With the recent death of Adam West, it’s past due to take a look at his most endearing role, the 1966 Batman TV series and feature film.
Lost in Translation covered the origin of Batman back while analysing Batman Fluxx. Created in 1939 in the pages of Detective Comics, Batman represents the crossover from mystery men to costumed crimefighters, with a dash of Zorro. Since then, the character has evolved, going from grim hunter of criminals who used pistols to master detective who refuses to kill. Batman’s rogues gallery includes some of the most colourful villains in comics, including the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman, all of whom emphasize different aspects of the hero in their clashes.
Superhero adaptations have tended to lag about a decade behind the events in the comics themselves. The general audience isn’t as familiar with current events in titles, either having read the books when younger or just picking up on the better known storylines after the fact. Studios want a wide net when adapting, so minutiae in continuity, always a pain with comics, is often the first to be trimmed. Thus, during a time when DC Comics was turning Batman into the dark detective he’s best known as now, Fox and producer William Dozier were going a different direction, one more in tune with the Batman of the Fifties.
Today, the 1966 Batman TV series is seen as pure camp. Adam West starred as the Caped Crusader, with Burt Ward as Robin, the Boy Wonder. Together, they fought crime that the Gotham City Police Department was unable and incapable of handling. Deep underneath Stately Wayne Manor, the Batcave contained crime fighting equipment that predated many techniques now in use, including DNA analysis.
The series was a comedy, one without a laughtrack. For the first two seasons, Batman aired twice a week, with the first episode ending on a cliffhanger, typically a death trap where Batman and Robin faced certain doom, a doom that would be resolved at the beginning of the second episode. The villains, guest stars all, threatened the safety of the citizens of Gotham City and only Batman and Robin could stop them, usually in a climactic fight in the villain’s hideout filmed with a dutch angle.
Despite, or possibly because of, the series being a comedy, West played Batman serious, which heightened the comedic aspects but also gave the series and the character gravitas. The TV series didn’t shy away from why Bruce Wayne became Batman. Likewise, Ward, Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara), Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon), and Alan Napier (Alfred) all approached their roles as if the series was a drama. The odd situations and brightly coloured villains stood out in the contrast.
Batman attracted guest stars. Regular villains included Caeser Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman, all playing against type. Romero kept his signature mustache, not quite hiding it under the Joker’s white make up. Other actors who appeared on the series include Victor Buono as King Tut and Vincent Price as Egghead. Even if they couldn’t get a role as a villain, other actors appeared during the weekly wall-climbing sequence, commenting on the oddness of two costumed crimefighters walking on their walls.
After the first season, the studio wanted to sell the series to foreign markets. To help with the sales, the studio made the Batman the Movie. The goal of the film was to introduce the series and its stars. To further intrigue audiences, the movie included four villains – the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. With one exception, all were played by their regular actors. Julie Newmar wasn’t available for filming, so Lee Meriweather filled in. With four key villains, it wasn’t just Gotham City in danger, but the entire world, as they scemed to kidnap the delegates to the United World Headquarters.
The movie kept to the tone of the TV series. Helping there was being filmed between seasons, with the same cast and crew. Lorenzo Semple Jr*, who had also written several of the episodes, wrote the script for the movie, keeping the tone consistent. With the added time allowed by a film, 105 minutes instead of two 24-minute episodes, the story could be given time to unfold and the Bruce Wayne side of Batman could be explored. Just like the TV series, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara were stymied by the villains and had to turn to Batman and Robin to save the day. The film includes some now-classic lines, including, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
The third season of the series saw several changes. The first was going to a more episodic approach, with each episode self-contained. No more cliffhangers to be resolved at the beginning of the next episode. The other major change was the introduction of Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig. Barbara Gordon, the Commisioner’s daughter, joined the Dynamic Duo in their crusade against crime to keep Gotham City safe. Eartha Kitt stepped into the role of Catwoman when Julie Newmar was again unavailable. The episodes felt a little more rushed as the plot needed to be wrapped up at the end instead of allowing for the usual two parts. However, the change in approach gave the actors a bit of a break; the episodes were still meant for a half-hour time slot, which now aired once a week. There were some two- and three-part episodes, but they were still aired one part a week.
The TV series reflected an older version of Batman, one that was more camp than the current version. Yet, the actors treated the characters seriously. The commentary with the movie by Adam West and Burt Ward showed that, even with the problems they faced – Ward especially – they still realized that they were playing Batman and Robin. The series was a comedy; the roles were still important to them and to the actors playing the villains. This approach is why the series is still beloved even today.
The movie of the series is a perfect example of adapting properly. In its favour, the goal the studio had was to give international audiences a taste of what the TV series offered. Changing that focus would have created problems for keeping the new audience. The movie’s budget also allowed to film on location instead of in studio and for the use of new bat-gadgets, including the Bat-copter and the Bat-boat. Footage of both would appear in the following seasons as needed.
Combined, the Adam West TV series and movie are an important part of Batman lore. Later adaptations would still pay homage to the work. Batman: The Animated Series introduced one of Bruce Wayne’s childhood heroes, the Grey Ghost, voiced by West himself. Elements of the TV series can be seen even in Tim Burton’s Batman of 1989. DC Comics even released a continuation comic for the series, Batman ’66. Adam West has left a legacy that will be remembered fondly.