Michael Potts got a strange phone call this week.
“My insurance agent called and said, ‘OK, so you’re still alive,'” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Whoa.'”
It wasn’t his first inkling that the internet thought he was dead, but it made him realize how widely the rumor had spread. His boss told him someone called the True Value where he works to check on him. A friend saw some people mourning him online.
Not many people know Mike Potts the human, but generations of humans know Robo Mike. The precision-made, singing, dancing, fist-bumping robot has been a staple of the 16th Street Mall performance scene since the early 1980s. His local fame was fertile ground for panic.
Someone apparently saw a “rest in peace” post on Facebook for someone they thought was Potts, then shared it.
Then, a pocket of Denver’s social media sphere lost their collective minds.
“Nooo that’s so sad 😔 thank you for my childhood ❤️ RIP robo mike ❤️,” Savanna Pino wrote on Facebook.
Tay Anderson, an activist and member of the Denver Public School Board, tweeted that he heard Potts had died. Then, in a follow up, he wrote: “Denver’s 16th Street Mall legend ‘Robo-Mike’ is MISSING. This has led to wide speculation that he is deceased.”
Anderson wrote he called five counties in the metro area to confirm the worst.
Facebook user Nay Envy told us she called hospitals in her search for Potts. She later wrote a widely shared post on Facebook suggesting his batteries were, in fact, still charged. She showed us messages that she sent to one of Potts’ coworkers.
“Please say Michael is alive and well … I’m so confused about my long time friend,” she wrote.
“Yes he is very much alive,” was the response.
“When did you see him last?” Envy prodded.
“This morning,” Pott’s coworker sent back.
Potts spoke to us as Denver was learning he was very much not dead.
We first got a hold of Rob Shearer, a local filmmaker who interviewed Potts for a short documentary he produced in 2016. He had heard the rumors, and he told us he “really hoped” the robot man was OK. After we hung up, he sent out a text and was relieved when Potts confirmed he was just fine. Then he got us connected.
Beyond reassuring his insurance agent and boss, Potts hasn’t made much of a public statement to tell the world he’s alive. But he wasn’t super-surprised to learn people were upset. He’s been told he’s one of the most popular characters in Colorado history.
Potts grew up in Denver and said he started out as a clown around 1981, but titles like “It” by Stephen King soon turned popular culture against the red-nosed figures and forced him to pivot. He always loved sci-fi, like Lost In Space and RoboCop, and he’d perfected Michael Jackson’s robotic dance moves when he was young. It was obvious he should reincarnate himself as Robo Mike.
Potts’ footprint on YouTube is prolific. There are tons of cell phone videos of him in character on the Mall. In each, his form, sound effects and humor are pristine. He said people have paid to fly him all over the country to perform. He also said he rode with Broncos coach Mike Shanahan during a Broncos Super Bowl parade in the ’90s. He wasn’t initially invited, but Shanahan’s security details let him get close enough because “all these cops knew me as kids.”
His longevity is probably why rumors of his death hit Denverites so hard. He’s entertained generations of lovers and haters alike.
“People were racist, mean toward me, and I didn’t care,” he said. “The same people who were mean to me, years later, they all came and said they’re sorry and apologized. I think they realized they were being evil or they have kids now, and their kids like me and they see I’m a really nice person.”
Potts told us he’s made a decent side hustle with his android alter-ego. It’s never been enough to live on, but the tips went a long way until 2020. Protests downtown, he said, didn’t make for a great vibe on the Mall. He was cautious not to involve Robo Mike in politics. COVID-19 also closed the restaurants where he usually takes bathroom breaks and refuels, making it hard to perform.
But he said his presence was never about making money. He loves embodying the character and making people smile.
“I’m just trying to be the best robot I could be,” he told us.
Potts said he plans to return to the Mall, clad in his iconic body suit and afro, this summer. Now that it’s clear his absence has made an impact, he expects Mall-goers will notice.
“People might say, ‘You know what? I didn’t appreciate him then all these years. Now that he’s gone, I wish he was back,'” he mused. He imagines them saying: “I didn’t really realize how much you lit up the Mall until you were gone.”
Correction: Rob Shearer’s name was initially misspelled in this story.