Adam West, who died June 9th at age 88, will never be ranked among the world’s greatest thespians. He was no Brando or Olivier, no DeNiro or Pacino. His early career wasn’t very distinguished: one of Robert Taylor’s young charges in the final season of THE DETECTIVES, Paul Mantee’s doomed fellow astronaut in 1964’s ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, the bumbling romantic lead in The Three Stooges’ THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (1965). Were it not for one role, no one would be mourning his loss today. But that one role, as millionaire Bruce Wayne aka BATMAN, captured the imagination of an entire nation, and remains the hero of an entire generation.
It’s hard to describe to anyone who wasn’t a kid in 1966 just what BATMAN meant to us. The series was a comic book come to life, before comics became “dark and brooding” little psychodramas for fanboys. Comic Books were OUR medium, written for kids as escapist fare, full of color and action. When BATMAN first hit the airwaves on Wednesday, January 12, 1966, it was an event, and every kid was glued to their set for a half hour as Batman and his faithful sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder went up against The Riddler (a pitch-perfect Frank Gorshin) and his Mole Hill Mob. The episode features The Caped Crusader doing the “Batusi” at the What-A-Way-To-Go-Go Club, later aped by John Travolta in PULP FICTION. Meanwhile, Robin is captured by Riddler and strapped to an operating table and… TUNE IN TOMORROW, SAME BAT-TIME, SAME BAT-CHANNEL!!
That’s right, the series ran in two parts, on successive nights, a distinction held only by prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE. You can just imagine the buzz at school the next day; “Did you see Batman last night?”, “It was so cool!”, “Wonder what’s gonna happen tonight?”. Kids across America were instantly hooked, like little druggies ravenously awaiting their next fix. Everyone was singing our new national anthem: “Nananananananana-nananananananana BAT-MAN!!!”. High camp my ass; to us, BATMAN was high art!!
Paul Newman or Sean Connery couldn’t have done any better than Adam West. Playing the part completely straight amidst all the campiness going on around him, West’s Caped Crusader was the ultimate do-gooder, and straight as an arrow. His deadpan acting while wearing that silly costume and fiddling about with gadgetry like the Bat-Compute, flinging his Batarang high up a building and scaling the side, or admonishing Robin to always wear his safety belt, was the glue holding the series together.
West was the show’s moral compass, a total square in a mad pop-art world of florid villains and onomatopoeia sound effects. He held his own ground against a plethora of actors more colorful than he playing his dastardly foes. There were scene stealers galore: Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Vincent Price (Egghead), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Victor Buono (King Tut), George Sanders/ Otto Preminger / Eli Wallach (all taking turns as Mr. Freeze), Tallulah Bankhead (Black Widow), Shelley Winters (Ma Parker), and many more, all much more accomplished actors pitted against West and Burt Ward’s Dynamic Duo. Yet it was Adam West we all tuned in for week after week to watch and enjoy as he defeated the bad guys and made Gotham City’s citizens safe once again.
The camp superhero craze didn’t last long. Just three short seasons and America moved on to the next big thing, and Adam West’s career was kaput. I told you about his rise, fall, and rebirth as an ironic icon in yesterday’s post , so I won’t rehash his saga once again. I just want to say thank you to Adam West for making childhood enjoyable every Wednesday and Thursday night during those three seasons of scintillating 60’s superhero action. Job well done, citizen. You’ve earned your rest.