What’s this? Could this be the end for Batman? Rest in peace, Adam West, the one and only Caped Crusader who truly defined the role. There have been so many incarnations of Batman over the years – on the page and on the screen – but Adam West was the one flesh-and-blood actor who ever did justice to the cape, on the Sixties TV series Batman.
West, who died of leukemia Friday at the age of 88, brought deadpan humor and old-school gallantry to the role, week after week; same Bat Time, same Bat Channel. He was the only human who got the part right because he didn’t try to compete with the dark angst of the comic-book version. Instead, West turned Batman into the ultimate TV superhero, with a freewheeling Sixties sense of fetishistic kink.
Batman, which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1968, was a tongue-in-cheek vision of DC Comics’ noir avenger. It was set in a Gotham City full of evil arch-villains like Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Cesar Romero’s Joker, or everybody’s favorite, the sex goddess Julie Newmar as Catwoman. Newmar was the only criminal who was a match for Batman, since only she could top him in terms of black-leather perviness. (The Feline Feloness’ tangles with Batman always turned into soft-porn cosplay.)
West played Bruce Wayne not as a tormented orphan, but as a swinging millionaire playboy whose one true love was the secret Batcave in his basement where he could live out all the most lurid American male fantasies. He lived in his stately Wayne Manor along with his youthful ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) who shared Bruce Wayne’s secret life as his masked protégé Robin. They had plenty of sexual tension themselves.
The whole show was a parade of show-biz fantasies run amok. Stars like Sammy Davis Jr. or Jerry Lewis would randomly show up to banter with Batman, popping their heads through the window while he was scaling a building. Pop starlet Lesley Gore was one of Catwoman’s hench-kittens, singing her hit “California Nights.” When Gore pleaded, “I’m just a rock & roll singer – I’m not a crook,” Newmar rolled her eyes and sniffed, “Oh, forget it. You’re 20 years old. You’re over the hill.”
West’s Batman beat down the bad guys (Biff! Pow!) to defend Gotham from slumming Hollywood legends like Vincent Price (Egghead!), Tallulah Bankhead (Black Widow!) or most slinkily of all, Joan Collins as the Siren. Film freaks loved to play Six Degrees of Batman, because every show-biz career seemed to intersect with this world — like the way Anne Baxter played Zelda the Great, a week after her All About Eve nemesis George Sanders played Mr. Freeze, before his ex-wife Zsa Zsa Gabor shut down the series as Minerva.
Batman wasn’t much of a hit in its time, axed after just three seasons; like so many other 1960s TV series from Star Trek to Gilligan’s Island to The Brady Bunch, it really needed to wait for the Seventies reruns to become a pop-culture colossus. There was something deeply glam-rock about West’s Caped Crusader. West had a remarkable resemblance to Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, and he truly lived in his own dream-house heartache (maybe not so coincidental considering how blatantly West and Ferry both took inspiration from Christopher Lee’s Dracula movies).
West brought sly self-mockery to the idea of the superhero bored out of his mind with ordinary life in his luxurious bachelor pad, constantly yearning for the moment when the Bat Signal appears in the sky or the Batphone lights up and it’s time to slide down the Batpoles and work the cape.
West, who got his start doing bit parts in Westerns, always kept a straight face through all the camp humor, even as he parodied the whole idea of a righteous American hero. He kept lecturing Robin about fastening his Safety Bat-Belt, schoolwork (“Astronomy is more than mere fun, Dick”) or American values: “What’s important is that the world know that all visitors to these teeming shores are safe, be they peasant or king. That’s the very essence of our democracy!”
Batman and Robin later acquired a sidekick in Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl, who had her own theme song and her purple motorcycle. Craig was the only Sixties dream girl who could star in both an Elvis Presley movie – It Happened At The World’s Fair, one of the really good ones – and Star Trek, where she does an erotic dinner-table dance for Captain Kirk. In one memorable episode, while Batgirl snoozes in the Batmobile, Robin muses, “She looks very pretty when she’s asleep, ” Batman smiles. “That single statement indicates to me the first oncoming thrust of manhood, old chum.”
If anything proved the greatness of Adam West, it was the disastrous attempt to reboot the Batman archetype as a movie franchise without him. The godawful mega-budget Hollywood 1989 Batman was utterly devoid of West’s humor, with Tim Burton aiming for gravitas, as if he saw heroism in Michael Keaton’s principled refusal of facial expressions. That whole Batman series was a sad state-of-the-nation report on everything that made Hollywood movies so suffocatingly, expensively, unbearably boring at the time. But it also pointed out everything that made West a TV superhero to believe in – his wit, his tenderness, his humanity. Ride tall in that Batmobile in the sky, old chum.