Robby the Robot: From ‘Forbidden Planet’ to Auction Block

“He’s so beautifully thought out,” said Robby’s owner, Bill Malone, 70, of Studio City, Calif. “‘Forbidden Planet’ would not have worked had Robby been a boiler-pot robot from the 1940s.”

Robby was built mainly of Royalite, an ABS plastic often used for luggage, by a team of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer designers and technicians for approximately $100,000. His electronics could be activated via an offstage control panel connected by a cable, or by an operator inside the costume who conducted the actual movement.

“As a kid,” Mr. Malone said, “I totally believed he was real.”

Bonhams is selling Robby along with the control panel, a futuristic land vehicle he piloted on planet Altair IV, and his original M.G.M. packing crates. The studio sold the lot in 1970 to Jim Brucker, who displayed Robby at the now-defunct Movie World/Cars of Stars venue in Orange County, Calif.

Mr. Malone bought the works from Mr. Brucker for “pennies on the dollar” in 1979; since then the robot has resided in Mr. Malone’s home. “Every morning I’d have coffee with Robby,” he said.

So why unload him now? “I’m of an age where I’m still healthy and doing good,” Mr. Malone said, “but I think it’s time to think about his future. We’re sending Robby to college.”


The Robby the Robot Jeep from “Forbidden Planet,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956. Credit Bonhams Auction House, All Rights Reserved

There are also practical considerations. Mr. Malone recalled that someone once telephoned to ask, “‘Is it O.K. if I bring a couple of people over?’”

“And he drove up in a Greyhound bus with a bunch of Japanese people, as if I were part of the Universal tour,” he continued. “I think people need to see him in a museum setting.”

“It was tough working with a robot who didn’t talk,” said Earl Holliman, 89, the last surviving major player in “Forbidden Planet.” “Whenever I talked to Robby, the lines would be delivered by the script supervisor, who was sitting next to the cameraman. It was kind of awkward.”

Still, as the cook of United Planets Cruiser C-57D, Mr. Holliman forged a bond with Robby when the robot distilled 60 gallons of bourbon for him.

“He’s been a friend for 62 years,” Mr. Holliman said, “and I hope that whoever gets him keeps him well lubricated.”

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