Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes

Editor's Note: This article on Robby the Robot was previously published in SCARY DREAMS (one of Harry Nadler's many creations), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, the ultimate Sci-Fi and Horror fan, Tony Meadows - the man who has forgotten more than most of us know about the genre!


ROBBY - Science Fiction Cinema's most endearing robot.

By Tony Meadows

Robby - the robot from Forbidden Planet - was born in the prop shop at MGM Studios in 1956. More specifically, in the place called The Leather Shop, where they made all the tooling and forms for him. One of the biggest problems they had to contend with was in keeping the robot's body weight down. The shop crew came up with what would be, for that time, some very hi-tech ideas to get around the problem.

The body was originally to have been constructed from wood, but they figured that would have been too heavy, so instead, they built him out of a vacuum-formed plastic called Royalite. To give Robby a realistic look, many of his parts, such as the sax-valves inside his plastic dome, were machined in metal.

Robby was actually designed for Frankie Carpenter, who was a prop builder on the film. He was to play the part of Robby. However, the crew hadn't thought about Frankie's union status, and the Screen Actor's Guild stepped in and informed the studio that they would have to hire a union actor to play the robot role. To satisfy the Guild, actor Frankie Darrow was hired, and although Darrow did do some of the scenes - the prop-shop's original Frankie did most of it! The reason for this was because it soon became apparent that Darrow had a slight drink problem. In the first sequence, when Robby alights from the car, he repeatedly began turning through 180 degrees and the stage crew had to run around trying to catch him. They managed to stop him before he hit the ground, and dragged the inebriated Darrow out of the suit. After that incident, production continued with Carpenter in the Robby suit and Darrow remaining on the payroll to appease the actor's union.

Weighty Problem

Robby weighed in at almost a hundred and ten pounds, so in order to support his weight, the operator had to carry most of it on his shoulders. The upper part of Robby was, in fact, too heavy for the legs to support! This meant that Frankie Carpenter could only stay inside the robot for about twenty minutes at a time. Then, he had to be backed into a special rack - a sort of metal shelving that supported him so he could rest - and literally take the weight off his legs! The harness they used was known as a 'flying harness', used in such MGM films as The Wizard of Oz for the flying monkeys.

A. Arnold Gillespie, MGM's top special effects technician for over forty years, and winner of four Academy Awards for his work, recalled in an interview in 1974 how Robby was created:

"I felt that most robots in science fiction movies had a look of a man in an aluminium suit. They all seemed the same to me and I decided that we ought to find a new look - a different kind of robot. I happened to think of the pot-bellied stoves of my youth. So, Robby was designed, basically, from an old pot-bellied coal-burning stove!"

Hot Wired

But Robby was much more than a man in a suit. Cinematographer, George Folsey, described his workings like this:

"The robot's massive body was motivated by six motors and was controlled through a complicated panel. The panel consisted of ten dials, sixteen switches and three buttons and was located off to one side of the set. He had complete mobility of arms, legs and head. More than six months of trial and error labour were required to successfully install 2,600 feet of electrical wiring that made the robot independent and self operating."

In fact, so successful was the construction, so seamless the illusion that it was thought for a long, long time that Robby was a real robot.

WSM01-14.jpg (27955 bytes)

Robby as he appears in The Invisible Boy

The voice of Robby was provided by a well-known announcer of the day, Marvin Miller. His other appearances, besides Forbidden Planet, were The Invisible Boy and cameos in Hollywood Boulevard, Gremlins and Cherry 2000. He also appeared on TV in two episodes of Lost in Space, The Thin Man series, The Perry Como Show and even Columbo.

Robby did a publicity tour in the UK on the original release of Forbidden Planet and appeared in my home town of Wigan, at the Ritz Cinema, on 1st September 1956.

No one can argue against the fact that Robby is one of the best-loved robots ever to grace the silver screen. He is now one of the genuine icons of screen SF; holding his own with the likes of the Robotrix from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and Michael Rennie's robot policeman, Gort, from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Robby looks as fresh, as friendly and formidable today as he did 46 years ago when he first walked out of the Krell-trained mind of Dr Morbius.

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Copyright � 2002 John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 18 June 2002

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