In the primordial days of merchandising, you could leave a movie or a wrestling match with nothing but the memory. Jack Friedman made it possible for fans of Brooke Shields and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to fill their homes with dolls, action figures, and other toys commemorating their favorite entertainments. Friedman, the founder of Jakks Pacific and other toy companies, died May 3 of a rare blood disorder. He was 70.
Born in New York City and raised by his mother, Friedman entered the toy industry as a sales rep in the 1960s, selling plush animals and novelty items to stores along the East Coast. In 1970, Friedman and his employer, Norman J. Lewis, started a toy manufacturer called LJN. After his co-founder moved on, Friedman steered the company's strategy toward licensing. Basing toys on popular characters wasn't new, but Friedman's instinct for blockbusters, his ability to conceive products for diverse audiences, and his speed at negotiating and executing brought the practice to a new level.
LJN's breakthrough license was for the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. "To look at that creature back then, who knew people would think it was adorable?" says Stephanie Finnegan, a veteran toy industry journalist. "But he jumped in and had products on the shelves before it became a megahit."
Friedman continued to snap up licenses, meeting personally with stars such as Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields before enshrining them in plastic, and jump-starting the male collectibles market with figures from the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). In 1985, he sold LJN to MCA. Friedman focused on video games at his next company, THQ, which he founded in 1990. THQ released games based on Home Alone and The Ren & Stimpy Show. But he was a low-tech guy in an increasingly high-tech game. He left THQ in 1994 following an IPO.
The next year, Friedman and Stephen Berman, who had worked at THQ, launched Jakks Pacific, in Malibu, California. They took it public eight months later. "We had done it before and had a reputation and a history of success," says Berman, then the president and now the CEO of Jakks. They also had licenses for hot properties such as Cabbage Patch Kids, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and -- most important -- the WWF. For the company's first three years, products based on Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker accounted for close to half of sales, fueling Jakks's expansion.
Jakks Pacific is now among the five largest toy companies in the United States, and Friedman's prescience contributes to that success: Jakks's Taylor Swift collection predates her sweep of the Grammys.
"He had an eye for talent," says Finnegan. "If he'd been in Hollywood in the 1940s, he would have discovered Lana Turner at Schwab's. And he would have made a doll out of her."