Robby the Robot Changed the Image of Robots in Movies Forever

Updated on October 14, 2018
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Robby the Robot in movie Forbidden Planet
Robby the Robot in movie Forbidden Planet

He is part of classic science fiction cinema. He first appeared in the movie Forbidden Planet which was released in 1956. This was the beginning of his long acting career that spanned several decades. It included movies, television shows as well as television commercials. Robby the Robot is a movie prop that is part of science fiction movie history.

Book cover of Tom Swift on The Phantom Satellite by Victor Appleton II
Book cover of Tom Swift on The Phantom Satellite by Victor Appleton II

Name

Robby the Robot was a name first mentioned in pulp magazine stories like the 1935 short story, The Fantastic Island. In this story, a character named Doc Savages uses his mechanical likeness named Robby to confuse his enemies. The name was also used in a 1940 Isaac Asimov short story Robbie. It was about a robot created to care for children. Tom Swift on The Phantom Satellite was a book published in 1956 by writer Victor Appleton II. In the book, Robby is a robot that is four-feet tall and made by Tom Swift Jr, boy inventor.

Design plans for Robby the Robot
Design plans for Robby the Robot

Creating The Robot

Robby the Robot was designed in the art department of MGM. It was built in the studio's prop department. The robot's design was considered groundbreaking for movie robots. Too many times in previous movies the robots appeared to be nothing more than walking oil cans. Robby the Robot was made to appear in the movie Forbidden Planet and the budget to build it was generous. By today's costs, the robot cost over a million dollars to build. When completed, the Robby the robot suit was labeled as the most costly single movie prop ever made. It's cost to create and build was equal to seven percent of the movie's total budget. Robby the Robot became the face of the movie and quickly turned into a very popular science fiction cinema icon. Robert Kinoshita was the art director at MGM. He is credited with approving the design of the robot.

Robot Suit

The Robby the Robot suit was made with many different materials. They included everything from Plexiglass to metal, glass, plastic rubber and more. The plastic parts were made using vacuum-forming heated plastic that was then placed over wooden molds. When it was completed, the suit stood a little over 7 feet tall. The robot body came in three sections that were detachable. There were the barrel-like chest and arms, legs as well as torso. The last part to the suit was the head which was very detailed.

The Head

The head of the robot was a plexiglass dome. It contained a series of detailed mechanisms made to represent the robot's electronic brain. It had a detailed apparatus items with three wire-frame spheres that moved in a planetary motion. It also had many flashing lights and as well as several moving levers that appeared to be saxophone keys. On each side, there were small blinking lights. Two chrome rings represented the robot's ears. On the bottom was a curved neon grille. It would light up and be the robot's voice. This neon grille is where the person in the suit would see out and breathe. The head was made so it could rotate 45 degrees in both directions.

Noisy

One of the problems the studio had with the suit was all the detailed moving parts in the robot's headpiece. It was quite loud when powered up. When the suit was used during filming, the voice of the robot was done by an actor who was uncredited and off stage. The actor would speak the lines into a microphone connected to the robot suit by cable.

Actor putting on Robby the Robot suit
Actor putting on Robby the Robot suit

Filming

The way the Robby the Robot suit was designed, it was possible to film it from a variety of different angles. A person in the suit could move around and do action without revealing there was someone inside it. During the filming of Forbidden Planet, it was worn by Frank Darro who was 5'3" and paid as a stuntman.

Forbidden Planet movie poster
Forbidden Planet movie poster

Forbidden Planet

This is the 1956 movie where Robby the Robot suit made its film debut. This memorable appearance made it one of the most well-known and admired movie robots in cinema history. It was the first multi-million dollar science fiction movie ever made in Hollywood. The main actors in the movie were Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, and Ann Francis. It tells the story about space explorers from Earth who land on the planet Altair IV. The planet is run by Dr. Morbius and Robby the robot is his servant. The robot shows a distinct personality and displays his intelligence. Robby is programmed to not hurt humans. There is a monster involved in the movie that Robby refuses to kill. He recognizes it as the alter ego of Dr. Morbius.

Robby the Robot on episode of The Adams Family
Robby the Robot on episode of The Adams Family

Popular

During a period of over four decades, Robby the Robot was in many movies and television shows as well as commercials and more. After his initial appearance in the movie Forbidden Planet, he was in the movie The Invisible Boy the next year. He easily moved on to do television shows. He was seen in an episode of the television series The Millionaire. Robby the Robot also made appearances in Lost in Space, Mork and Mindy, The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, The Thin Man and others.

Robot Hall Of Fame

The Original Robby the Robot suit was sold at an auction by MGM. It was purchased by the Movie-World prop museum located in California and placed on display. During this time, souvenir hunters caused damage to the robot suit. It started to significantly deteriorate. Any appearance of Robby the Robot in movies and television shows after 1971 are a replica. The robot was very busy in the 1970s and did make an appearance in 1984 in the movie Gremlins. He was also in a commercial for AT&T in 2006. In 2004, the Robot Hall of Fame inducted Robby the Robot.

Robbie the Robot in museum
Robbie the Robot in museum

Sold For Millions

Fred Barton was a movie robot historian. He was given a commission to restore Robby the Robot. To do this, he obtained original duplicate parts from MGM's prop department. The Movie-World prop museum closed in 1980. The robot and restoration parts were then sold to William Malone. In 1973, Malone built the first replica of Robby the Robot. It took time, but Malone was able to restore the original robot using the duplicate replacement parts from MGM. On November 21, 2017, the original restored version of Robby the Robot was sold for $5,375,000 in New York at Bonhams Auctioneers. This price made Robby the Robot the most expensive film prop ever sold. The identity of the person who purchased it has never been revealed.

Robby the robot is credited with capturing the imagination of movie audiences in a way that hadn't been done before. Prior to him, the robots portrayed in movies often had a box design and didn’t have a believable image. Robby the Robot's appearance in Forbidden Planet changed this forever.

Robby the Robot Biography

Questions & Answers

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      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        10 months ago

        Liz, thanks. I also thought it was interesting.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        10 months ago from UK

        My generation grew up with the Star wars robots, so it's interesting to read of an earlier robot.

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