test.
Later, Marty let me know they could only test 5 concepts out of the 12 as it had to be an odd number and 12 was too many anyway - and guess what?! – He Man was not one of the themes chosen!
I was furious, and after a lot of cajoling and emphasizing He Man was what triggered Ray to order the test in the first place, they agreed to add two more to the test and include the Space Fantasy.
The materials for the market test were to be developed by Visual design and would be in the form of large story telling boards depicting the figures, vehicles, accessories and play sets in action.
In comes Mark Taylor. Mark is a fantastic creative artist and he produced amazing boards for all the chosen themes.
His board for He Man and the theme that by then I think was called Monster Fantasy was superb and truly defined what He Man would look like. Mark also created many of the characters and play sets that would ultimately be the essence of Masters.
The test was an amazing success and I had the privilege to witness the kids going wild over He Man and the Monster Fantasy line even when Star Wars was present. We came out of the test with enough confidence to spend huge money to tool and market Masters which would become the first Toy concept ever to become feature length films and an animation series.
A line of that importance and magnitude requires significant creative input from many of the best designers although there is no doubt Roger and Mark were the key contributors – I only wish they could recognize each others' significant contributions.
I feel I also threw some essential ingredients into the pot by playing a significant part in making sure it actually got tested, contributing creatively in many ways, and even saving Castle Grayskull that was to be dropped by Advertizing until I suggested it could be controlled by both the good guy He Man and the bad guy Skeletor and hence the split sword came to pass.
Your response indicates that Roger originated the idea of the "He-Man" barbarian as part of his trio of characters for the presentation he made. However, it is said that Mark Taylor had been creating very similar drawings of a barbarian character (Torak) for many years prior to He-Man, and that some of these drawings were in his office at Mattel. Furthermore, it has been said that he created a drawing of a place called the "Dwell of Souls" which was very similar to Castle Grayskull. We have seen images of many of these illustrations in recent years thanks to the Power & Honor Foundation. Some of these date back to the 70s. Is it possible that Roger based his barbarian in the trio on Mark's drawings?
Roger came at it from a different angle [I know this for a fact he talked to me about a figure like a weight lifter who was as wide as he was high to make all other figures look like wimps] his figure was more a combination of a weight lifter type with massive muscles and elements of barbarian. His sculpting of this monstrous guy he called He-Man with the barbarian look and high tech accessories was the catalyst. You have to remember Prelim and R&D were totally different departments locked away from each other, therefore Mark could have been working on a figure line based on a Barbarian.
You have to remember also at that time there were many things going on in the market place re: barbarians Conan and Frazetta's work. However, it was Rogers massive as wide as high figure that got the ball rolling with management. Mark's drawing was probably the inspiration for Castle Grayskull.
She-Ra Princess of Power was a spinoff of Masters of the Universe. The She-Ra line originated in the boys' department and was taken over by the girls' toys department. Can you remember what happened there? What did the original designs for She-Ra and friends look like?
Have no input on this I am afraid.
When did you leave Mattel?
I left Mattel in 1984 when they decided in their wisdom they no longer needed an independent free thinking Prelim and merged it into R&D
Fortunately I had just invented the Real Estate Lock Box system for showing houses that recorded the entry into the property.
With a partner, I formed a company that manufactured and marketed the system. We made and sold over 1.5 million units and at the peak the company commanded 80% of the World Wide lock box business and employed over 200 people.
You contributed even after you left the brand. Do you recall what you contributed afterward?
I also formed an invention company West Coast Innovations and one of the many items we licensed was Buzz-Saw Hordak from the Evil Horde.
(ed note: Derek also mentioned to me over the phone that he came up with the idea for Dragstor after he left Mattel and sold the idea to the company.)
What was the appeal of Masters of the Universe?
The power of a good guy is always defined by the evil of the bad guy!
Skeletor is a really nasty, powerful bad guy and requires a super powerful good guy to combat him.
The appeal of Masters is the Power and sheer overwhelming strength of He Man coupled with the exciting combination of Medieval, Monsters and Space. The vehicles are creative and unique with great names as are the play sets and accessories.
One funny story re names – my sister Lynne still thinks I named Evil-Lyn after her!
Why do you think it ended?
It never should have ended, however, it was hurt by it’s own success.
One of the elements I suggested in the early development was a time travel capsule that would allow He Man to travel forwards and backwards in time so he could change themes to be current and interesting. This I believe would have kept the line fresh and able to continue even after the Monster Fantasy theme was tired.
Unfortunately the initial success of the Monster Fantasy theme was so strong they abandoned the Time Travel Capsule – a big mistake I think – but I am biased.
Have you seen the new Masters of the Universe Classics figures? Many fans love the new line.
Yes I love them! great to keep the brand alive – who knows what the future may bring?
Were there any characters or concepts you came up with that never made it into the line?
Not as Director at Mattel I was busy managing the overall effort.
I did however submit a number of concepts that were not moved forward as West Coast Innovations – too bad!
Great to have worked at Mattel in the glory days and to have been part of such a huge success!
Many thanks to Derek Gable for taking the time to share his thoughts and memories! Join me next time when I open the vault once again for another in-depth interview.
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Thank you, Penny! Excellent interview! Sounds like Roger Sweet and Mark Taylor had similar ideas at the same time, so they both had a hand in it, obviously. Maybe this help settles the feud a bit.
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VERY interesting interview! Thank you so much for posting.
MOTUC Most Wanted : Battle Ram, Attak Trak, Stridor, Night Stalker, Tung Lashor, Dragstor, Masks of Power Demons, Alcala-Style-Figures, Point Dread & Talon Fighter
That was an awesome read!
Great interview! And the way Derek Gabel talks about the creation of Masters sounds much more like the real deal than most stories we got hear till now. Thank you very much for doing this interview, Danielle.
"Why's Dragstor riding on Night Stalker?" "Cause he can."
Great interview! You could see how each one of them thinks they created everything for their POV but in reality it may not be so clear. It was a team effort for sure.
wow. I wonder if the sword lock on Grayskull was his inspiration foe the real estate lock box system. not that far fetched. ya know?
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Thanks Penny! A very good interview, but one thing REALLY stuck out to me--Mattel could have had the Starwars license years ago (never heard that before) I'm very glad they didn't get it, if they had we would never (more than likely) had heard of He-Man and have this community
Also, something that people may not be aware of is that Masters was to Big Jim what the 80's GI Joe was to the big ones.
Many of the action features in the MOTU toys came straight from Big Jim figures. The MOTU cats were refused molds from the Big Jim jungle cat.
"My favorite Harry Potter movie is Troll."
Thanks for the interview, Danielle! Awesome job, and it is so interesting to hear the stories behind everything. It really does seem like He-man's creation was a joint effort in many ways, and if any one of the contributors (including Derek Gable) hadn't been a part of things, the whole phenomenon wouldn't have happened (at least not in the same way). The stars really aligned!
Loved the interview, lots of great wide angle perspective on the genesis of the line
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I was fortunate enough to be at one of the Power Con panels last year where Derek was one of the panelists. He was the one who spoke the most and had a great recollection not only about Masters but Mattel too. Really enjoyed listening to him delve into the past and crack jokes with/at the others.
Most Wanted MOTU Classics:
*MotU ~ Multi-Bot/Tung Lashor *PoP ~ Angella/Mermista *200X ~ Roboto/Calix *Filmation ~ Teela Na/Lord Masque
*Play-Sets ~ Snake Mountain/Fright Zone *Vehicles ~ Roton/Land Shark *Beasts ~ Night Stalker/Stridor
Very informative and entertaining read. While "Monster Fantasy" was a working title, I'm kinda curious how something like that would work if it really did make it as the banner for a toyline. I'm also wondering what those great races at Mattel were like if they'd likely land the participants in jail. That'd have to be something awesome to attend!
Good read. Just makes me more curious to finally watch the toy masters documentary.