If you were among the countless young fans in the ’60s who dreamed of owning the robot from the classic TV show “Lost in Space,” you might experience a twinge of envy for Mike Joyce.
Not only does Mike own a fully functional replica of the original robot, he also has fulfilled the fantasy for a handful of those youths — many now in their 50s — who also own stunning duplicates of the famous talking prop.
Working from his B9 Creations home factory just south of Deadwood, Joyce has brought to life the iconic metal companion of junior space explorers Will and Penny Robinson, whose family was lost in space for three memorable seasons on CBS from 1965-68.
Sure, the show’s plots and special effects may draw yawns from today’s tech-saturated audiences, but the
robot — generally referred to as Model B9 by “Lost in Space” enthusiasts — is still a source of wonder.
“I fell in love with all the hardware on the show — the spaceships, laser guns and obviously the robot,” said Joyce, 48, a former Air Force pilot with a degree in mathematics who later worked in software development. "The new owners generally put them on display in their homes or offices."
When "Lost in Space" was canceled, the original B9 was tossed into storage for years, only to be reincarnated and refitted (mutilated, some fans would say) as a prop for a short-lived Saturday morning kids' show called "Mystery Island" in 1977.
After another decade in the 20th Century Fox closet, B9 was rescued and restored by producer Kevin Burns. Although he later sold the robot to a private collector in Northern California, Burns arranged licensing to enable Joyce to build official replicas.
"There was always a lot of fan interest in building reproductions of the robot," said Burns from his Los Angeles office.
"The B9 Robot Builders Club was created, and members shared tips for building their own. Mike was one of the best," he said.
Through his company, Synthesis Entertainment, Burns gave Joyce access to the robot's original molds and templates.
"They are 100 percent accurate, more than any fan-built copy has ever been. In fact, they are better built, better detailed and more functional than the original. Mike has a license to build 150," Burns said. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but we didn't want to flood the market. And considering the price ($25,000 apiece), they will remain unique and special."
The first B9 prototype rolled off Joyce's assembly line in 2005, and now lives permanently in Burns' California home. In fact, the Joyce family drove from South Dakota to personally deliver it. Since then, 52 more robots have been assembled and delivered to proud owners around the world. Another four are currently being finished.
"It takes about 315 man-hours to assemble one and do all the finishing," Joyce said. "And that doesn't include manufacturing all the parts that we contract outside vendors to make, such as the acrylic bubble head, the metal tread section, the neon blinking light and all the other metal, plastic, fiberglass and rubber parts."
Like the original, the robot isn't motorized to move about.
"It weighs 275 pounds," Joyce said. "You wouldn't want him tearing around your home or office."
Unlike the original, however, the arms do not thrash around, although they do extend manually. That's because the original was basically a suit that fit over the late Bob May, who controlled most movements from inside.
In fact, series creator Irwin Allen kept technical aspects of the robot's operation a mystery, to heighten young viewers' curiosity. Allen apparently was delighted that kids thought the robot was real.
The torso, head and claws all rotate like the original. Unplugging the famous "power pack" sends B9 into deactivated robot hibernation, and an orange light flashes in sync when he speaks. A flash memory card stores about 500 vocal tracks spoken by Dick Tufeld, the robot's original voice.
For an extra fee, Tufeld will even customize recordings for new owners.
"The most common request is for the robot to verbalize the names of individual family members, including pets," said Tufeld, 82, from his home in Studio City, Calif. For instance, "Danger, Bruce! Happy Birthday, Emily! Spot, you do not compute!"
The most unusual request, he said, was to sing the verse and chorus of "Dixie!"
Tufeld said the quality of his robot voice actually improved with age. But in 2000, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation for lung cancer.
"It destroyed the nerve leading to one of my vocal chords," he said. After surgery and months of recovery, his voice returned, though somewhat weakened. But he still delights in making recordings for the replicas when he can.
"Mike's reproductions are fabulous," he added. "Visually, they're simply amazing."
Though incredibly time-consuming to assemble, Joyce is delighted his creations are in demand.
"Companies have tried to manufacture these robots in the past, and failed. So I did wonder if there would be a market out there," he said.
Despite the current economic slump, Joyce is confident the remaining 100 robots will find homes - provided, of course, there are some long-suffering spouses out there who won't mind indulging an expensive whim.
"Fans are very passionate about the old Irwin Allen shows," he said. "They just want to connect with their childhood."
For more information on the robot, go to www.lost