Robby the Robot, the seven-foot tall robot from the classic 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet, recently sold at Bonhams New York for a world record price of $5,375,000 in the TCM Presents… Out of This World! auction of classic movie memorabilia.
One of the most iconic characters to appear on the silver screen, seven-foot tall Robby the Robot captured the imagination of audiences everywhere in Forbidden Planet as the devoted servant to Professor Morbius, one of the few inhabitants of the distant planet Altair IV. Conceived and built by a team of MGM designers for the 1956 film, including Mentor Huebner and Robert Kinoshita, Robby’s groundbreaking appearance broke away from earlier clunky “tin-can” designs for movie robots.
“This is an out-of-this-world result for one of the most loved items in movie history,” said Dr. Catherine Williamson, the Director of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams. “Robby the Robot is one of those symbols of American culture that is embedded in our DNA. We are thrilled for the consignor, William Malone, who has cared for Robby for so many years and we are delighted that so many of Robby’s fans took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see him at Bonhams.
“Robby the Robot is, simply, the heart of Forbidden Planet, the moral centre of the film, as well as the key narrative device.”
The saleroom at Bonhams Madison Avenue was packed, but the bidding activity was all on the phones. A four-way battle ensued, with the bids at one point leaping from $3.6 million to $4 million, before Robby – and his Jeep – finally sold for $5,375,000.
The stellar result means that Robby has knocked the then-previous world record holder – the Maltese Falcon – off its perch. In 2013, Bonhams Entertainment Memorabilia Department made history in New York, selling the Maltese Falcon statuette from the cinema noir classic of the same name for $4 million, then a record price for a movie prop at auction (non-automotive). The 12-inch-tall Falcon was the star of the Bonhams inaugural film history sale with partner Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
Robby the Robot has also blown away the price for the white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch, which made $4.6 million in 2011, and the original 1966 Batmobile, that sold for $4.6 million in 2013.
Robby’s previous owner, filmmaker and collector, William Malone, who brought the robot to auction, said, “I’m astounded by the result, but also sad to part with him. However, it’s time Robby finds a place where he can be displayed, and with someone who can look after him. Of course, he will leave an empty spot in my house—and in my heart.”
The broadcaster and film critic, Matthew Sweet, writing in Bonhams Magazine, described Robby the Robot as “thrilling. As a character, he carries the weight of history and a hint of the future.”
The fully-functional prop breaks down into three pieces: the head, the torso, and the legs. In addition to Robby himself, the lot also included the Jeep he drives on Altair IV, the auxiliary control panel, and his original MGM packing crates.
As Dr. Williamson said, “This is the fifth year we have partnered with TCM to present auctions of movie memorabilia, and each year the demand only increases. It shows how important these props and costumes are to everyone throughout the world.”
The lot offered the original Robby the Robot suit consisting of three main interlocking sections: his intricate “head,” the upper torso with bellows-jointed arms, and the legs; constructed of Royalite plastic, metal, rubber, wood, acetate, and Perspex, with a 1950s pair of men’s size 10.5B black leather loafers located inside Robby’s feet; with Robby’s original Jeep, control panel and alternate original “claw” hands. Also part of the lot was alternate original “Uncle Simon” The Twilight Zone head, and original wooden shipping “stage crates” with original painted studio transmittal information and shipping labels.
Originally created for MGM’s outer space epic Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot ranks among the single most iconic props in science fiction film history and arguably is the cinema’s most famous and instantly recognisable robot.
Forbidden Planet finds the crew of the spaceship C-57D (led by Leslie Nielsen) discovering a scientist, Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and Morbius’ robotic servant, Robby, on the distant planet Altair-4. In the (literally) electrifying climax, the astronauts are confronted by the horrible “Id” creature that wiped out the extinct Krell species who once populated Altair-4.
Robby was built at MGM for around $100,000 – a gigantic sum for a science fiction prop in the 1950s. Designed by Robert Kinoshita, Arnold Gillespie, Irving Block, Mentor Huebner, and Arthur Lonergan, Robby was a quantum leap in futuristic movie robot design, breaking from earlier clunky “tin-can” mechanical man designs. His “sax valves,” “gyroscopes,” and other marvelous trappings are a pinnacle of 1950s futurism. Robby’s comical, winning personality also marked a major shift in movie robots.
All of Robby’s parts were created in MGM’s prop shop, primarily the leather shop because of its advanced tooling capabilities. Royalite plastic was used for his head, feet, and upper and lower torso. All of the spheres on Robby (arm gimbals, legs, and dome) were made of Lumarith (acetate). Metal, rubber, wood, and Perspex were also used in Robby’s construction.
Resistors on either side of Robby’s front neon tubes blink, giving him the appearance of talking.
Robby ran on five 12 volt DC motors, which were originally World War Two military surplus, although he was also sometimes powered by a cable run from his remote control panel on wheels to his heel. (The cable is visible in Forbidden Planet when Robby enters Morbius’ house and says “Something is approaching from the west…”)
Actor/stuntman Frankie Carpenter and former child star Frankie Darro alternately wore the bulky Robby suit in the film, which weighs approximately 120 pounds. Carpenter or Darro had to shoulder using a “flying harness,” akin to the ones worn by the Flying Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (1939), made of metal with back padding and leather padded shoulder straps. The tiring task of playing Robby necessitated a rack for them to rest in between takes. (A similar rack was used during production of the film The Invisible Boy (1957), which also appears onscreen briefly in that film. It is uncertain whether or not it was used on Forbidden Planet).
Robby’s huge Jeep was built on a Crosley car body; its futuristic adornments are mainly painted wood. The Jeep does not run because MGM cannibalised its steering mechanism and motor for another production.
Forbidden Planet was a colossal hit, and Robby figured heavily in its ad campaign. (The film’s original one sheet poster gave the false impression that the benign robot is a monster.) Since Robby was in many ways the film’s “star,” he was present at the film’s Los Angeles premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. During the film’s original release, Robby was shipped around the country on a promotional tour; his original wooden shipping “stage crates” were part of this lot.
Like many of Forbidden Planet‘s elaborate props and costumes, Robby was reused frequently; he “starred” in The Invisible Boy (1957) and appeared in many TV series, including Columbo, Lost in Space, The Addams Family, Wonder Woman and The Twilight Zone. An alternate, simpler Robby head was used on the suit for its appearance in the The Twilight Zone episode, “Uncle Simon”.
In 1970, Robby and his Jeep were purchased privately from MGM by Jim Brucker and both were displayed throughout the 1970s at Movie World/Cars of the Stars. By 1979, Robby had fallen somewhat into disrepair; filmmaker and collector Bill Malone, who had previously built the first full Robby replica, acquired him that year. Using original spare parts included with Robby, Malone restored him to his full glory. (Robby’s current hands are recasts from his original hands; the originals were rubber and naturally deteriorated over time. The “bubble” dome on Robby’s head is not an original but was made from an original MGM studio mould. An original Robby dome is included which has yellowed with age).
After Robby’s restoration, he occasionally cameoed in TV ads and films like Gremlins (1984) and periodically made public appearances at conventions, screenings, and other events, including the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. He has been replicated countless times as toys, model kits, and other memorabilia.
Tech Spec: Robby: 29 x 38 x 71 in. [with arms forward]; Jeep: 52 x 60 x 72 in.; claws: 3.75 x 13.5 in.; alternate head: height: 26.5 in.; diameter: 22.5 in.; flying harness: height: 12 in.; diameter: 17 in.; control panel: 17 x 23.75 x 39 in.; stage cases: 38 x 40 x 61 in.; smaller “Robot Head” case: 30 x 30.5 x 30 in.; rack: approximately 24.5 x 31.75 x 43.5 in.
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