RAFU STAFF REPORT
Robert Kinoshita, whose robot designs have become American pop culture icons, passed away on Dec. 9. He was 100.
A private service was held on Dec. 23 at Green Hills Mortuary in Rancho Palos Verdes.
As a designer draftsman for MGM, Kinoshita created the B9 robot made famous in the 1960s TV series “Lost in Space,” and Robby the Robot, who first appeared in the science fiction classic “Forbidden Planet” in 1956.
Kinoshita, in a 2004 interview with The Rafu Shimpo, explained how his designs for Robby the Robot were selected out of hundreds for “Forbidden Planet.” Robby plays a crucial role in the film, based loosely on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but filmmakers struggled with his final design.
“Finally, I thought, what the hell. We’re wasting so much time designing and drawing one sketch after another. I said to myself, I’m going to make a model. So I started making a miniature. It was about 10 inches high,” Kinoshita said.
“Then one day, the art director sees the model. He says, ‘Give me that thing.’ He grabbed it and ran. I mean he literally ran over to the producer’s office because they were behind schedule. Ten minutes later, he comes running back and puts the model back on my desk and says, ‘Draw it!’ That’s how Robby the Robot was born.”
In the decades after the film came out, Robby has become a science fiction icon, appearing in numerous TV shows and films such as “Gremlins.” In 2004, Kinoshita was in attendance when Robby was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University.
Kinoshita said one of the toughest challenges was designing the robots to accommodate the human actor inside the machine.
“What really impairs a designer is when you put a human being inside the robot,” he said. “Your dimensions are very limited in what you can do, so I tried to camouflage it enough so you’d wonder where the hell the human was.
“Walking became an issue. You had to be careful, safety-wise, because he was top-heavy. You had to be careful on designing your feet, how he progressed, his shuffle, his walk. Naturally, running was out of the question.”
Kinoshita grew up in Boyle Heights, attending Maryknoll Japanese Catholic School and Roosevelt High School. It was as a USC undergraduate studying architecture in 1934 that he discovered his interest in the film industry.
“There was this exhibit room at SC, and they were showing sketches of one of the alumnus,” said Kinoshita. “I think he was with MGM or Fox. They were nice big drawings, and I fell in love with them. I thought, ‘This is for me, this designing for motion pictures.’”
Kinoshita graduated cum laude from USC with a degree in architecture, with minors in industrial design and ceramics. As he started working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the U.S. entered World War II and President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, paving the way for the mass exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
Before evacuation orders went out, Kinoshita married Lillian Matsuyama, a sister of his high school football teammate. The couple would go on to have two children, Patricia Lynne and Terry Glenn.
The Kinoshitas initially moved out of the designated military zone to avoid incarceration, but after military rezoning, they ended up at the Poston War Relocation Authority camp in Arizona.
After the war, Kinoshita designed washing machines for the Army and Air Force for a company in Milwaukee, before eventually returning to Southern California.
He was one of just a handful of Asian American designers working on science fiction films at the time and had to overcome prejudice to break into the business.
“It was hard to get in (to the motion picture business),” said Kinoshita. “Oh, boy, we were shut out of there for quite a while there. The only reason I got in finally was because of a friend of mine, Jack Collis. He got a job as a set designer at Ziv Studios, and he got me in there with him because both of us were ostracized. I don’t know why he was ostracized so badly, but I know why I was.”
As an art director and production director, Kinoshita worked in film and television from the 1950s until his retirement in the early 1980s, with credits that include “Sea Hunt,” “Bat Masterson,” “Hawaii Five-0,” and “Kojak.”
On the 1976 TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar,” Kinoshita was an extra and served as production designer, recreating the stark camp conditions of Manzanar at the former Tule Lake camp site in Northern California.
Irwin Allen hired Kinoshita as art director for “Lost in Space,” where he designed the show’s spaceship, the Jupiter 2, and the robot, known only as B9, remembered for his famous catchphrase, “Danger, Will Robinson!”
His creator had an affectionate nickname for B9: “Blinky.”
“We had a contest to name him but none of it took. There must’ve been a couple of hundreds of names submitted but nothing took, I guess not even Blinky. But Blinky was the favorite for us because it was always blinking,” said Kinoshita.