Was He-Man Originally Intended as a Toy Tie-In for Film, Conan the Barbarian?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about toys and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all toy urban legends featured so far! It is also really a Movie Legends Revealed, too, so it’ll be listed under both categories.

TOY/MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: He-Man began life as a toy tie-in for the Conan the Barbarian film.

One of the great movie toy tie-in legends involves He-Man and Conan the Barbarian. Namely, did He-Man originate as a tie-in to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Conan the Barbarian, and then Mattel decided, “Eh, let’s just keep this one for ourselves” and then took their Conan prototypes and turn them into the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy line.

The supporting evidence for this being the case is the fact that Mattel did, in fact, have a licensing agreement with Conan Properties International (CPI) to make Conan toys and then Mattel backed out. When He-Man came out, CPI sued Mattel for general copyright infringement claims (that He-Man was too similar to Conan as a toy) and, more specifically, that Mattel breached their contract with CPI to make the He-Man toys.

So is it true?

However, when the case went to court, Mattel won.

And the biggest point of the case was that everyone agreed that He-Man was in existence at Mattel BEFORE they signed the licensing deal with CPI.

Here’s the important parts from the licensing agreement:

[CPI] agrees and acknowledges that toy figures and accessories based upon or appearing to be ancient characters or futuristic characters or combinations thereof from various time periods with which articles are or may be competitive have been and will be produced and sold and may hereafter be created, designed, produced and sold by [Mattel] (collectively referred herein as “Related Toy Line”) without incurring liability to [CPI] under this Agreement.

Thus, the parties agree that nothing in this agreement shall be construed or interpreted

(a) to require elimination of or preclude any Related Toy Line;

. . . . .

(c) to place [Mattel] in breach or default of any provision of this agreement, including the obligation of diligence, by reason of [Mattel’s] engaging in any business activity in a Related Toy Line;

. . . . .

(e) to in any way serve to limit, restrict or impose conditions upon or in any way abridge [Mattel’s] independent business judgment in connection with manufacture or marketing … of any Related Toy Line.

This was important, as the court ruled that CPI (their head of licensing, Sydney Alpert, was deposed and his deposition was a key piece of evidence) knew that He-Man was in existence BEFORE they signed their deal with Mattel.

From the court case:

During his deposition, Alpert admitted, if grudgingly, that the Masters of the Universe, He-Man’s family, fit the Related Toy Line clause. Alpert deposition, supra, at 484-85. Alpert’s concession merely reinforces the obvious: CPI expressly acknowledged that He-Man existed when the parties signed the license, and notwithstanding CPI’s wishes, Mattel had no intention of giving He-Man up. The Related Toy Line clause thus “provides powerful support for the [Mattel’s] position that it had no obligation to exploit” the license. Eastern Elec., Inc. v. The Seeburg Corp., 427 F.2d 23, 26 (2d Cir.1970) (covenant implied in Lady Duff-Gordon not read into contract “explicitly recogniz[ing] that [licensee] could deal in machines not covered by the … patents and that [licensor] would not be paid for such sales”).[19] The same logic disposes of CPI’s second covenant; given the clear language of ¶ 10(d), Mattel did not circumvent its license to market Conan when it continued to work on He-Man which had already been designed by July, 1981.

Now, if you want to say Mattel was inspired by the success of Conan as a character period for their creation of He-Man, I can totally buy that. I can see He-Man as a Conan riff. But that is a far cry from “they started to license Conan and then turned the Conan licensed figures into He-Man and the Masters of Universe.”

So I’m going with the legend as…


Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film. Click here for more legends specifically about superhero movies!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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