Adam West was in on the joke, but he played Batman as if he didn’t know there was a joke. That was West’s genius.
West, who died Friday at 88 in Los Angeles after a struggle with leukemia, was initially frustrated by the way that his most famous role defined him; but in the end, he embraced it. Born William West Anderson in Walla Walla, Washington — the sort of comic-bookish town name that showed up on suitcase stickers in Looney Tunes shorts — he built his résumé in Eisenhower-era genre shows, including Perry Mason, The Outer Limits, Sugarfoot, Lawman, and The Rifleman. He finally got his big break at 37 when ABC turned DC Comics’ defining superhero comic into a knowingly kitschy series.
Created by William Dozier and developed by Lorenzo Semple Jr., the show made West and his co-stars (including the once and future Robin, Burt Ward) into international celebrities. Batman sent up comic-book traditions via pun-saturated dialogue, primary-colored costumes, outrageous tools and machines, hammy bad guys, and colorful fight captions (“Biff!” “Zlonk!” “Kpow!”) that exploded across the screen, accompanied by atonal horn blasts that suggested the noise Duke Ellington’s brass section might make if the ceiling collapsed on it.
To everyone’s surprise (including ABC’s), the series became a hit. Its audience included comic-book-loving adults and children, urban aesthetes, and counterculture-minded teens and twentysomethings. The latter would normally have sneered at anything appearing on a medium that Newton Minow once dubbed “the vast wasteland.” They made an exception for Batman, because the series seemed to gently mock the same conventions that powered everything else on TV, as well as the self-image of a nation that hyped a black hats vs. white hats view of morality after living in a grey zone for two centuries.
West’s lead performance tied everything together with the incidental perfection of Jeff Lebowski’s beloved rug. But it also added a mysterious, extra something that alchemized all of the show’s spoofy, campy elements, and made the most obsessive Batman viewers wonder if the show was really kidding — and if so, about what.
West’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is, and will always remain, the single most important screen incarnation of the character, for better or worse: For better because it was the most surprising, at times confounding, interpretation of the Caped Crusader, feather-light and hilarious precisely because of the character’s seeming lack of self-awareness; for worse, in the eyes of some fans, because it encouraged millions of people who had never picked up a Batman comic, or any comic, to be amused by the sight of adults dressing up in wild outfits and pretending to punch each other in the face. Every subsequent, high-profile reinvention of Batman, whether in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, Tim Burton’s alternately perverse and sincere Batman and Batman Returns, Christopher Nolan’s operatic trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s funereal Batman vs. Superman, is, first and foremost, a reaction against the Adam West–driven Batman series.
That’s how important the show was: It was cancelled 50 years ago and hasn’t been a force in syndication since the ’80s, yet the whole superhero-industrial complex is still defining itself in opposition to it, subconsciously or with intent. The two 1990s Joel Schumacher Batmans, Batman Returns and Batman and Robin, made many Bat-fans furious precisely because they embraced the ’60s TV aesthetic that post–Frank Miller Batman comics did their best to expunge; they were seen as a step backward because they weren’t dour. Whenever a “thinkpiece” about comics appears in a mainstream publication declaring they’re not for kids anymore and have moved beyond “Zap!” and “Pow!” — I wrote a few myself, 20-plus years ago, and they’re still being written, amazingly — it’s the 1960s Batman series they’re addressing. As comic-book expert Glen Weldon put it in a 2014 NPR interview, “Without Adam West making Batman into a fad, and without [comic-book writer and editor] Denny O’Neil saying, ‘OK, let’s take him back to basics,’ you don’t get anything that comes after that. You don’t have the Frank Miller Dark Knight, you don’t get the Bruce Timm animated series Batman, you don’t get Tim Burton, you don’t get Joel Schumacher, and you don’t get Christopher Nolan.”
The face of that series was Adam West. The chin, really.
In interviews, West reveled in the absurdity of the series and the character, and talked about how much fun he, Ward, and their co-stars and crew had while shooting — and after shooting; apparently the team were as besieged by groupies as the Beatles. “I have the curse of thinking funny!” West told Den of Geek in a 2008 interview. “And so with each script and new situation, I saw something funny in it. But I could never let the audience think that I thought it was funny. I think if you hold that back, there’s kind of a twinkle or a sense that the audience gets of something trying to burst out of that mask, and tell us something more.”
It was the “holding back” part that made the performance so special. West and Ward’s deadpan delivery anchored the show. The Dynamic Duo’s just-doing-our-jobs attitude made it possible for guest villains such as Cesar Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, and two-fisted bombshells like Catwoman (played by Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt on the series and Lee Meriwether in 1966’s Batman: The Movie) to slink about or ham it up without exploding the machine. Ward and West kept working together throughout their lives, even though their relationship on set was not harmonious. “He spoke his lines so slowly that snails could make love while he’s doing it,” Ward told Montreal DJ Peter Anthony Holder in a 1996 interview. “And he did it on purpose, because his theory was, ‘If I speak twice as slowly as I’m supposed to, the camera will be forced to stay on me twice as long.’”
The pervasive sense that Batman was never kidding about the importance of law and order, honesty and kindness, righted the show’s balance whenever it threatened to become too much of a spoof. The world of TV’s Batman was a joke, but to West’s Batman, goodness was no laughing matter. When Batman comforted a scared child, he was the kind father that a lot of viewers could only dream about, somebody who really cared. Hippies and downtown artists could goof on the show all they wanted and talk about it as postmodern art or a satire on American values; West’s Batman was impervious to their mockery, because on some level he knew that his decency was more powerful than their barbs — or maybe he just couldn’t sense that kind of humor, in much the same way that certain species of animals can’t see colors.
West gave strong performances before Batman, notably as a psychopath in a 1968 episode of The Big Valley, and as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a 1971 installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. And he managed to show different sides of his talent both on- and offscreen post Batman, including a self-mocking performance as a pompous star in 1978’s stuntman comedy Hooper and as the voice of the grandiose, incompetent mayor on Family Guy. West had the square jaw, narrow eyes, and measured voice of an action hero. They carried him a long way, toward both stereotypically heroic roles and parts that subverted our expectations of what a man with that look would do, such as his role as a troubled young rich man who commits suicide in 1959’s The Young Philadelphians. The producers of the James Bond series asked West to take over the part in the 1970s; he refused because, as he told one interviewer, “I didn’t want to seem greedy.” He later admitted there were moments afterward when he wished he’d said yes.
For a while, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, he felt typecast, even stigmatized, by the role that made him rich and famous. He was a drunk for a while. As The Express noted in a 2014 profile, “He drove a car through the side of an 18-wheeler juggernaut at a celebrity daredevil show and took roles in excruciating films such as The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, Zombie Nightmare and Young Lady Chatterley II. ‘I went to cattle calls for two or three years … I went out and did dinner theatre, regional theatre, any role that came along. I’d read a script and say ‘this is terrible’ but did it just to keep working. I resented it.’ By the early 1970s he had hit rock bottom, finding himself squeezed into a giant cannon, wearing his old Batman costume, waiting to be fired across a carnival in Evansville, Indiana.”
In the end, though, West made peace with the fact that the Caped Crusader defined him, perhaps because he realized the extent to which his performance in the role defined Batman, for all time.
“The night our first episode aired on ABC, ‘Hi Diddle Riddle,’ I stopped at the market on the way home,” he told Esquire. “I thought, ‘Tonight I just want to be alone. I’ll stop, get a steak and a six-pack, whatever, then go home and watch the debut of the show’. As I walked through the checkout line, I heard people saying, ‘C’mon, c’mon, hurry up! Batman’s coming on!’ And I said to myself, Good-bye, anonymity. I didn’t dwell on it, because I’d asked for it.” Later, he admitted, “There was a lot of booze and so on. But then I said to myself, Hey, kid, how many actors get to create a character that’s enduring because it’s part of pop culture? How many actors become an icon? I mean, I should be damn grateful.”
He played Batman over and over again, in animated series and movies. In one notable instance, a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, he played a worst-case version of himself: Simon Trent, an actor who became famous starring in an TV action series called The Grey Ghost but now had a tough time finding other work. In the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, his casting in a specific role even doubled as a commentary on West’s pop-culture legacy: He played Thomas Wayne, Batman’s father.