Time for another time-travel trip in the Wayback Machine. Set the dials for the year 1975. Li’l Scott has been forcibly called inside from playing in the front yard. Visibly miffed at this development (though not really able to verbalize it at age 4), Li’l Scott is plunked down in front of the TV while dinner is prepared. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and the dial is turned to Channel 2.
“Here, watch this. You’ll like it.”
On the screen, Adam West and Burt Ward are duking it out with Cesar Romero and his hapless henchmen (probably named “Tee” and “Hee” or something like that), while giant colored graphics fly across the screen – “Pow!” “Thunk!” “Biff!”
Li’l Scott has been introduced to Batman. Things would never be the same.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the BATMAN TV show, and the Batman character in general, is in large part responsible for my lifelong love of the comic-book genre. Although the Adam West TV show was the entry point, my parents encouraged the interest with the excellent 1971 hardcover collection BATMAN: FROM THE ‘30S TO THE ‘70S, which instilled in me an appreciation for and understanding of the history of the character (and the genre as well). The resulting interest in comics and literature wound up leading me to a college scholarship and several related careers. That well-read copy of BATMAN: FROM THE ‘30S TO THE ‘70S is at my right hand even now as I write this (emphasis on well-read — it’s practically a liquid). So thanks to my parents for the book – turns out it was probably ten dollars well spent.
But it was Adam West’s BATMAN in particular that started it all. And with the news of his passing on Friday at the age of 88, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to West’s best known and trademark work by looking back at the show itself one more time.
After the 1949 theatrical Saturday-morning serial, Batman remained primarily ensconced in the four-color world of comics until the mid-1960s. As the legend goes, at the time PLAYBOY publisher Hugh Hefner had taken to showing some of the 1940s serials for “Movie Night” at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, and reportedly the BATMAN serials were a favorite. One of these screenings was attended by an ABC executive, who then acquired the television rights to the character from National Comics. The project was handed off to producer William Dozier, who embraced the cliffhanger-serial origins, devising the 1966 series BATMAN as an unprecedented twice-weekly program, allowing for a cliffhanger each and every week. Also held over from the serial inspiration was the over-the-top narration, which, as it turned out, wound up being provided by Dozier himself.
While the show was at times wickedly funny (with the show’s campy approach entertaining adults while going right over the heads of the enraptured kid audience) thanks to the tongue-in cheek scripts provided by writers like Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and Stanley Ralph Ross, the show’s success can, I think, be chalked up to two factors: the production design and the casting. The show’s budget must have been enormous for a TV series at the time, with the Batcave alone being one of the most fantastic sets ever created for a television series. Throw in the various villain’s lairs, the bright, garish costumes (which were no doubt another key to the series success: color TVs were a relatively new arrival in 1966, and there wasn’t anything on TV more colorful than BATMAN), and of course, the fabulous George Barris-designed Batmobile, and you have a show that looked and sounded like nothing else on television.
Of course, all this would’ve been moot without the right people inside the costumes. Anchoring the series was Adam West, who shrewdly opted for a more understated portrayal of Batman, only chewing the scenery when it was really called for, and otherwise maintaining a deadpan approach that made his lines all the funnier. While West wasn’t called to play Bruce Wayne all that much in the series, when he did, it was with a droll smoothness that fit the character well. Joining West was neophyte actor Burt Ward as Robin, who brought an emphatic enthusiasm to the role, which really didn’t call for much else besides the ability to wear the outfit and someohow manage to make it look cool.
Wisely, the Batman and Robin parts were cast with solid, wholesome, straight-arrow actors intended to serve as the counterpoint for the show’s other stars: the villains. In a bravura casting coup, the parts of Batman’s four most significant villains were filled in each case by actors who would forever define the roles, and in turn be forever identified with them. The first to appear was the Riddler, as played by comedian and impressionist Frank Gorshin. Gorshin, a popular nightclub act and character actor in film, was catapulted into stardom by the part. Gorshin’s Riddler was a manic, hyperactive antagonist, constantly chortling and skittering about the scene, and occasionally letting loose with his trademark Riddler laugh, instantly identifiable to this day.
In an interesting sidenote, Gorshin disliked the closely fitting Riddler tights so much that on some days he would just refuse to wear them, necessitating the creation of a second outfit for the Riddler, a natty green sport jacket, tie and derby combo that would become just as closely identified with the character, often appearing in BATMAN comic books, cartoons and toys for decades to come. (John Astin made a single appearance as the Riddler, and although his far bulkier Riddler provided quite a contrast to Gorshin’s wiry frame, he didn’t have the frantic giddiness that Gorshin brought to the role.)
Appearing most frequently was Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. The Penguin worked far better on screen than he ever did in the comics, primarily thanks to Meredith’s charisma — the actor’s waddling and squawking take on the character proved to be a favorite with audiences, and the villain would return to the program again and again.
The Joker also showed up quite often, played with zeal by Cesar Romero. Romero’s Joker was also a standout, with Romero, so long typecast in “Latin lover” parts in movies and television, gleefully chewing the scenery and bounding about the room as the Clown Prince of Crime. Somehow, the fact that the Joker had a dyed-white moustache didn’t even register as out of the ordinary, either. While the Joker’s laugh still came in second to the Riddler’s, Romero’s booming chortle and incessant chuckling still served the character well.
Finally, there was Julie Newmar, who absolutely owned the screen as the Catwoman. Wearing a skintight black outfit that was probably illegal in some states, Newmar purred, pouted and flirted her way through the series. When film commitments forced Newmar to drop out of the role in the third season, she was replaced by Eartha Kitt, but it just wasn’t the same without Newmar. Kitt was attractive, but didn’t have Newmar’s charm or sense of humor in the part.
There were other characters from the comics who showed up, such as Mr. Freeze and the Mad Hatter, but Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman were the most popular, and made the most appearances. When the show’s popularity shot through the roof and being a Bat-Villain was suddenly the “in-thing” to do in Hollywood, all manner of goofy villains were devised to suit whatever celebrity was slated to appear. Some of these turned out to be great, like Victor Buono’s hilarious turn as King Tut or Vincent Price’s Egghead. Others were just plain atrocious, such as Milton Berle’s mind-numbingly bad Louie the Lilac, a flower-obsessed crime boss with the insipid and meaningless catch-phrase “It’s lilac time, Batman. Lilac time.” Ooooookay.
At the height of the show’s popularity between the first and second seasons, a theatrical feature was released, 1966’s BATMAN, pitting Batman and Robin against Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman. All involved resumed their roles, with the exception of Julie Newmar, who had to bow out due to a back injury, being replaced by former Miss America Lee Meriwether. The feature, designed to help sell the TV series to overseas markets, made use of a heightened budget to introduce fabulous prop vehicles like the Batcycle, the Batboat and the Batcopter, all of which would be utilized in stock footage throughout the series’ run. The movie’s high point is undoubtedly a hilarious sequence filmed on the Santa Barbara pier, in which Batman desperately tries to get rid of a bomb with a slowly burning fuse, and is foiled at every turn, by families, nuns, ducks and even a marching band, prompting an exasperated Batman to grumble, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb…”
When ratings for BATMAN began to fall at the end of the second season, panicked producers cut the show back to once a week, and introduced Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, in an effort to increase the show’s sex appeal.
Even with the addition of Batgirl, the third season suffered a drop in quality, thanks to a run of uninspiring, often just plain lame villains, such as Lord Fogg, evil feminist Nora Clavicle and Minerva, Queen of Diamonds. Still, the season was not a total loss, as we did get to see Batman face off against the Joker in a surfing contest in the episode “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!” By the end of the third season, ABC wanted out, and the show was cancelled. NBC was very interested in picking the series up, but before a deal could be struck, ABC execs had already ordered the sets demolished, and NBC balked at the $800,000 cost of rebuilding the Batcave, so the Caped Crusaders remained out of commission.
After decades of being unavailable on home video due to various rights issues and ownership battles, Adam West’s BATMAN is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray in a gorgeously curated package and restored picture-quality, looking better than it ever has.