Stars get a big kick and bigger paycheck from film-inspired toys WHERE THE ACTION IS


"You want to be an actress, and you wind up in a toy store." That's Laura Linney, reflecting on the diminishing line dividing high art and pop commerce. Ms. Linney, who starred in the critically acclaimed miniseries "Tales of the City," can now be seen in theaters across the country, fearlessly gunning down monkeys as Karen Ross in the $50-million "Congo," as well as in our nation's toy stores, neatly encased in blister wrap.

This summer, action figures and assorted merchandise from "Batman Forever," "Congo," "Judge Dredd" and "Waterworld" will be flooding toy stores, while "Apollo 13" will feature just about everything but action figures. And just try to wander into a store, any store, without seeing some "Pocahontas" paraphernalia.

"It's wild, that's what half the toys out there are now," says Chris O'Donnell, who stars as Robin in "Batman Forever." "And a lot of the movies you never even saw, they didn't do well, and they still have these huge toy lines." (Indeed, a trek through area toy stores reveals that they can't give away toys from "The Flintstones," "The Shadow" and "Stargate.")

"It's weird now that it's the New Robin and my likeness," Mr. O'Donnell adds. "But I had these toys when I was a kid. And now I am one."

But he doesn't mind being recast in plastic and cardboard and rayon and porcelain. "That's fun for me, because I have seven nieces and nephews," he says. "They were huge Batman fans before this ever started, and they're going crazy for it. They can't wait. It's fun to see them get so excited about it, and see their uncle in a statue or something. But -- it's strange."

For big stars, a good-selling toy can be as lucrative as a hit movie. They earn about 15 percent of merchandise revenues. Even actors not on the A-list can make a little money playing the role of a plaything: Ernie Hudson (Monroe Kelly in "Congo") is receiving royalties, even though his character's action figure was in the design stages before he was cast in the film.

Sylvester Stallone may be the Hollywood star with the most toys in his likeness -- he ticks off his various action-figure incarnations: " 'Rocky,' then 'Rambo,' then, believe it or not, 'Over the Top,' then we had 'Demolition Man' and 'Judge Dredd.'

"It's kind of like getting an award," Mr. Stallone says of being immortalized in plastic. "It's amazing, because you grow up playing with toys, and you look at that and go, 'Not bad.' You want to carry it around as a badge of honor: You are a toy. When you've made it as a toy, it's like you're for the ages. I was humbled by it, it's a kick. But I don't dwell on it; I don't think, 'Will this next movie produce a kite?' "

"Seeing kids play with these, they feel like they really have you there," says Mr. Hudson, who before "Congo" appeared on toy store shelves as a Ghostbuster. "You can give away a picture, but that's two-dimensional. With these, they can twist the arms and pop your head off.

"I have a 5- and a 6-year-old and it's major to them," says Mr. Hudson. "It's a bit odd. They have the Ghostbuster and the Monroe Kelly figures -- they're two different people, but they're both Dad."

Ms. Linney, likewise, enjoys her contribution to the nation's toy boxes. "It's just hysterical." she says. "You get to laugh with your friends. People make fun of you a lot.

"I'm amazed at all the merchandising," she adds. "I guess it expands the world of each movie, you realize how much deeper the movie crawls into everybody's lives. The whole thing was odd for a lot of us knowing all this was going on. When we were first starting to make the movie, we kept hearing about this pen and that Halloween mask and that doll. It's huge. I had no idea what a business a movie like this is."

Here, then, are actors on the items that will find their ways into America's toy boxes, closets, kitchens and landfills.

* "Judge Dredd": These figurines are the dinkiest of the lot, standing less than two inches tall. They come in packages of three, selling for $4.99 to $7.99. Mr. Stallone says, "On a ground-level basis of what this can produce, this character and this backlog of characters is unlimited."

* "Congo": Of the "Congo" action figures ($5.99 apiece), Mr. Hudson drolly observes, "The face is kind of weird, but they pumped up my muscles, that's a good thing. They narrowed my waist, which is something I haven't been able to do. It looks more macho than my 'Ghostbuster' action figure, which looks kind of wimpy next to this."

Ms. Linney also notes physical discrepancies between her and her action figure. As opposed to the long, blond hair she sported in the movie, Karen Ross the "Congo" Toy has shorter, sandy hair. Ms. Linney has since had her hair cut, which means, "I look more like the doll now than I did when I made the movie.

"The toys do very much embody the spirit of the characters, they even make them seem bigger," she adds. "My [toy's] 'phasic laser' is huge, it's half the size of the doll. When you look on the back of the package, you see all this wild technical stuff that's not in the movie. . . . The dolls are far more powerful than we were in the movie."

* "Batman Forever": In assessing his merchandise, Mr. O'Donnell has his work cut out for him -- there are 125 licensees (most marketing a plurality of items) cranking out the Bat-goods.

Of the Robin statue ($35), he says, "They made a mistake -- Robin doesn't wear an earring. Only Dick Grayson wears an earring."

About the Robin socks ($4), Mr. O'Donnell says, "It doesn't even look like me. Four bucks, geez, that's a deal."

The "Batman Forever" trash can ($15), he says, "This actually looks like me. The statue doesn't look so much like me, but this kind of does."

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