Robby The Robot: The Sci-Fi Prop Who Thinks He's An Actor
Left: Peter Falk as Columbo and Robby the Robot in a guest-starring role on a 1974 episode of 'Columbo.' Right: Robby in a colorized lobby card for 'Forbidden Planet,' 1956. Sources: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; IMDB
In the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot freaked out audiences with his futuristic metallic body. As sci-fi became a popular genre, we've seen lots of robots in movies -- R2-D2 and C-3P0 in Star Wars (1977), VINCENT and Maximilian in The Black Hole (1979), Johnny 5 in Short Circuit (1986) -- but the weird thing is, we kept seeing Robby. Robby the Robot appeared in episodes of Lost In Space and The Twilight Zone. He appeared on Mork & Mindy and Columbo. He appeared on the romance anthology show The Love Boat and the children's program The Banana Splits.
Imagine R2-D2 showing up on Fantasy Island, or VINCENT doing a cameo on Kojak. It just wouldn't happen. Why does Robby the Robot have an acting career, like a human, while other movie robots are simply props to be discarded or warehoused after their one moment (or movie) in the sun?
At the time studios either weren’t worried about audiences recognizing props and costumes from their various productions, or they wanted to milk Robby as much as possible. Whatever the case, Robby the Robot became a star. To reiterate, the robot - a prop with no discernible human features - became the most popular “cast member” of Forbidden Planet, a film that starred Leslie Nielsen. The robot’s career continued on through the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even though it waned in the ‘80s, you can still see Robby on television today.
Robby Rolled Into Our Hearts In “Forbidden Planet”
Robby first came into our lives in Forbidden Planet, a film that follows a crew of space explorers as they research the planet Altair IV. They find that the planet is ruled by a mysterious scientist who uses Robby to do his bidding. The robot is legitimately cool looking, and he’s not like anything that had been seen before in a science fiction film.
His limbs are fully articulated and he has a collection of working gears, which was not only a visual treat but completely different than the featureless tin-can 'bots audiences were used to seeing. Robby was voiced by actor Marvin Miller in an uncredited role. Because audiences didn’t see Miller, and he wasn’t credited, that gave MGM free reign to stick the character into whatever program they wanted.
MGM Wasn’t Finished With Robby
When you’ve got a creation as fascinating and futuristic looking as Robby you don’t just put it in a bunker somewhere. Robby was reused one year after his appearance in Forbidden Planet in the 1957 film The Invisible Boy, a film about a boy in 1957 assembling Robby from spare parts left in his father’s garage. Once Robby is up and running he helps the boy turn invisible so he can play pranks on his family. This is a real movie by the way.
Robby wasn’t exactly the same as he was in Forbidden Planet in spite of being billed as “Robby The Robot.” This kept happening with Robby -- though he was clearly a non-sentient prop, he received billing as himself. Later robots, like Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000, would be listed as characters, and their puppeteers or voice actors billed as the humans who made them work.
Robby Took The Small Screen By Storm In The ‘60s And ‘70s
Following his “performances” in Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy, Robby showed up across the television spectrum throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Like many performers who made the rounds from I Dream of Jeannie to Hollywood Squares, Robby was a regular on television. He popped up on shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Addams Family, but his most prominent appearances were on The Twilight Zone.
The original episodes of The Twilight Zone were filmed at MGM studios, so Robby was just hanging around and not doing anything. For each appearance on the show, Robby had a slight change. The design team of The Twilight Zone seems to have enjoyed inserting Robby in a few different forms. If you’d like to see Robby himself working with Rod Serling check out: "The Brain Center at Whipple’s" and "Uncle Simon." Additionally, he appears in toy form in "One For The Angels," and it's been speculated that his headpiece appears as an element of an actor's costume in "The Little People."
Aside from his work on The Twilight Zone, Robby appeared in three episodes of Lost In Space as an adversary of the Robinson family's robot (whose name was simply "Robot"), and single episodes of Columbo, Wonder Woman, The Love Boat, and Mork & Mindy.
In The ‘80s Robby Got Into Commercial Work
By the end of the ‘70s Robby was squeezed out of his job as a television performer, but he still held a place in the hearts of the American public. In the 1980s Robby began popping up in the weirdest of places. While he showed up in the background of films like Heavy Metal (1981), Gremlins (1985), and Cherry 2000 (1987), and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), his biggest work of the ‘80s was in a commercial for Charmin toilet paper.
In the ad for the very soft toilet paper, Robby plays “Squeeze-ax” a robot tasked with keeping customers from squeezing toilet paper in stores. It’s a long way down from his work in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, but even a robot knows that a commercial gig isn’t something to sneeze at. Those residual checks will buy a lot of WD-40.
Robby’s Star Faded, But He Never Went Away
Even when he was appearing in commercials, MGM attempted to present Robby as a star. The pilot “Robot Holmes, Watson and Me” was produced for ABC. The show would have followed Robby as a crime-solving robot, but the show was never aired. The failed pilot was the final straw, and Robby was never pushed as a star again, but he never really disappeared.
Robby continued to pop up on film and television. He appeared in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, as well as in commercials for AT&T and General Electric with other famous robots like Rosie and KITT from Knight Rider. In 2017, the original prop was sold for $5.3 million through Bonhams.
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