Sunday, June 18, 2017

Adam West: In Memoriam 

By Ed Garea

Of all those who have donned the cape as Batman, none fit the role so well as Adam West. But what seemed like a blessing came to be a stranglehold, for he became so identified with the character that he ended up being horribly typecast, even though the show only lasted two and a half seasons.

West died on June 9 in Los Angeles at the age of 88. The cause was attributed to leukemia.

He was born William West Anderson on Sept. 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington. His father, Otto, was a wheat farmer; his mother, Audrey, nee Speer, was a pianist and opera singer. He moved to Seattle when he was 15 with his mother after his parents' divorced and his mother remarried.     

Graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla with a major in English Literature, West served in the Army, where he worked as an announcer on American Forces Network television. Later he worked as the station manager at Stanford while a graduate student.  
He moved to Hawaii on the advice of a friend, where he co-hosted a two-hour live variety weekday show called The Kini Popo Show, One co-star was a diaper-wearing chimp named Peaches. While in Hawaii he got a bit part in the Boris Karloff B-horror, Voodoo Island (1957).    

In 1959, West moved with his wife and two children to Hollywood, where he took the stage name Adam West. In his autobiography, Back to the Batcave, he explains he chose "Adam" simply because he liked the way it looked and sounded with “West," his middle name.    

He landed a contract at Warner Bros., paying him a grand sum of $150 a week. He spent his time there as a guest star in such fare as the TV series Colt 45BroncoLawmanMaverickHawaiian Eye77 Sunset StripCheyenne, etc. He also appeared in two Warner Bros. movies (both in 1959): The Young Philadelphians (as Bill Lawrence) and The F.B.I. Story (uncredited). 

After years of this sort of knocking around he split from Warner Bros. and got a break when he was cast as Detective Sgt. Steve Nelson on Robert Taylor’s ABC/NBC series The Detectives (1959-62), joining the cast when the show expanded to one hour in color.

After The Detectives was canceled, West appeared in such  forgettable film fare as Geronimo (1962) starring Chuck Connors, Tammy and the Doctor (1963) with Sandra Dee, The Three Stooges film The Outlaws Is Coming (1965), and Mara of the Wilderness (1965), in which he had the lead with Lori Saunders (Bobbie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction). He also traveled to Italy to star in a spaghetti western called The Relentless Four (1965).

Back in the United States, his fortunes were about to change. Producer William Dozier spotted him in a commercial for Nestle’s Quik, playing Captain Quik, a James Bond-type character with a sailor’s cap. West returned to the States, where he read the pilot script for Batman and signed a contract on the spot, asking only that he be allowed to approve who would play his sidekick. He selected Burt Ward, who had a brown belt in karate, but no acting experience.    

Batman, which premiered on ABC in 1966, was based on the popular comic book character created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. He was the crime-fighting alias of Bruce Wayne, a bachelor millionaire in Gotham City, and was soon joined by a young sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, aka Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s ward. 

The show was an immediate hit, quickly spawning such imitators as Mr. Terrific (CBS), Captain Nice (NBC) and even a Broadway musical titled It's a Bird...It’s a Plane...It's Superman. When West appeared in costume on the cover of Life magazine, it marked the highest tribute to national popularity at the time.    

The series, filmed in color in an era of black-and-white, featured a revolving cast of villains headed by the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar). As the show ran on, new guest villains were added. It aired twice a week; the opening episode, a cliffhanger episode, played Wednesday nights, with the cliffhanger resolved the next night. “Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel!” the narrator intoned. It was originally planned as an hour-long show, but ABC split it up when it found it had two time slots available on its primetime schedule. The ratings attested to its popularity: the Thursday installment was No. 5 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1965-66 season, and the Wednesday edition was No. 10.     

Nominated for the Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series in its first year, it lost to CBS’ The Dick Van Dyke Show. To take advantage of its burgeoning popularity, 20th Century Fox commissioned a movie, directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Rushed into production, it played in theaters during the summer before season two kicked off in September 1966.

What made Batman so appealing was that it was a comedy disguised as a drama; it was essentially played as a farce. The show’s brightly-colored costumes and sets, along with off-kilter camera angles, superimposed ear-popping dialogue balloons for fight-scene sound effects, and the wealth of irresistibly wacky gadgets that would get them out of any situation were among the elements that would later lead it to be seen as high camp. Winks, nods and double entendre jokes are strewn throughout, but are played straight. Even its theme song, one that only offered a single word repeated by a chorus, was itself campy. 

Added to all this was a Batman who was extremely clean-cut, a milk-drinking, wholesome-living model citizen who might exclaim “Darn it!” at times of extreme stress. West underplayed his part, leaving the histrionics to Robin, and leaving the villains to supply most of the camp.

In an interview conducted almost 40 years after the end of the TV show for an article in The Independent of London, West said that he played Batman “for laughs, but in order to do [that], one had to never think it was funny. You just had to pull on that cowl and believe that no one would recognize you.” He continued, “What I loved about Batman was his total lack of awareness when it came to his interaction with the outside world. He actually believed nobody would recognize him on the phone when he was Bruce Wayne, even though he made no attempt to disguise his voice.”   

By 1968, however, the allure wore off, and the show began to tank in the ratings. Batman – despite adding Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in order to boost ratings – was canceled in March 1968 after 120 episodes.

Suddenly West found himself unemployed with no prospects in sight. As Robin might have said, “Holy typecasting, Batman!” For a time, he made a living doing personal appearances as Batman, including an appearance in the Memphis, Tennessee-based wrestling territory, where he engaged in a verbal feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler while dressed in the cowl and a track suit. As these dried up, he did the only thing he could do under the circumstances – swallow his ego. An actor acts. 

He moved his family from the plush Pacific Palisades to Ketchum, Idaho, and went back to the days of guest shots on television shows interspersed with forgettable movies such as The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971), The Specialist (1975), and The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980). He even appeared in a softcore porn movie, Young Lady Chatterly II (1985), starring Harlee McBride, wife of actor/comedian Richard Belzer.    

He also lent his voice in such cartoons as The New Adventures of BatmanLegends of the Superheroes, and SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. He also voiced Batman in an episode of The Simpsons. His contribution to the animated Redux Riding Hood (1997), helped it receive an Oscar nomination for best short film.

But despite his formidable array of guest shots, he was never able to parlay them into another hit series, as, for instance, William Shatner, who, after Star Trek, found stardom on T.J. Hooker and later, Boston Legal.       

His fortunes took a decided turn for the better after Tim Burton’s 1989 film starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader revived interest in the character. (West was considered to play the role of Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne's father, though originally, he wanted to play Batman.) Though he never appeared in any of the theatrically released Batman franchise motion pictures, West later had a recurring role as the voice of Mayor Grange in the WB animated series The Batman (2004). He also voiced Batman for the CGI-animated short film Batman: New Times (2005), co-starring with Mark Hamill, who voiced The Joker.

Throughout it all West continued to accept guest shots, movie parts and voice-overs. His voice-over work culminated in a long guest run (2000-17) on the animated series Family Guy playing Mayor Adam West, who could best be described as sadistic, corrupt, vacant, clueless, but utterly charming. In 2014, Warner Bros.’ DVD release of ABC’s Batman brought him back to his old fans and made him new ones. As late as last year he appeared in an episode of The Big Bang Theory playing himself. Hired to appear at a private birthday party where everything goes wrong, he utters the best line: “I still get paid, don’t I?”   

For his work, West received a few honors. In 1985, DC Comics honored West in their 50th-anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for his work on the Batman series. And in the documentary Starring Adam West, the film ends with him receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.     

In 1994, with Jeff Rovin, West wrote his autobiography, Back to the Batcave, which was published by Berkeley Books.  

West married three times: to Billie Lou Yeager (1950-56), Ngahra Frisbee (1957-62), and Marcelle Tagand Lear in 1970, who he met when they posed for a publicity photo at Santa Monica Airport with him in his Batman costume. She survives him, along with their two children, Nina and Perrin West. He is also survived by two children from his second marriage, Jonelle and Hunter Anderson; two stepchildren; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.     

For better or worse, he remains for many the only Batman that ever mattered, permanently associated with the part in a way that others who played the role are not. That he came not only to realize this, but to accept and embrace it, is illustrated by a speech he gave at the 2014 ComicCon: “When Batman was canceled, “The only thing I thought is that it would be the end of me, and it was for a bit. But then I realized that what we created in the show...we created this zany, lovable world. I look around and I see the adults – I see you grew up with me, and you believe in the adventure. I never believed this would happen, that I would be up here with illustrious people like yourselves. I’m so grateful! I’m the luckiest actor in the world, folks, to have you still hanging around.”


  1. I recently saw this question in a trivia game. It was Adam West went on to do porn. TRUE/FALSE Now I know The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood

    1. Don't forget Young Lady Chatterly II.