Remembering Joe Bacal

I missed this news. Joe Bacal died in October. It’s December as I write this.

Bacal met Tom Griffin in the 1960s at the advertising firm Benton & Bowles, where the pair worked on GI Joe. In 1978, they left to form their own agency, Griffin Bacal. They brought the Hasbro account with them, and they quickly opened a television studio, Sunbow Productions, to create the Sesame Street-like Great Space Coaster.

Tom and Joe sold Griffin Bacal to OmniCom in 1994, and that’s where the connection to G.I. Joe runs out. Joe Bacal did many interesting things before and after that, but rather than rephrase the New York Times’ obituary as a biographical blog post, I thought I’d excerpt from my 2003 interview with Tom and Joe. This was early in my book-writing process, and I was only hunting for facts and history. That’s good, in that Tom and Joe were more than willing to share from those categories, but were I to do the interview again, I’d ask more “how” and “why” questions and fewer “what” questions.


Joe Bacal appears in the bonus featurette “Triple Changer: From Toy to Comic to Screen – The Origin of the Transformers,” found on the 2009 Shout! Factory “Transformers: The Complete First Season” DVD set.


TIM FINN: How often did you go to Pawtucket? How often did Hasbro come to New York?

JOE BACAL: Well, I think we went up there most of the time. We had a Lear jet, which was actually Tom’s Volkswagen bus. Sometimes it ran out of gas or whatever, and we’d have to push it.

TOM GRIFFIN: It didn’t run out of gas, it just had trouble starting.

BACAL: We called it our Lear jet.

GRIFFIN: Joe was very proficient in pushing.

BACAL: Especially when it was going downhill and we were chasing it. But yeah, so we would go up there for the meetings. That was the main thing, because they had all sorts of designers and artists up there, and everything like that.

And basically, in the early days, it was just Tom and I going up. Later, of course we added staff.

GRIFFIN: We were there several times a week. You know, to be there two or three times a week was not unusual at all, to go back and forth. Hasbro, in those beginning days, was our primary focus, our mainstream client and partner.


Joe Bacal performing poetry in 2011, screencap from his YouTube page.


TIM FINN: The involvement that you guys talk about so far feels like you were coming up with marketing concepts and specific ideas for the toy. And you’re credited on Transformers and G.I. Joe as Executive Producers. Is that what happens for the person who is running the company, that’s running the [animated] show[s]? Or did you guys make some specific contributions to the shows? I mean, were you dealing with business and with Hasbro, and not so much the show? Or did you get involved in the shows at all?

JOE BACAL No, no, we would get involved. We would get involved–

TOM GRIFFIN: With every show!

BACAL: Absolutely. We would read the scripts. But you know, we had a really good staff, so we would get involved in all the shows, and we would have discussions about things. But obviously, you have a really good staff of people, and you empower them to do the best job. We would see all the [episodes] when they came in, first cuts from the shows when they’d come back from Japan.

And we would look at them, and we would get involved in everything, every aspect of it — the sound of it and the scoring of it. But we had really terrific people working for us.

GRIFFIN: In the beginning, we were there for every cut.

BACAL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we would be in the editing room. We would be at the studio. We would be everywhere. But, you know, we had really good people. So as it develops, you empower them to do more and more and better things. And they’d take the challenge. It’s great.


Joe Bacal performing poetry in 2011, screencap from his YouTube page.



TIM FINN: Were there office parties — Christmas or 4th of July?

JOE BACAL: Oh, God, we used to have great office parties– certainly in New York, and then they had some parties out there [at Sunbow’s Los Angeles office,] too. But yeah, because we loved all the people we worked with.

We used to have all our suppliers [there, too]. And we used to have a big Christmas party every year, just as a way of saying thank you and let’s look forward to another terrific year. And there was a lot of good comradeship and fellowship, and we just loved what we were doing. We all worked really hard at it.

We used to have this Sunbow slogan that said, “We work while others sleep.” We came out with a t-shirt one time that said that.



TIM FINN: How is the advertising agency different today than it was in 1982 and 1983, ’84?

JOE BACAL: Well, the advertising agency business has changed so much. It’s a more difficult business today. Now, you’re asking a question in the midst of a down economy [in 2003], a much more cautious situation in the world.

I think everything seemed possible then. Television was younger then, and more innovative things seemed to be possible then. And I don’t know. But people will think of wonderful, new innovative things.

I think things are more conservative today than they were then, really. But things change. People find new ways of doing things. I mean, I’m optimistic, but I’m not involved in advertising any more.

So, you know, I think it’s become — It seems to be more corporate than ever, in terms of the concerns. And you have all these gigantic advertising agencies, and they basically are– that’s what the business is today, and I think it’s harder for new agencies to get started today than it was in those days.

But you know what? People will always find a way. There are new agencies that are starting. So people find a way. I don’t know — I think maybe it’s — Advertising, itself, seems to be less important.

The ability to — You put out an ad, and that transforms products, that really can build a business; because the proliferation of all the [TV and cable] stations makes it harder to reach the numbers of people that you could reach then, because there were fewer stations.

Now there are so many options, television’s only like one option for advertising. So television, I don’t think, is anywhere near as powerful a medium as it was for advertisers — now, as it was then.



Actor Robert Riechel, Jr. portrays Joe Bacal in the Netflix docuseries “The Toys That Made Us.” This isn’t a screencap, I just photographed my TV.


Joe Donney worked at Griffin Bacal in the early to mid-1980s. During our 2013 in-person interview, he described Joe Bacal…

JOE DONNEY: Joe Bacal was a tyrant. He’s a close friend now that he’s retired. I see him socially at dinner parties and stuff. He’s the nicest guy, and to me he was sort of a father figure, and my mentor. I learned more from him than anyone. But he tortured me the whole time I was there. It was just more work, more work, more work, “Are you done with that? Here’s some more work.”

TIM FINN: [And whatever the client wanted…]

DONNEY: By Monday. The client would say “It’s not selling and we gotta do something.” Okay, well, and then he’d call us in Friday. “Come on,” by Monday morning, it’s back—done. “So we’re going to write it today, tomorrow we’re going to do something, get somebody standing by, the music company will get it tomorrow afternoon, get somebody to record it Sunday. You know, before anything had even been done, it’s all planned out. Monday morning it’s all finished, we worked all of Sunday night. And there he is, standing in front of the client with the new campaign that’s going to save the business. He’d fly up there and present it.

FINN: And from [four other employees] I have gotten that he was very, very good.

DONNEY: He was.

FINN: And cared greatly.

DONNEY: Very much Steve Jobs, from what I know of Steve Jobs, now.

FINN: I’m reading [Walter Isaacs’ biography] right now.

DONNEY: Are you? Good.

They were the same kind of characters. It’s one person with a vision. With a maniacal vision of what they want, like Steve Jobs. Running the company. And it’s in their image. And that’s what Joe Bacal was like. He had this vision of what he wanted it to be. And he had no internal politics at all of any kind. He didn’t care who did it, how it got done, who was responsible. Nobody got any blame or any credit. He just wanted the work done. And he was focused like crazy on that. But he drove everybody nuts because he was just working and working and working and wanted to change it and fix it and change it and move it. And when’s your vacation? It’s flexible, isn’t it? Whatever you planned he had some other plan for it. Whatever you’re doing Sunday he had a meeting for you. He just was relentless. What came out of it was wonderful work that was really focused. He didn’t care whether anybody liked it as long as it was right for the toy and sold the product. He didn’t care if it was art, he didn’t care if it won awards, he didn’t care if anybody thought anything of it other than if it was exactly right for what he was selling.


That’s the end of the excerpts from my 2003 interview with Joe Bacal and Tom Griffin, and with Joe Donney from 2013.

I never met Joe Bacal in person. But I feel a little like I know him from speaking at length on that one occasion, and from connecting with so many of his partners and employees in researching this book. And so sharing a few excerpts of our phone chat feels like the best I can do to eulogize this important and creative man who contributed so much to toys, animation, and comic books. Every time I get to that end credit in an episode of G.I. Joe or Transformers that lists Griffin and Bacal as Executive Producers, and every time I re-watch a Hasbro toy commercial from the 1980s or ’90s, I smile.

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Filed under Animation, Book Behind the Scenes, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes, Toys and Toy Art, Writing Process

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