Boba Fett and Battlestar Galactica - The Firing Missile Crisis
Written by Chris Georgoulias firstname.lastname@example.org
Urban legend has it that the impetus for Kenner's removal of the rocket-firing feature from the Boba Fett action figure was the death of a child who choked on the missile of a Mattel Battlestar Galactica toy. But like many urban legends, this one falls short of the true story and was not what actually doomed the Boba Fett figure.
Mattel's troubles with the Battlestar Galactica toys came to light on December 8, 1978 when the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) announced that there had been 3 formal reports (and 4 more under investigaion) of children inhaling or swallowing the toy missiles. Although the toys passed all current safety regulations, Mattel agreed to put warning stickers on existing warehouse inventories. This was the first public acknowledgement of a safety concern with the Battlestar Galactica toys. Then on December 25, 1978, 4 year old Jeffrey Warren put the nose of a Mattel Colonial Viper ship into his mouth where the missile discharged and got stuck in his larynx. He was asphyxiated and his brain robbed of oxygen for an extended time. After the missile was removed he spent days in the hospital, but the damage had already been done and his brain no longer functioned. Just a toddler, Jeffrey Warren died on December 31, 1978.
On January 11, 1979 news of the death was coupled with an announcement from the CPSC that Mattel was instituting a missile recall program. Newspaper announcements in 10 major cities carried the message urging parents to either dispose of the missiles or mail them back to Mattel in exchange for a Hot Wheels car. Other newspapers relayed the story and it was also on NBC's Today Show, but many believe the recall should have had much more publicity. Of course by this time parents had actually been writing Mattel to inquire about replacements for the easily lost missles given that 2 million of the toys had been sold since their debut in August 1978. Because of the critical nature of the situation, not only would the requests for more missiles go unfulfilled but the toys would be redesigned for 1979 so that the missiles would no longer leave the firing chamber.
Back in Cincinnati, Kenner had secretly removed the rocket-launching feature from the Boba Fett figure based on their own internal testing and that happened before news of Jeffrey Warren's death was publicized. The January 11 announcement came only 4 weeks before New York Toy Fair where Kenner would debut their non-firing figure. By this time the figures for catalog photography as well as for display at the event would have already been created.
Although the original L-slot version of the Boba Fett figure passed all safety tests, the mechanism was redesigned to prevent accidental firing. The updated design now known as the J-slot version solved that issue by requiring the mechanism to be pulled down and held before releasing the launcher. However the J-slot design presented a different safety problem altogether because the small stem of plastic in the center of the J could be broken off resulting in a very sharp "splinter" that could get into an eye. Kenner's head of legal, James Kipling, was brought into the test lab and shown the splinter where he made the decision to remove the firing mechansim from the figure for good. This image shows one of the J-slot test specimens where the extension had been bent, but not quite broken during stress testing. Other figures in collectors hands have this extension completely broken off.
Action Figure Digest magazine issue #20 (Nov 1994) ran an interview with former Kenner test technician John Howison who performed safety testing on the rocket-firing Boba Fett figures and was still in possession of several prototypes at the time. Through a Cincinnati newspaper ad (Kenner's home town) Howison was alerted to collector demand for the figures and after coming forth with them he was contacted by AFD for the story. A subsequent meeting with Howison confirmed and expanded on his original statements.
John Howison was the source of 2 L-slot and 3 J-slot Fetts, the latter of which was the first exposure most collectors had to it and it offered a fascinating glimpse into the progression of the figure design from the very person tasked with safety testing it. The final firing version was complete with painted accents and copyright markings just like a production toy but it was never to be. Both engineered versions differed greatly from the concept figure shown on the cardbacks that collectors refer to as the kit-bashed Boba Fett a term meaning "built from model kit parts", but in this case from other Star Wars action figures.
Interestingly, the fact that the coroner wrote Star Wars toy put into mouth - missile ejected into bronchial area on Jeffrey Warren's death certificate just goes to show how prevalent Star Wars toys were in the popular culture at the time and perhaps how easily it and Battlestar Galactica were confused by the average person. Then again, in mid-1978 George Lucas famously sued the creators of Battlestar Galactica for generally copying the whole look and idea of Star Wars, so that confusion wasn't likely without a bit of merit.
Contrary to popular belief, NO firing Boba Fett figures were ever released to the public. Children across the country were quite disappointed to open the little white mailer box and read the enclosed notice explaining that their new figure had a non-firing rocket. The fun factor that they had been waiting months for was totally gone. I know because I was one of them. And while many false childhood memories still run strong to this day, all known rocket-firing figures that have been unearthed are prototypes that can be traced back to Kenner employee origins.
Boba Fett Action Figure Design Iterations
1. Original Concept (kit-bashed)
2. Revised Concept (kit-bashed)
3. Final Concept (kit-bashed)
4. Protomolded (molded and handworked)
5. First fully engineered (L-Slot) version
6. Final fully engineered (J-Slot) version
7. Final fully engineered (J-Slot) version Mailer Box sample
8. Production figure
Timeline of Relevant (and semi-relevant) Events and Milestones
Additional Information Regarding the Jeffrey Warren Incident, Courtesy of David Rheingold and Isaac Lew