I Survived Robot Monster: A Conversation with Actor Gregory Moffett

The 1953 science fiction film “Robot Monster” has earned an unshakable place in pop culture history as one of the worst movies ever made. The picture – which concerns the destruction of Earth and pursuit of a family of survivors by Ro-Man, a despotic alien played by George Barrows and depicted as a gorilla wearing a modified diving helmet with TV rabbit ears – is plagued by deficiencies at every level, from a nonsensical script by Wyatt Ordung (which hamstrings a professional cast led by capable players like George Nader and Selena Royle) to rudimentary direction by Phil Tucker (later an editor for film and TV). A paltry budget and four-day shooting schedule at locations in the Chavez Ravine neighborhood (as it underwent demolition to make way for Dodger Stadium) and Bronson Caves didn’t help matters, and the finished project – released in polarized 3D – was lambasted upon release and for decades afterwards, most notably in Harry and Michael Medved’s snarky “Golden Turkey Awards.”

For fans and critics alike, “Robot Monster” is either the source of endless amusement and/or derision or a sort of affection mixed with pity, the sort spared for, as Stephen King once wrote, “a three-legged dog.” But for the participants, the negative press that has pursued the film for more than a half-century has been something to avoid. Case in point: former child actor and Los Angeles native Gregory Moffett, who played the plucky young Johnny in the film. Moffett, the brother of fellow juvenile performer Sharyn Moffett (“Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”) , had a handful of film and television credits before and after “Robot Monster,” including “Let’s Dance” with Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton and episodes of “The Adventures of Superman,” among other series. But “Robot Monster” is the film that remains the most enduring title on his c.v., and the one he’s steadfastly deflected for 70 years.

However, a recent Blu-ray presentation of the film by Bayview Entertainment has spurred Moffett to speak about his time with Ro-Man. The 70th Anniversary Restoration Blu-ray features 2-D and 3-D presentations of the film restored from the original 35mm negative by Bob Furmanek and the 3-D Film Archive, as well as numerous extras, including vintage slide presentations, restoration and preservation featurettes, memorabilia, a reproduction of a vintage 3-D comic book, and an interview with Moffett, who also contributes to the disc’s commentary track.

Moffett spoke briefly to The Los Angeles Beat via phone about “Robot Monster,” for which we thank him and Michael Krause at Foundry Communications,

The Los Angeles Beat: Did you ever think while you were making “Robot Monster” that somehow, you’d be still talking about this movie 70 years ago?

Gregory Moffett: Well, I was 10. I probably wasn’t thinking about anything in regard to the future (laughs). But [“Robot Monster”] has had an interesting place in my life over the years since Michael (and Harry) Medved decided to do [their] treatise on the worst films ever made back in the ’70s. I think it brought “Robot Monster” back to people’s consciousness, and it’s certainly helped to bring back interest in the movie, though for the life of me, I don’t know why (laughs).

LAB: How did you get involved with the film?

GM: I’m certainly I probably read for it, though I don’t recall that moment in time at all. I can’t imagine that even with a film as low-budget as “Robot Monster” was, that they would cast me without some kind of read for the various roles. A couple of days later, I got a phone call that said I was the guy. So I went to work with a shooting schedule that was only a couple of days.

LAB: Were you at all aware that this was different, both in budget and story, than any of the other projects you’d done.

GM: Pamela {Paulson] – the girl who played my little sister – and I were told that we were the first juveniles – that is, actors under 18 – to appear in a 3D movie. So we knew that it was unique in that respect. There was a lot of conversation about 3D in Hollywood those days, so we knew that there was something unique about the genre, not that either of us knew what 3D was (laughs).

LAB: I think most people still don’t understand 3D.

GM (laughs). Well, if you sit down and watch the film… what Mr. Furmanek and his company, the 3-D Film Archive, the work that they do in restoring and recreating these films is remarkable.

LAB: What do you recall about the director, Phil Tucker?

GM: Nice enough guy. You know, it was only four days, so in that regard, it was very much like a TV show. I did an episode of “The Adventures of Superman” and that was four days. I don’t think I understood that [the schedule] was particularly different [than other movies]. But it’s hard for me to judge – I can’t remember specific cases of being directed by him. We didn’t do a lot of retakes, as you might guess. So I’m thinking that a lot of suggestions came from both my mother and the director. My mother was an experienced stage mom, and she and my dad had both come to Hollywood to be in the entertainment business. So she knew her way around a script. And my sister had a long career, too.

So I probably had as much help from [my mom] as I did from him. He directed the entire film, and while I did have a fair amount of screen time, I wasn’t in every shot. A lot was going on.

LAB: What about your co-stars?

GM: George Nader was a nice enough guy – Claudia Barrett (who played Nader’s love interest), the same way. Ms. Royle (who played Johnny’s mother) was a really nice lady – she was grandmotherly, not motherly. Pamela and I got along okay.

LAB: I read that she had a hard time appearing on camera.

GM: I don’t recall. I know that it’s the only thing she ever did on film. I spoke to her once about seven years ago, inquiring about whether or not she’d be interested in attending a convention regarding “Robot Monster,” and she said, “No, way, Jose,” very quickly.

We would have lived with the infamy it brought to us over the years, but with the Medved book, all of a sudden, I was living with the fact that I was in one of the 10 worst movies ever made. And that’s a load to carry around (laughs).

LAB: So how did the reputation of “Robot Monster” affect you?

GM: I saw it for the first time with an audience in Los Angeles about three weeks ago. They had three premieres for it – one in Milwaukee, one in New York, and now one in LA. All three were sold out. I wasn’t at the first one, but Bob Furmanek told me that the crowd were as enthusiastic as the one I was at. I was blown away. I told the crowd, “You know, I have a lot of people to thank here, but mostly, I have to thank you guys. You’ve kept this thing alive.” I also had to thank them for helping me realize that the work I did 70 years ago, people are actually enjoy it and are entertained by it. I can’t think of anything that a performer would like to know more than that the people who came to see it enjoyed it. So, I’ve done a 180 on “Robot Monster” – from being shamed to death to walking around with a little bit of pride.

LAB: Will you be promoting the Blu-ray at any upcoming events?

GM: In October, I’m due at the Monster Bash in Pittsburgh in October. I’m busier than I’ve been in the last few years. I’d never been to any convention until 2008. I’ve been completely divorced from Hollywood. When we moved out of the area when I was about 12, my career died. At the time, it was impossible to get from Orange County to Hollywood in the afternoons, which was when kids were interviewed for auditions. We were far enough down the San Diego Freeway in those days that it would take two hours to get back to LA after school, and most interviews were at 4 or 4:30. So my career died on the vine, and it never occurred to me to go back to Hollywood as an adult and resume a career, or resurrect one, as it were.

LAB: But here you are.

GM: Yes, and just amazed by what’s been going on for the last few years. When Bob invited me to a showing in 2013 or 2014 during the 3D World Expo down at the Chinese Theater – Claudia was alive in those days, and that might have been when I tried to reach Paula to see if she’d come down. She’s passed since – I’m the last survivor [among the cast] now.

LAB: Well, we’re glad you’re here.

Images courtesy of Bayview Entertainment.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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