Bob May likes to tell an old joke about acting.
There's this bit actor in a movie who is crawling on his belly through the mud. His friend comes along and says to him, "Jim, are you out of your mind? Get up. Go home. Take a shower."
Jim looks up, his face grimy and tired. "What," he says. "And give up show business?"
May never crawled through mud for his most famous role, but he did do an awful lot of sweating. A longtime San Fernando Valley resident, he is the nameless, faceless performer who gave life to the original "Lost in Space" robot, animating it and finding ways to express its character. And this weekend he will appear, along with a replica of the "Lost in Space" robot, in the Celebrity Pavilion at the San Fernando Valley Fair.
Protector of the family, best friend and Lassie-like companion to Will Robinson, straight man and comedic partner to Dr. Zachary Smith, the robot in "Lost in Space" is as recognized and adored as any human character on television. May, 58, spent three years inside the robot costume, from the show's inception in 1965 to its conclusion in 1968. The show has never been off the air since.
The robot's body was built by production designer Robert Kinoshida (who also designed Robbie in "Forbidden Planet"). The torso was made of fiberglass, the legs of rubber, the arms of latex and the claws of metal. A short man, May was able to stand upright inside the suit, eye-level with the striated clear plastic "collar" at the top of the torso. He wore black makeup so his face wouldn't be visible on camera. The suit, he says, was hot. "I'm the only actor in the business who had his own Jacuzzi and sauna built all in -one."
May once spent a couple of hours trapped inside the thing. As a prank, Billy Mumy (Will Robinson) and Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith) had the crew leave May in the robot suit while everyone went to lunch. "So I took out a cigarette and started smoking," says May. Irwin Allen, the creator and producer of the show, "came on the set, saw smoke coming out the top of the robot, and next thing I know he's running at me with a fire extinguisher. I said, 'No, Mr. Allen! It's only me, I'm having a cigarette.' " Later, the prop department built him an ashtray inside the suit.
During scenes, May recited the robot's lines while blinking the neon light on the robot's chest. At the beginning of the first season, this meant that May had to speak and work the robot's arms, simultaneously hitting his head against a button near the top of the torso. "That was a little silly," says May. The mechanism was altered by the second season so May could push a small button in the left claw. (If you look closely, in some of the episodes you can see his left hand twitch.)
In post-production, announcer Dick Tufeld dubbed over May's voice. The familiar lines, "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson," "That does not compute" and "Dr. Smith is the bubble-headed booby" were spoken by Tufeld. (The only time you'll hear May's voice is when the robot sings or coughs.)
Tufeld, who lives in the Studio City area, can also be heard at the beginning of the classic television show "Zorro," saying, "The Walt Disney Studios presents, 'Zorro!' " and in the Rocket Rods ride in Disneyland's new Tomorrowland.
Initially, May was not at all pleased with the dubbing arrangement. "I went to see the rushes for the first time and heard this strange voice speaking my lines. I went home yelling and screaming to my wife that this wasn't fair." His wife calmed him down, teased him, pointed out he was on a hit TV show. It didn't take long for May to come around. "[Tufeld's voice-over] was excellent, and I'm grateful." And the show's residuals, he said, paid to raise his children, and more.
Without a voice or a face to work with, May created a character using what he had left: a few lights, arms, claws and a bubble head he could raise or lower. May was familiar with the stage use of broad gestures from performing on- and off-Broadway with his grandfather, Chic Johnson, of the well-known vaudeville comedy team Olsen and Johnson.
"I learned to tap-dance on train platforms and in hotel lobbies," says May. His father, Marty May, performed on Broadway, as did his mother, June Johnson. May now wears his father's gold ring, which features a crowned court jester: king of comedy.
The actor-comedian Jerry Lewis, a family friend, gave May his first break in Hollywood, casting him as one of the college kids in "The Nutty Professor" (unfortunately, his scene was cut in the final edit). May had small roles in other Jerry Lewis films, and he did some looping and dialogue directing for Lewis. "He used to call my family and tell them how I was doing," says May.
May also found employment as a stunt double and dancer. "I'm an actor who believes in working," he says. He was on the lot preparing for work as Red Buttons' stunt double when Irwin Allen recognized him from a bit part he had on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." Allen explained the premise of "Lost in Space" and offered May the role of the robot, provided he could fit into the costume. "Irwin Allen said to me, 'I don't know what the robot can or will do. You make something of it.' "
May's favorite episode was the last, "Junkyard in Space," when the robot sacrifices himself to save the family, giving himself to the junkman for scrap in exchange for their freedom. The robot was saying a sad good-bye to Mumy when May found himself overwhelmed with emotion. "It was a really lovely, touching scene," says May. "I cried inside the suit. You could see in Bill Mumy's face that he had the same feeling. Later in the episode, you find out that the robot wasn't destroyed, and can't be destroyed, because he has so much love for family and for Will Robinson. Love conquered all."
May found out that the show was canceled by reading about it in the popular press two weeks before he was to start work on the fourth season.
"My wife picked up TV Guide, and there it was," he says.
After the series ended, May did guest appearances, played in clubs and theaters and was on the Jerry Lewis Telethon with the original robot. He continues to make appearances at science fiction and other conventions.
"After 57 years in the business, all I can say is, I feel very lucky to have spent my life getting paid to do something that I love. That's incredible."
Bob May will appear as himself, accompanied by a replica of the "Lost in Space" robot, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Celebrity Pavilion at the 1998 San Fernando Valley Fair and Rodeo. The fair runs today-Sunday at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, 480 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Hours: today, 4-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (818) 557-1600. $6 general, children 11 and younger free, seniors 62 and older free today. Other discounts available. General admission to the rodeo is included in the regular fair admission, but preferred box seating is an additional $16.