A Boy and His ‘Dolls’: From Captain Action to Major Matt Mason

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A few years ago there was an announcement that Tom Hanks would be producing a film based on the old Major Matt Mason toy line from the 1960s — which immediately brought me back to my childhood and the realization that during my formative geek years, my obsessions were pulling me in different directions. In terms of comic books, Superman was the…er, man. Horror got me via the Gothic soap Dark Shadows and Christopher Lee’s Dracula films; my action quota was filled by James Bond, sci-fi by Star Trek, Lost in Space (never thought I’d say those two in the same sentence) and, eventually, Planet of the Apes; and then there were my dolls. Unfortunately, no one had coined the phrase “action figures” yet, so we played with dolls. I gave G.I. Joe a shot, but never quite got into it — there was nothing genre about him (not until the 1980s, anyway).

Instead, I gravitated towards Captain Action, the superhero you could turn into a number of different superheroes (costumes sold separately). When I think back to CA (we loved abbreviating these things, kind of the way Dark Shadows became DS), I realize that I went through a hell of a lot of them. In fact, for a couple of years there, virtually every birthday and Christmas had me getting a Captain Action doll and, on occasion, his sidekick Action Boy and arch nemesis, Dr. Evil. I had a number of costumes for CA – Superman, Captain America and Spider-Man spring to mind, though I always wanted but never got Tonto — and even had an official parachute for the good captain. Not sure what my father was thinking, but I recall him launching it out the living room window of our fourth floor Brooklyn apartment (1261 Schenectady Avenue). I watched with glee as Captain Action sailed across Avenue D and came pretty damn close to flying right in the front door of Penny’s Sweet Shop across the street. For a kid it was pretty exciting, although I wish someone had realized that unless we got our asses down there my Captain Action with parachute would be gone forever (or at least until the next birthday).

But I digress.

Besides Captain Action, my other dolls were more in the Gumby style, if you will. You remember Gumby, don’t you? It was the one toy hemopheliacs couldn’t play with (at least that was always my assumption), because if you wore Gumby down, the rubber around his wire insides would crack and metal would start sticking through. So while I got some pleasure out of Gumby and his pal Pokey, I turned to other characters made in that particular wire and rubber format. Among them were The Outer Space Men, a collection of aliens with names like Alpha 7 (my favorite), Xodiac and Orbitron. These guys, part of a short-lived collection, were significant to me, not the least of which was because they were a part of my short-lived career as a child shoplifter. A friend (who insisted that all of us call him “Chimp”) convinced my gullible young mind that it would be a good idea to use our G.I. Joe lockers (they were long enough to hold one of the packaged Outer Space dudes). So we tried it and we got caught. He was smart enough to give a fake phone number for his parents not to be called at, while the fact that I wasn’t smart enough not to be shoplifting is overshadowed by the fact that I wasn’t smart enough to give a fake phone number. Dinner that night was particularly interesting, with my mother’s eyes bulging as she picked up the phone and got the news. Spent two weeks in the house that summer!

And then there was Major Matt Mason. Coming out at the height of America’s interest in the space program, the Major enjoyed a couple of solid years of sales beginning in 1966 when the race to space was still in full swing and the United States hadn’t gotten to the moon yet. The “premise” of the toy was that the Major led a team of astronauts stationed on the moon who protected earth from extraterrestrial threats. The line included five astronauts, the alien Captain Lazer, a three-story space station and various vehicles. It lasted into the early 1970s, at which point interest seemed to fade along with America’s fascination with space — the country having landed on the moon in 1969, the feeling seemed to have become one of “been there, done that.”

And then Tom Hanks has announced his plans to turn Major Matt Mason into a feature film. I have to admit, when I started writing this piece yesterday, I was actually annoyed that MMM was going to become the subject of a movie. Nothing against nostalgia — as I said, the Major was a part of my youth, too — but why is it that every pop culture element needs to be brought back in some form or another, especially for a generation that has never heard of the character? Hasn’t Hanks encountered the cosmos enough already between producing HBO’s From Earth to the Moon and starring in Apollo 13?

Well, that curmudgeonly response pretty much went away today when I realized that in the real world, the space program triggers barely a media or public ripple. You know, I remember that first moon landing (I was nine). I was staying with my grandparents that summer, and I can still feel the excitement in the room as we watched Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the lunar surface. And the pride that had swelled up in my grandparents over what America had accomplished. That pride for the space program is something that has faded away to the point of indifference and annoyance that these days, only the very rich will be able to enjoy a joyride to the upper atmosphere. Maybe the adventures of Major Matt Mason will result in some sort of resurgence of interest in space; filling kids with excitement and their imaginations with fantasies of venturing beyond the Earth.

Okay, so now that I’ve thought about it, maybe I do miss that doll after all. C’mon, Tom, Matt deserves the promotion! 

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