Toy World is sad to report that industry veteran Les Cooke passed away peacefully at his home on 15th October.
Les’s former colleague and close friend, Bob Brechin, shared his memories of Les with Toy World.
When Bob joined Palitoy in 1967 as a toy designer, Les was responsible for the marketing of Action Man, which had been licensed the previous year from Hasbro. Les famously once said: “I had the best job in the toy industry – Action Man’s first Brand manager.”
“Les was quick to realise that Action Man provided more play scenarios than solely military adventures,” Bob explains. “Attending a research study, he noticed that one little boy was playing with the Mountain and Arctic Trooper Action Man as Scott of the Antarctic. This inspired Les to develop a range of adventure sets, which I was instructed to design. Action Man began to live up to his name, took on many roles and became a truly British icon.” Action Man was named Toy of the Decade in 1980, after winning the title Toy of the Year in its first outing.
In 1968, the Palitoy brand and its Coalville factory were bought by new owners General Mills. Les became Marketing director and was instrumental in introducing many iconic lines, including the hairstyling and makeup toy, Girls World; pocket-sized fashion doll, Pippa and the Discovery Time pre-school range.
When the Star Wars phenomenon exploded, Palitoy became the UK distributor of toys developed by sister company Kenner. Bob tells us that Les was loath to market the Star Wars range alongside Palitoy’s flagship Action Man concept, nervous about relying on the success of an unknown film to sell toys. He was persuaded by Kenner president, Bernie Loomis, who declared: “Star Wars will go on for twenty years.” After seeing the film, Les agreed with him.
Palitoy owner General Mills began to pursue global branding, introducing more ranges from the US to add to the success of Star Wars. As the likes of Care Bears joined the company’s portfolio, many of the classic ranges developed by Palitoy – including Action Man – started to be phased out. Les resigned from the company to join outgoing UK MD Bob Simpson to establish Emblem Toys in Leicester. Later they would resuscitate the ailing Matchbox Company.
“During my long association with Les Cooke, I have found him to be very committed, willing to embrace my ideas and always giving total support,” says Bob Brechin. “Everyone I have talked to has demonstrated their respect and admiration for him. He had a strong affinity to toys and the long list of products he introduced attests to that. The British toy industry will mourn the passing of one of its stalwarts.”
Bob added that his thoughts were with Les’s wife Diane, and his children and grandchildren, at this sad time. Toy World would like to add its condolences to the family and all who knew Les.