Sci-fi icon–Original screen-used Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet to hit the auction block

Robby the Robot.  He’s probably the only robot who has his own “Actor” page in the Internet Movie Database.  In the history of robots he is probably the most significant and the most game-changing robot of all time.  In the world of science fiction, few came before who achieved such fame, but many would follow.  Most who created the robots that came after–call them droids, androids and variants like fembots or even cyborgs, like the Terminator T-800, Cylons, and Cybermen, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and K-2So and BB-8–all can point back to Robby as inspiration and a critical step in the evolution of robots in cinema.  Robby would become a household name as a co-star and the focus of publicity for Forbidden Planet in 1956 (the classic sci-fi take on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest), and would go on to have guest appearances along with B-9 in Lost in Space, two episodes of The Twilight Zone, and all sorts of classic TV appearances (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Hazel, Dobie Gillis, The Addams Family, Columbo, Wonder Woman, The Love Boat, Mork & Mindy), and later he can even be spotted in the movies Gremlins and Clueless. 

As pop culture is concerned, there is likely no single, intact, tangible piece of entertainment memorabilia in science fiction that compares to the robot prop itself, which doubled as a costume worn by Frankie Darrow and voiced by Marvin Miller.  The word “iconic” was created for the likes of Robby the Robot.  So no wonder our heads began to spin when it became public this month that the actual robot from the groundbreaking science fiction film Forbidden Planet was going to hit the auction block this year.  And unlike most auctions of original, screen-used, Hollywood memorabilia, Robby the Robot is being sold with a host of original materials used with the Robot throughout his incredible run, and from the auction photos it appears his light-up electronics are still functional.

Bonhams is the lucky auction house that will sell off Robby later this year, presented by Turner Classic Movies.  The auction house posted preview images from its catalog (expected to be available sometime in October) and it’s clear each accompanying production item in the photos could have been auctioned off separately in its own right.  All we know so far is the listing itself and photos, with no idea of the auction estimate or any other details that may be released, including its provenance:   “Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, together with Robby’s car, his alternative head, his control panel, and original MGM packing cases.  Also 2 rings for his head, 2 additional arms with pinschers, a stand, a harness, another part for the stand.”

Bonhams photo of Robby’s car, being auctioned in November.

In the mid-1970s well-known licensed robot replica maker Fred Barton restored Robby and his electric chariot/jeep when they were owned and on display at Jim and Ida Brucker’s Movie World Museum (also a celebrity and film auto museum and host to rock bands over the years like Blonde and Van Halen as well as the cast of TV shows like Happy Days), located in Buena Park, California, near Knott’s Berry Farm.  The Robot and car had been vandalized during years on display.  Years ago Barton reflected on his reaction to Robby when first taking on the restoration project in an interview: “After playing ‘Robby and Morbius’ for a few hours, I powered up all the head systems, and he started to sing.  The neon tubes still worked, as did every MGM mechanism.  Robby smelled of machine oil and lacquer.  MGM had used aluminum tracks for the head torso and legs.  Robby was silent when he walked.  You’d hear a little creaking plastic, but that was it.  Truly a magnificent creation.  By this time, Robby was painted silver, was missing an ear, a scanner, blasters, and original heart box detail.  His legs and body had warped, his ankles broken, his dome had yellowed, and he had dozens of screw holes put in him by uncaring grips who tried to keep him together for whatever shoot he was on.  Despite all that, he still worked!”  Appearances by Robby following 1974 were likely appearances by replicas.  After 1979 the museum sold off its collection’s big pieces, with all remaining items sold off by 1993.  It is possible that Robby and his car have been in the private collector’s hands that purchased them from the Bruckers for the entirety of the past 35 years.

Robby and his electric chariot in 1956’s Forbidden Planet, with Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis.

If Robby’s spacecar–seen first along with Robby also in Forbidden Planet–hit the auction block first as a separate lot, we have little doubt it alone would fetch at least $250,000.  Together with the Robot it will only bolster what is easily going to be one of the biggest Hollywood prop sales ever (and check out that Saarinen tulip chair-style design on the two seats–the same design that influenced his Burke chair a decade later that was used by Desilu for Star Trek’s Enterprise bridge!).  Robby was designed by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer prop department for Forbidden Planet.  The original concept work came from production designer Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, art director Arthur Lonergan, and writer Irving Block, refined by production illustrator Mentor Huebner, and detailed and finalized by MGM staff production draftsman and mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita.  At a price of more than $1 million in 21st century dollars, Robby is one of the most expensive singular props ever created for a film.  Compared to the simplicity of Gort from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and the golden female-shaped robot in 1927’s Metropolis, it’s easy to see the monumental shift in design Robby meant for cinema.

Robby the Robot, Billy Mumy as Will Robinson and Robot B-9 in Lost in Space.

Our good friend, Hollywood prop and costume collector and expert Don Hillenbrand, spotted this sale for us–check out his article on the famous robot and his impact at his website Wrath of Dhan here.  Don speculates the Robby lot should easily exceed $1 million.  We agree.  Could it even be the first Hollywood memorabilia at public auction to hit $10 million?  Something this original and unique would seem to belong either somewhere in the middle of the top cinema items to ever sell–or should it surpass them?  The contenders include Marilyn Monroe’s dress from The Seven Year Itch ($5.52 million/2011), the 1966 Batmobile from the 1960s television series ($4.62 million/2013), one of the actual falcon props from The Maltese Falcon ($4.6 million/2013), one of two original James Bond’s Aston Martins from Goldfinger ($4.6 million/2010), Audrey Hepburn My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s dresses ($3.7 million/2011 and $807,000/2006, respectively), Sam’s piano from Casablanca ($3.4 million/2014), the Cowardly Lion suit from The Wizard of Oz ($3.1 million/2014), Von Trapp kids’ costumes from The Sound of Music ($1.5 million/2013), Steve McQueen’s racing suit from LeMans ($984,000/2011), and one of four pairs of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz ($666,000/2000).

The original Robby the Robot selling at Bonhams.

As for science fiction props, the artifact to beat is another robot–an R2-D2 that was pieced together from several screen-used components, which sold this past June for $2.76 million.  And a Back to the Future III DeLorean time machine sold for $541,000 in 2011.  Many more items have sold from Hollywood in excess of $500,000 over the years.  Check out some past auctions of Forbidden Planet props and costumes here and here.  Where would you place Robby the Robot in relation to these iconic artifacts of film history?  Will Paul Allen go after it for his science fiction museum in Seattle?  How about George Lucas, for his new museum being planned for Los Angeles?  What other wealthy collectors will be battling it out?  What about celebrity clients of robot replica maker Fred Barton, like Nicholas Cage and Tim Allen?

The Bonhams auction of the Robby the Robot lot is scheduled for November 21, 2017.  Look for more information as it is released on the Bonhams auction website here.

C.J. Bunce

Leave a Reply