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(1956– ). American special effect.

Appeared in: Forbidden Planet (Fred Wilcox 1956); The Invisible Boy (Herman Hoffman 1957); "Uncle Simon" (1963), "The Brain Center at Whipple's" (1964), episodes of The Twilight Zone; "The War of the Robots" (1966), "The Condemned of Space" (1967), episodes of Lost in Space; "Lurch's Little Helper" (1966), episode of The Addams Family; "Mind over Mayhem" (1974), episode of Columbo; Hollywood Boulevard (Joe DANTE and Allan Arkush 1976); "The Robot" (1976), episode of Ark II; "Dr. Morkenstein" (1979), episode of Mork and Mindy; Gremlins (Dante 1984); The Phantom Empire (Fred Olan Ray 1989); Earth Girls Are Easy (Julian Temple 1990).<
I mean no disrespect to its human performers, but by far the most interesting character in Forbidden Planet is Robby the Robot. Unlike previous movie robots, who were transparently actors in robot suits, Robby did not closely resemble a human being: a clear chamber of moving parts took the place of his head, his arms were elastic and tentacle-like, a panel across his chest lighted up whenever he spoke, a matter-processing device was installed in the position of his stomach, and he rolled, not walked, from place to place. More than the theatrical sets, the cheesy special effects, or the electronic music score, Robby's appearances, and the way the other actors accepted him as an equal, conveyed the utter strangeness of that film's alien environment; he dominated every scene he was in, and the movie dragged whenever he was offstage.

Sensing that a new screen star had emerged, MGM rushed him into another film, The Invisible Boy; but Robby somehow seemed out of place as a robot from the future standing in a boy's room in modern suburbia, and while he could capably project placid obedience in Forbidden Planet, the greater dramatic demands of this role—expressing an inner conflict between the commands of his master computer and his fondness for little Richard Eyer—were apparently beyond his abilities. The film failed, and Robby's film career apparently came to an end.

However, Robby soon found a home in television, where he could serve as a useful prop for cheap producers who didn't have the time or money to build their own robots. He made two appearances in both The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space and had some fun with The Addams Family; he briefly brought Columbo into the realm of mildly futuristic science fiction; he added his eerie gravitas to the ravaged future of Ark II; and an episode of Mork and Mindy, where Roddy MCDOWALL gave him a voice, represented a memorable meeting of talented lost souls on the skids. Since reference books obstinately refuse to acknowledge him as a performer, many of his television roles may be forever beyond the scrutiny of filmographers.

As television science fiction grew up (if only in terms of special effects), Robby soon was no longer welcome in television, though filmmakers with fond memories of the character have brought him back for cameo appearances in Hollywood Boulevard, Gremlins, The Phantom Empire, and Earth Girls Are Easy, where he figures momentarily in Geena Davis's chaotic nightmare about her uncertain future with an alien boyfriend. And toy models of Robby are still being marketed on websites today, further evidence of his enduring impact on science fiction filmgoers.

Robby the Robot merits a place in this volume because he was the first figure to demonstrate that in science fiction films, overtly non-human characters, constructs of the special effects department, can indeed function as sympathetic and involving characters. Robby therefore stands as the honorable precursor of many noteworthy film robots, including the very similar Robot of Lost in Space, who battled against the original Robby in one episode, "War of the Robots"; the affecting Huey, Dewey, and Lewey of Douglas TRUMBULL's Silent Running (1971); R2-D2 of Star Wars (1977) and its sequels, who is distinctive and likable although mute and utterly inhuman; the overly precious Johnny Five of Short Circuit (1986) and Short Circuit II (1988); and, less memorably, the cute little robots on board spaceships in The Black Hole (Gary Nelson 1979) and the television series Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century (1979-81), the latter voiced by Mel Blanc.

I saw Robby the Robot once at a 1974 Star Trek convention, standing in a hotel lobby, inactive but still available to be gazed on by admirers. If my original suggestion for his big screen comeback—portraying an aged robot in a Star Wars film, rescued from the scrap heap to instruct the young R2-D2 and C-3P0 on the roles and responsibilities of robots—now seems unlikely, there has recently been announced a forthcoming remake of Forbidden Planet, and producers have stated that they will make no effort to "update" the Robby the Robot character. So, why not bring the original performer back, to reprise his greatest role?

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