HOLMES AND WALSTON

Robby the Robot as Sherlock Holmes.jpg

Robby, the omnicompetent robot from MGM's 1956 phantasmagorical science-fiction epic Forbidden Planet, may or may not be the most famous movie robot of all time. He certainly is the only one to go on to a full career on his own and the only one to have his own IMDb page with over two dozen credits.

Credit that to the usual Hollywood mixture of star power and money. Robots in 1950s movies were rare outside of the cheapest movie serials, where they resembled a pile of painted cardboard boxes more than the technological future. Though Robby too hid a human controller inside its shell of plexiglas, rubber, and Royalite plastic, the finished design seemed alive and active. Robby was a series of balls, round and even cuddly, surmounted by a head that mimicked humanity with its actively whirling scanner "ears," twitching clocklike "nose," and glittering "voice tubes." More than a collection of tics, the human analogues, together with a deep bass voiceover, gave Robby a personality, something previously lacking in robots and - from its reception - sorely needed.

Creating Robby involved a team of specialists at a reputed cost of $125,000, an equally phantasmagorical figure at a time when that rivaled the entire budget of many of the schlocky drive-in creature features the movie competed against. The MGM accountants wanted to amortize their investment. After implausibly shoehorning Robby into its own 1957 movie, The Invisible Boy, the studio offered to rent Robby to other production companies for that instant robot goodness. Interest sparked immediately. Robby appeared on The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna and The Thin Man tv series in 1958, two separate episodes of The Twilight Zone, and then in another two dozen movies and tv shows down to a cameo on a 2014 episode of The Big Bang Theory, with Robby as an iconic historic figure.

 

Obsessive fans have dug up every scrap of fact about Robby's long life, from his creation to his final sale at auction in 2017 for a supposed record $4.5 million dollars plus a hefty buyer's premium, a number that puts him into the stratosphere with other Hollywood icons like the white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch ($4.6 million+ in 2011) and the original 1966 Batmobile ($4.6 million+ in 2013, presumably with slightly lower premiums).

There's obscure and then there's fantastically obscure, a fleeting blip in the history of Hollywood seen by no one and remembered equally well. Imagine if you will making Robby into Sherlock Holmes, with the Beaver himself, Jerry Mathers, as his Watson. This hallucinogenic game of mad libs will be found nowhere on Robby's IMDb page. You need to know that it exists before the database throws up an IMDb page about an unsold pilot, a fragment of a fragment. Even that reveals the bare minimum of information that a page will allow.

Director: William Malone

Credited cast:

Jerry Mathers ...Darrel Walston

Robert Short ...Robby the Robot

Walston, aided by his robot Roddy (who thinks it's Holmes and Walston is Watson), track down an evil alien who has come to Earth.

Roddy? No, no, no. We can do better than that, a tiny bit better.  I scraped the corners of the internet for information and found only mysteries, along with some fascinating backstory on the show that shouldn't exist, Holmes and Walston.

Holmes and Walston Robby photo at allsci-fi.com

For background we need to start with a digression. (Warning: it's digressions all the way down.) A close reading of Robby's IMDb page shows a long gap between 1968 and 1974. The sad, slightly sordid, reason is that MGM didn't care what other productions did with Robby as long as they paid their hefty fees. His iconic head was swapped out for earlier prototypes and various other alterations appeared. By 1970, the robot was more of a standing comic joke than a symbol of an advanced future.

MGM caved. In either 1970 or 1971, depending on which source you consult, it sold Robby to Jim Bruckner's Movie World: Cars of the Stars and Picture Car Company. Bruckner needed one of the biggest parking lots in Los Angeles to handle the thousands of vintage cars he rented out to movie studios for authentic backdrops to period pictures, and further amotized his investment by using part of his sprawl as a museum open to the public. Bruckner put Robby on display next to his car from Forbidden Planet. In that supposedly innocent era, no protections were thought to be needed. Souvenir hunters quickly stripped him for parts.

Around the same time, Fred Barton, who bills his company as "the world's leading producer of museum-quality, famous movie and television robot replicas, sought internationally by private collectors and museums," was starting his career by building a Robby replica in 1974. Word got back to Bruckner, who commissioned Barton to restore Robby to all his magnificence.Most Robby appearances since then (remember that he reappeared not coincidentally in 1974) have been Barton's replicas.

Fred Barton and Robby

Copyright © 2019 | Fred Barton Productions

Movie-World closed a few years later. Robby got sold in the process, to Forbidden Planet superfan William "Bill" Malone.

Bill Malone and Robby

This is the same Bill Malone as the director of Holmes and Walston. As owner of the original, restored Robby, he obviously used the original rather than one of Barton's replicas, right? Wrong. The pilot was made in 1975. He didn't buy Robby until years later, when he developed a reputation as a collector of props from the science-fiction movies he loved.

But. Bill Warren, author of the classic Keep Watching the Skies, throws another curve into the story.

In the early 1970s, Bill Malone, a fan later turned director, was so eager to have Robby that he built a duplicate. This one was seen in Mork and Mindy, Columbo, Project UFO, The Love Boat, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Space Academy, Wonder Woman, Ark II and other series as well as some commercials and industrial films.

Again, the timing is crucial. And a bit confusing. With one exception, all of those appearances took place between 1974 and 1979, exactly the period I'm looking at. That would seem to confirm that Malone had his own Robby replica in 1975, and what better way to justify it than with its own tv show. (The one outlier is The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, which ran way back in 1968. Since Malone wasn't born until 1953, the odds that a 15-year-old could build his own quality Robby and get it introduced in Hollywood when MGM still was peddling its original isn't supportable. Even the good ones make mistakes.)

How Malone thought he could get away with it is impossible to assess except by citing youthful megalomania. Although he started shooting 8 mm films as a kid and got his foothold in Hollywood by making monster masks for horror pictures, he had no relevant experience. Nor did the production company credited, Don Post Studios, an offshoot of the mask and costume store where Malone got one of his first jobs in Los Angeles. No question that Post saw something in the 22-year-old and created an opportunity for its prodigy. It has no listings on IMDb until the next year, 1976, when it put out the low-budget Hollywood Boulevard, known mostly as being Joe Dante's first directorial role. Why it stopped there is as unknown as everything else about the project. Still, got to say that Don Post had an eye for young talent. Malone didn't have Dante's career, limited as it is, but he wrote and directed a series of horror films, wrote two other screenplays, and worked regularly in television.

How well he did with the production of Holmes and Walston is unknown, as nothing is known about the finished product. The best description is given in The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, which obsessively amasses every existing reference to Holmes.

 

Holmes and Walston is an unaired TV pilot shot in 1975 by american director Bill Malone, produced by Don Post Studios, starring Robert Short as the voice of Robby the Robot and Jerry Mathers as Darrel Walston.

Robby the robot was programmed to think it was Sherlock Holmes, and Jerry Mathers (as Darrel Walston) was the robot's caretaker. The robot is convinced that Walston is Dr. Watson, and in the first (and only) episode they set out to track and together they set out to track down an alien (whose robot is played by a Gort look-alike) who has come to Earth to steal power.

We do know that Malone mined his robot collection for props, as the Gort look-alike, mimicking the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, played the "evil alien" mentioned in the IMDb description.

Gort in Holmes and Walston

The set was a melange of vaguely science-fictional props and gadgets.

Holmes and Walston set

Robby got voiced by Robert Short. This is his earliest IMDb entry, but he later went on to a long career as a special effects and visual effects maven, while his early credits were for makeup. No doubt he and Malone traveled in the same circles and were both known to Don Post.

Walston was played by Jerry Mathers. Yes, that Jerry Mathers, the child star forever famed for his role as the Beaver. This is inexplicable. If we didn't have definite proof of his involvement, I'd say that the claim was simply wrong, an error that crept in at some point and was perpetuated by every subsequent chronicler.

Mathers had been out of show business for a decade by that time, leading a life typical of most 20-year-olds of the day. He joined the National Guard, graduated from Berkeley with a degree in philosophy, got married, and took a management job at a bank. In his autobiography,  ...And Jerry Mathers as "The Beaver", he sums the show biz component of those years with an offhand, "While I'd been in banking there were all sorts of offers to do different movies and stage plays, but I was working full-time and I couldn't take off and keep my job." Holmes and Walston is variously described as a tv pilot and a tv movie, but either would have required time.

And yet. Researchers know that a single picture can trump all their piles of carefully deduced logic. One scrap of memorabilia provides irrefutable visual evidence that Mathers was "The Walston." Two minutes of soundless home movie film made its way to YouTube. It stars Jerry Mathers wielding a ray gun against Gort, possibly the strangest sentence you will ever read on this site celebrating strangeness.

Robby is wonderfully decked out in a deerstalker hat and matching cape as he lumbers a full two feet on the tiny set. One wonders whether there was ever a second set or if the entire production took place in this single room. Behind-the-scenes footage is always at odds with the final product, but this snippet seems better suited for an amateur short than a full-fledged television show. Admittedly, the publicity still at the top of the page, featuring a 20th century pastiche of Holmesian Victoriana, looks considerably more professional.

That's it. There is no more. We don't know whether Malone shopped the finished production around or who turned it down or why. We don't know whether Mathers was willing to give up his lucrative business career for a long-shot television series. We don't know why it took Malone five more years to get an actual production into theaters, 1980s Scared to Death, co-written with Robert Short. Even the aftermath of Holmes and Walston is unknown, although Malone is rumored to have a videotape of the production, but the odds are that it will never be made public. Holmes and Walston is destined to remain one of the most desirable unseen oddities of robot lore, if not the great lost production, then certainly the campy giggle-fest of them.

February 27, 2021