Animation Cel-ebration
September 29, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

Toying With Us: The 40th Anniversary of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.”

In an episode of the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us, Mark Ellis, Former VP of Boys Toys at Mattel, recalled pitching the Masters of the Universe toys to Toys “R” Us. Each of the action figures came with a comic book. The Toys “R” Us team wasn’t impressed with the comic, as they thought the targeted demographic child wouldn’t read it.

Ellis quickly responded with news that there were also plans for two one-hour TV specials. Having provided this information off the cuff, the VP swiftly made an appointment with Lou Scheimer, producer at Filmation Studio.

In the documentary, Ellis remembered, “At that initial conversation, Lou Scheimer suggested rather than two one-hour specials, for almost the same money, we could get a whole syndicated show.”

Thus, was born He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which debuted on September 5, 1983, igniting tremendous popularity for a generation of action-figure-crazed kids who were being weaned on sword and sorcery stories. The series would go on to be one of the most popular animated shows of the decade and still stands as an emblematic icon of the 80s.

Most movies and TV shows inspired action figures, toy vehicles, and playsets, but the show He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was inspired by a line of toys.

Mattel released the line of Masters of the Universe toys in 1982, which were enormously successful. In a 2015 Slashfilm article, Joe Morrison, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Mattel, said, “When we got the go-ahead from management to do the original toy line, we put in an estimate of, like, $12 million in sales. Well, we didn’t even release the toy until May of that year, and we wound up doing $32 million. These were significant numbers in 1982.”

It was during the aforementioned pitch to Toys “R” Us that Mattel brought in Filmation and brought the toys to life in animation.

The series was set on the mythical planet of Eternia and centered on Prince Adam, who transforms into the powerful He-Man whenever he holds the sword of power aloft. This portion of the show provided fans with a most iconic and, quite literally, powerful moment in animation, showing Prince Adam wielding the sword, summoning lightning, and proclaiming in a dramatic echo that’s become known to multiple generations: “By the Power of Grayskull! I have the power!”

Astride his giant Battle Cat and with his allies, The Sorceress of Castle Grayskull, Teela, and Man-At-Arms, He-Man faced off against Skeletor, another icon of the show and the decade. The villain – a shrouded skull atop an imposing, muscular frame – was and is an impressively designed character.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe took its rich story and universe from the comics and world created by Mattel. The show toned down some darker elements and added comic relief in the form of Orko, a small, troll-like character with magical powers who had no facial features save for two eyes peering out from under his hat.

The show’s talented voice cast included character actor John Erwin as He-Man (and Prince Adam) and several of the show’s other characters, including Ram-Man and Beast Man.

Alan Oppenheimer brought the cackling voice of Skeletor to life and also voiced Battle Cat and Man at Arms. Voice-over actress Linda Gary was Teela and the villainous Evil-Lyn, among others.

Producer Lou Scheimer (under the pseudonym Erik Gunden) provided the voice for Orko and voiced other characters, as did his daughter, Erika Scheimer.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ran through 1985 and then in reruns after. The show spawned the spin-off, She-Ra: Princess of Power, and an animated feature, The Secret of the Sword (which was several episodes of She-Ra: Princess of Power compiled together).

Throughout the 80s, He-Man’s popularity continued to explode across pop culture with toys, T-shirts, lunchboxes, comic books, and record albums. For an in-depth look at the music of He-Man, check out Greg Ehrbar’s 2016 Cartoon Research article.

There was a Masters of the Universe live-action film produced in 1987, with Dolph Lundgren starring as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor. The show was also revised several times in 1990, 2002, and 2021 as an animated series.

However, it’s the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, that “had the power” to leave a legacy that still lives within the hearts and memories of those who raced home from school each afternoon to watch it.


  • He-Man wasn’t popular with everyone. I once heard a TV evangelist assail the He-Man toys and cartoons for luring innocent children into Satanism and the Occult. “Only God is the Master of the Universe,” he declaimed to rapturous applause, “and only God has the Power!” He also denounced the Smurfs for promoting witchcraft. This was the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when Procter & Gamble was pressured into removing its century-old “occult” crescent-moon-and-stars logo from its products, and churches burned records of the Mister Ed theme song because “A horse is a horse, of course, of course,” when you play it backwards, sounds like “Someone sang this song for Satan.”

    The fact the He-Man has become a gay icon might be seen as partial vindication of these views, at least by those who hold them.

    • i wonder if it was the same guy that later protest about “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” after he thought “The Mouse of Tomorrow” was sniffing cocaine in one scene.

    • I’m not sure exactly what you mean that He-Man became a gay icon. As a gay man who grew up in the 80’s He-Man was not an icon. He’s not real. The fact that straight animators drew all the men in the show, and She-Ra, looking homoerotic has nothing to do with us.

      Straight people created a stereotype and for 40 years thought it true. Who knows maybe the creators intended that but it didn’t happen .

      • I’m a gay man born in the late 70’s and I can assure you He-Man is most certainly a gay icon, Sis. 😂

        • I hate to bust your bubble but Adam always had a thing for Teela as well as when he was He-Man. which shows that he’s a very straight male. and we didn’t have all this silly pronouns back then either! Being straight is not a bad thing. Good thing for you your parents were straight.. hmm

      • Actually, Lou Scheimer’s daughter Erika, herself a lesbian, has stated in interviews that Filmation Studios was the gayest, most inclusive animation studios to work at in CA. So no, not an entirely straight studio. And the fact that they were able to imply a mixed race lesbian relationship between Netossa and Spinnerella in She-Ra and got it past the censors at the time is WILD.

    • Having been raised in a Christian household in the 1980’s, I wasn’t allowed to watch Dungeons and Dragons cartoon for the same reason, fear mongering. The infamous Satanic Panic of that decade was in full swing. I even remember a local news article decrying the satanic dog whistles hidden within the Star Wars films. That is, of course, absurd. It’s sad that things haven’t changed a whole lot since then. Conspiracies have only grown larger.

    • In a doc, Lou’s daughter Erika, mentioned their parent company (Westinghouse) received more complains about He-Man than their nuclear power program!

  • … and no artists of any kind involved. I knew it!

    • What about Bruce Timm? He helped do some designs for the show and later for She-Ra. I’m assuming he may have done the animation designs for Frosta which reflects his style. The design has since been used in recent action figures of her including one that came out earlier this year.

  • During my second year as a teacher, I became acquainted with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe through a student who was a huge fan of the show. This particular student’s family lived in another town and both parents worked, so the parents made arrangement with me to have the student spend the afternoons after school at my apartment, where one or the other parent would drop by and pick him up in the early evening. The young man loved the He-Man series and watched it faithfully. Needless to say, I got caught up in the series myself. It brings back a lot of memories.

    One particular memory is of a day when I had to stay late at school for a staff meeting. I will never forget arriving home in the late afternoon to find three teenage boys sprawled on my living room floor watching the adventures of He-Man!

    • they always had a life’s lesson after the show for kids, I am the other hand wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man, as they thought of it being a satanic show. due to the source of power and magic. but it’s probably how you had a crowd at your apartment, they can learn things from it as they get older.

  • Rather coincidental that this was just posted because yesterday, during his lecture on “Animation Restoration at Universal Studios” at Cartoon Crossroads, archivist Chase Schulte announced that they found the original film masters of “He-Man” in (I believe) Europe. They were sitting with a copy of the infamous 1987 live-action film. Consider that Filmation’s masters were destroy by Hallmark for some reason, this was quite fascinating news.

  • It’s a commentary on old-school TV animation that a whole series could plausibly be “almost the same money” as two one-hour specials. Possible they weren’t talking about a 65-episode package at that point, but still.

    Has anybody ever considered rebooting “Bravestarr”? The show was no better or worse than a lot of syndicated shows, but the steampunk designs and high concept (space cowboys) would be a strong sell today. Understand the series was damaged by a lack of coordination in launching the show, the toy line, and the origin story movie.

  • I wrote episodes of He-Man for Filmation and none of us had any idea that people will be talking about the series 40 years later.

    I’ve been to conventions where fans from all over the world would come up to me and tell them how much they love my episodes. In some cases they said when they were children, they would be bullied at school, or parents were difficult. However, they felt that He-Man was their friend. I was shocked to learn that in some cases the show even prevented them from committing suicide — but because they had at least one friend: He-Man.

    So He-Man did a lot more than just sell toys. We unknowingly saved lives.

    • Rowby, thank you for sharing your first hand experiences about the show and what He-Man has meant for so many. You and the other artists who brought the show to life have left quite the lasting, positive impact on so many. Thank you, again!

    • As a teenager, I was turned off by the kid nature of He-Man (oppose to say BlackStar). Now seeing all the good it did, I was wrong. More cartoons need to be like that today!

    • Rowby, that is wonderful to hear. I am proud to have played a very, very small part in it’s beginnings. I was used as a model for the artists to draw as Teela. They filmed me running and fighting etc. My dance and exercise background came in very useful. what an honor to be a small part of the beginnings.

  • I don’t care about how others felt – as kids we never thought about cartoons being gay or straight, or became fanatics about demons and magic… I grew up as a son of Jehovah’s witness mother who no longer allowed me to watch things with magic or anything like it – Smurfs included. What’s wrong with magic or fantasy? Jesus had magic. A hero stands up for good people, destroying evil. My parent’s generation chose to demonize everything…

    Today my son loves Batman, Superman, etc… and these shows are what actually helped me. In lot of ways, they showed me the dangers and what true evil was like: say no to drugs and say no to strangers. I loved He-man, Thunder cats etc…

  • Filmation wisely spent their budgets on writers and voice talent over the years, although He-Man was an exceptionally beautiful show, full of rich background art.

    All in all, I think it was Filmation’s best; the culmination of all their artistic efforts, Lou’s insistence it have morals, not be a toy commercial, memorable stories, music and characters.

    Oppenheimer deserves credit for his scene stealing Skeletor. How boring when voice actors portray the bad guys with snarling, gruff growls. He must have looked at the picture and wondered what a head without a nose or face sounded like. Over time, that shrill laugh, and his bevy of insults would become endearing.

  • Damn y’all. I’m 41 and just enjoyed it. It didn’t seep into my skin or impact anything else in my life. Some of these comments makes me sad for y’all upbringing and lack of conversations about Life and World in your home that were actually productive. Just a cartoon folks.

    • So your view is that people that like different things than you, or like certain things more than you, are not as good of people as you? Your comment makes ME sad because your upbringing taught you that it’s a good use of your time to have this massive ego, and to insult complete strangers that never did anything to you. Your parents must be proud… My question is why did you take the time and effort out of your day to write out insults over a cartoon if you really think “it’s only a cartoon folks?” I guess to you it is more than just a cartoon, you just don’t realize it lol!

      • I don’t see anything insulting about Brandon’s comment. I agree that it’s sad when children are deprived of innocent pleasures like toys and cartoons because of an oppressive religious upbringing.

  • Let people enjoy things, Brandon.

    I was born in the late 70s and one of the few female He-Man devotees. I even wrote to Mattel to ask them to put girls in their He-Man commercials. Anyway, I still have all my original action figures in a box in the garage, along with Snake Mountain and Castle Grayskull. Good times.

  • As I understand it, the tooling for He-Man was originally for a line of Conan the Barbarian figures, but Mattel shot down the idea after the first film proved too violent to be toyetic. Not wanting to let expensive tooling to go to waste, they looked about for a kid friendly alternative…and the rest is history! 😉

    • I don’t know if that it true- because Mattel was sued over it. And Mattel won.

  • Wow you guys it’s just a cartoon! I was a kid pre teen and enjoyed it as such yes I’m Christian and no it did not hinder my religion… it’s A CARTOON, I know the difference between reality and God!

    But as a kid I couldn’t afford the action figures which were expensive and worth a lot today if in original packaging I saw a new line of toys came out that costs double even more! But they had cool “action” like swivels and motion and seemed unique. I thought Skelator was humorous funny in the cartoon was silly fun but the action figure was scary looking. He-man was our escapism after school while eating cereal I have fond memories.

  • Loved He-Man and She-Ra I’ll be the first to say that MOTU and POP were the best shows ever.

  • This has been so wonderful to read. It takes me back. Filmation actually used me as one of the models to film running, jumping and fighting for the artists to draw Teela. A great memory to be a part of the beginnings. My husband recently purchased a model of Teela to commemorate my having been a small part of the beginnings. Thank you Filmation Studios. ❤️

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