Dynamic Caped Crusader and Fan Favorite, Dead at 88
With the iconic theme song and a series of “Thwaps!”, “Pows”, and “Bams” Adam West’s Batman was my first exposure to the world of superheroes. As a kid, I was so eager to tune in to the “same Bat-channel” at the “same Bat-time” to watch Adam West put on the tights and cape along with his sidekick Robin to foil the plans of The Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and Riddler, and others. While it is easy to dismiss his light-hearted approach to the Caped Crusader, it has in a way stood the test of time. Adam West was always game to even spoof his version of this famous character, but his spoof never mocked it. In fact, it often reinforced what I loved about it.
At the core, West’s Batman was someone who kids could emulate. One scene I remember was when Batman and Robin were chasing a villain in the Batmobile, and as the light turns red, the Batmobile came to a screeching halt. Robin pleads with Batman to go through the light and not let the bad guy get away. Batman (West) look’s at Robin and believably says, “Robin, if we ran that light, we’d be no better than them (the bad guys)”. Robin nods, knowing that Batman was right, and subtly they taught us what integrity looks like, even when it is easier to take the shortcut and let the ends justify the means. This was reinforced when Batman triumphed in the end.
Recently, West was able to voice another adventure of the cape crusader in an animated version of his Batman character, showing how much he embraced a role that came to define him. He never seemed to mind, even though it was only for three years, fifty years ago. And while he went on to do much more, it was this iconic role that continued to permeate the modern pop culture (that and maybe his role as the mayor on The Family Guy) right up until he lost his final battle with leukemia. Sadly, we will no longer be able to tune in to the same Bat-channel at the same Bat-time any longer, but he left us a multitude of episodes and memories that will be passed down to future generations. BAM! Adam West’s death hurts. POW! To the gut. Holy Death punch, Batman! The world lost a hero today. RIP Adam West.
The Batman series frustrated me to no end as a little kid, mostly because it seemed so excessively cardboard and chintzy, but I suspect I would genuinely love it now. Kids by and large have difficulty with “camp”, or at least I did: especially when reinforced by the inescapable image of a grown man putting on a silly cape and ill-fitting costume. And subsequent sequences of a bickering “Dynamic Duo” answering a big red phone to blast off in a parachute-dragging black roadster, to fight crime in the guise of Cesar Romero barely concealing his mustache under clown make-up, pointedly enraged my rather literal-minded, youthful self.
But now I’m absolutely of the (minority) opinion that absurdity and irony are the only way to enjoy a superhero saga. Batman was originally envisioned as the ultimate in dark, chiaroscuro superhero characters — heavily influenced by pulp mysteries such as those featuring the dark-cloaked The Shadow — and for *that* character to be submitted to the indignities of 60’s pop excess — courtesy of Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether, AND Julie Newmar as cat costume-clad, whip-wielding dominatrixes — was inspired to no end. The intensity and total commitment Adam West brought to the character undoubtedly tied all that ridiculousness together into something sublime. As Burt Ward’s Robin might observe, “Holy Heartbreak, Batman!” Indeed, my fine-feathered friend, indeed.
“What a terrible way to go-go.”
So spoke Batman, in the very first story told on the iconic high-camp series. It was upon the tragic death of Jill St. John’s character, a fatal fall into the Batcave’s atomic power source – something even the caped crusader could not prevent. Adam West, in his trademark role, delivers the line with all the tragic gravitas such a senseless death warrants. But, “go-go”…? Yes, dear reader – your eyes and ears do not deceive you. He said “go-go”. In an unblinking cadence of, as his co-star Burt Ward once put it, “bombing of Hiroshima level seriousness”.
Watching reruns of Batman as a kid was not my first exposure to the character. That honor goes, I believe, to the 1970’s animated Super Friends, the undisputed highlight of my youthful Saturday mornings. Yet I, like so many innocent children, failed to comprehend at the time that the Adam West-led live action series was a comedy. When an episode ends on a preposterous cliffhanger, for example, Batman and Robin about to be fatally punched into sheet music, I was right along for the ride. “How can they possibly survive this??” In that case, if memory serves, by fooling the punch mechanism by singing its own notes in perfect pitch. It made no sense whatsoever, but don’t tell that to a second grade boy. Just listen to the way Adam West detailed the logic of it all! This was Batman, after all.
And lest we forget his delivery of the verbal punchline to one of the single greatest bits of assured, absurd onscreen silliness, as presented in 1966’s Batman: The Movie, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” Such precision, such timing. Just try that delivery – no matter how experienced of an actor you may be, nailing this moment the way West does, especially following the prolonged visual of him desperately running from one end of a pier to another with a large round burning bomb over his head, in broad daylight. The movie is a certified and certifiable classic, if only for that moment. Yeah, the 1966 Batman was, as Lego Batman’s Alfred called it, a weird phase, but it’s one that yet to be matched in terms of what it did right.
Yes, it was the role that defined West for us. But he was capable of so much more. Time and again, Adam West demonstrated an exceptional grasp of his craft, even in the schlockiest of roles. His mainly unacknowledged versatility was pointed out to me by Steve Koch, my late friend and first boss. Steve loved Adam West. West’s talent, for me, was verified with Lookwell, a now-legendary failed 1991 TV pilot from the minds of Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien. In it, West starred as Ty Lookwell, a former star of a cancelled cop show who attempts to solve a real crime. Presumably, if this had gone to series, he’d have been doing this every week. I stumbled across the singular airing one summer night, reeled in by West’s presence, but legitimately enthralled by the smart, off-kilter presentation of it all.
Lookwell’s prop badge was encased in a plexiglass block, which he carried with him, authoritatively plopping it down at crime scenes as though it were legit, and made him legit. It was all just so sad, yet completely hilarious. In an age of comedy predating Louis C.K. and Marc Maron, this blend was not just uniquely fresh on prime time TV, it was unheard of. A year later, I would follow Conan O’Brien as a fan of his late night show from day one. On that show, O’Brien would help launch the likes of Louis C.K. and Mark Maron. Is it such a stretch to say that West was a valid precursor to their careers? Anyway, Steve saw Lookwell, so did I. And from there, I believed for years we were alone in the universe in that shared experience. It was a point of conversation for years to come. Seek it out.
Another case in point of West’s professional skill is his voice acting in the animated The New Adventures of Batman (1977-78), in which he and Burt Ward would reprise their famous roles. I’m not the first to note that West wisely modulated his performance downward from his previous live-action version of Batman. The same isn’t true of Ward, who went the other direction, and sounds ridiculous. West understood that animation was a different medium, bearing it’s own color, flavor, and exaggerations.
As recently as the long-awaited rollout of his Batman series onto Blu-Ray a few years ago, West was keen to celebrate his legacy with live appearances and interviews. In the meantime, the “Batman ’66” brand of the character has taken off, with comics, toys, and even a new animated film, Return of the Caped Crusaders. West opted to go-go out on top, still riding high in his Batmobile. So, one last time…
“Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to Speed.” “Roger. ready to move out.”
So long, old chum.