Don was not the "creator" of GI Joe, but he was certainly Joe's "father", for without his vision and expertise, GI Joe would not have become the success it was, ushering in the very first era of boy's "action figures".
In 1963, Hasbro was a small but formidable toy company, focusing mainly on "play items" like doctor kits and pencils/pencil cases. Their first major success came from Mr. Potato Head in 1952.
A young game designer named Larry Reiner took his idea of a 10" "soldier doll" to his bosses at Ideal who immediately told him that "boys do not play with dolls-- even soldier dolls."
Reiner met licensing agent Stan Weston at Toy Fair who did not think his idea was all that crazy and took the idea directly to Don Levine at Hasbro.
Hasbro struck a deal with Weston and began working on refining the concept internally.
Levine re-envisioned the figure (it was never to be called a "doll", not even internally at Hasbro) to be 12" tall-- to stand as tall as Mattel's powerhouse, Barbie-- and decided to create four figures, one to represent every branch of the military.
He based the original design of the figure off of an artist's mannequin that he saw in a store window. This game him a direction as to how to articulate the figure, but it needed a name...
While watching TV one night, Levine came across a war film named The Story of GI Joe. He had found the name for his toy line, and, at his introduction at Toy Fair 1964, Joe was touted as "GI Joe, America's Movable Fighting Man".
Levine's vision and direction on the GI Joe brand brought Hasbro the kind of success and revenue it had never seen, doing $5 million in sales during it's first holiday release, and $23 million in sales the following year in 1965.
|Don Levine with the original GI Joe prototype named "Rocky".|
([Not so] Fun Fact: Larry Reiner wanted the standard 5% royalty for his creation, but Hasbro countered with 1%, due to all the money they had put into the concept to develop it in-house. In the end, Renier was paid $100,00-- to be split with his agent, Stan Weston-- for Hasbro's full rights to GI Joe. If Renier and Weston had accepted the 1%-- which at the time was understandably a game, and perhaps slightly insulting-- they would have net over 7.5 million dollars by 1996.)
Don Levine remained the figurehead and face of the original 12" GI Joe and made many convention appearances over the years, speaking on Joe's creation and history and signing autographs.
He will be missed by all who met him and by anyone who was touched (as I was) by GI Joe, the very first action figure ever created.