“Well, it’s not a toy! It’s a fucking movie now!” Those words from director Gary Goddard nicely sum up the experience of turning Masters Of The Universe from a successful Mattel toy line and popular cartoon series into a full-length, live-action 1987 motion picture that lasted only three miserable weeks in theaters. The doomed Masters movie is the subject of an episode of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, and Slashfilm is augmenting that discussion with an extremely detailed five-part article by Blake J. Harris: “How Did This Get Made: Masters Of The Universe (An Oral History).” Besides the chatty and still-passionate Goddard, interviewees include actress Chelsea Field (Teela in the film), production designer William Stout, and numerous executives and former executives from Mattel, including Tom Kalinske, Joe Morrison, and John Weems.
In 1982, still smarting from having passed on Star Wars, Mattel introduced the Masters Of The Universe toy line to compete in the “boys action figure space” against rivals like Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. “Unlike girls,” explains Kalinske, “boys needed a more structured play environment,” so a great deal of time and attention were lavished upon creating a rich, detailed mythology behind the plastic toys. The line was a hit, to put it mildly, and an animated television series from Lou Scheimer’s Filmation, He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, appeared in 1983. (Mattel had to go the first-run syndication route because none of the networks wanted to touch a series based on a line of toys.) Since Filmation was more interested in telling stories and Mattel was interested in promoting a brand, the relationship between the companies was tense.
But the series was a hit, and a feature film seemed like the next logical step. Enter Edward Pressman, who had produced 1982’s Conan The Barbarian, a film that had certainly influenced the toy line. A former Disney Imagineer, Gary Goddard was seemingly hired on the strength of his experience directing a live Conan The Barbarian show at Universal Studios. Having made a major impression with his performance in Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren was tapped to play He-Man despite his heavy Swedish accent and doubts about whether he could actually act. Several prominent actors—including Frank Langella, Courteney Cox (then known for the Springsteen “Dancing In The Dark” video), Billy Barty, and Meg Foster—were brought in to complete the cast.
Despite the shoot being a lot of fun—Chelsea Field and Gary Goddard both compare it to summer camp—Masters Of The Universe was plagued by poor timing. The Mattel toy line was cooling off considerably by 1987, ironically undone by rival franchises following the Masters template. Goddard also found that what worked for toys and cartoons did not necessarily work in a live-action film; he had to scuttle such key characters as Orko and Beast-Man and replace them with newly designed ringers. The idea to have most of the film take place on Earth apparently came from a budget-conscious Pressman; Goddard had to fight for the opening and closing segments on He-Man’s home planet of Eternia. Most problematic of all, Cannon Films, the notoriously cheesy studio bankrolling Masters Of The Universe, was in a financial tailspin by 1987 and ran out of cash before the film had even been finished. “I was just pleased,” says William Stout, “that we ended up with a beginning, middle and end. That was kind of a shock to me, because I wasn’t sure we had that.”