❉ Holy Toledo! An Appreciation of Adam West.
“For generations of fans, there really has been just one Batman – Adam West. Though the TV series Batman only ran for three seasons, over the five decades that followed, West consistently embraced the role and his fans until his death last week at age 88.”
In the nearly eighty years since the character debuted in comics, numerous actors have portrayed Batman on screen. Comics fans may be prone to spirited discussions about whether Michael Keaton, Christian Bale or even Kevin Conroy – who voiced him in numerous animated series – was a better “Dark Knight”, but in terms of true mass appeal the matter is beyond debate.
For generations of fans, there really has been just one Batman – Adam West. Though the TV series Batman only ran for three seasons, over the five decades that followed, West consistently embraced the role and his fans until his death last week at age 88.
Born William West Anderson in 1928, he adopted his more famous stage name in the 1950s when he began pursuing acting professionally. Prior to that, he served as an announcer for the Armed Forces Network while serving in the US Army and even worked as a milkman. In the early years of his career, West appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, such as The Outer Limits and Maverick. After several years of supporting roles, the “Bat-phone” rang and changed everything.
Though Batman is currently entrenched as one of the most iconic characters in all of fiction, at the time the show’s popularity wasn’t necessarily a given. After a decade or so of stories characterized by aliens, alternate dimensions and other elements that would have been better suited to Superman or Green Lantern, Batman was struggling to click with comics readers in the mid-60s.
Shortly before the TV series debuted, the character was revamped in an effort to return him to his roots as a detective. The surest sign of the show’s popularity was that the comics came to reflect the program rather than the other way around. There were lots of drivers to this popularity, such as clever scripts and an excellent supporting cast – particularly the villains – but West himself was foremost among them.
No matter how outlandish the villain’s scheme or how dire the episode-ending cliffhanger, West’s Batman was perennially unfazed by the threat, even when confronted by the fact that “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”
Starting in the 1980s, with stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Arkham Asylum (not to mention Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman movie), the narrative took hold that Bruce Wayne’s defining trait was how effectively he brooded. That view wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it was far from comprehensive. “The Dark Knight” and “the Caped Crusader” were equally valid interpretations of the character. The former might get the majority of acclaim, but as the enduring popularity of the TV series shows the latter remains more beloved.
Though the 60s incarnation of Bat-mania came to an end in 1968 with the cancellation of the TV series, West remained strongly associated with Batman. Like Star Trek, another 60s icon cancelled before its time, Batman lived on in reruns, as did the theatrical film released between seasons in 1966, keeping West – who as fans of Family Guy know was rarely out of work – consistently in the public eye. He remained a popular guest at conventions – often going the extra mile to give fans a fun memory – and periodically reprised the role in both parodies and “serious” stories. His only live-action return was in a pair of Legends of the Superheroes TV specials from 1979 that could most charitably be described as time capsules, but his voice work was always worthwhile.
Last year West reunited with Burt Ward for the animated release, Return of the Caped Crusaders, and will be heard again later this year in the movie that will be his final reprise of the role, Batman vs. Two-Face. Both movies were a reaction to the popularity of the 2015 DVD release of the 1960s series, which was a long time in coming and probably worthy of an article of its own. Dozens of talented people contributed to the program’s success, but it’s impossible to imagine the show having had that impact without Adam West as its star. Producer William Dozier supposedly described Batman as a sitcom without the laugh track, and while that’s a bit of an overstatement, there’s no doubt that West was an ideal straight man.
The conversational wisdom among comics fans is that what makes Batman superior to Superman is that, given sufficient resources, a person could conceivably become Batman. Apocryphal or not, Dozier’s comment suggests an alternate take on that premise. As the reality of politics and pop-culture becomes stranger than fiction, the ability to retain his dignity amid the craziness surrounding him makes West’s version of Batman a rather more aspirational figure for our own crazy times than any grim avenger could hope to be.
Thank you Adam West for yet another reminder of why the only person worth being other than yourself is Batman.
❉ Don Klees quite literally watches British television for a living, which may or may not be tied to being a lifelong Doctor Who fan. When not working in the video business and indulging in nerdy pursuits with his family, he enjoys writing about pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture and editing a documentary about radio drama.