For generations of TV viewers, there really is just one Batman. Comics fans can debate Michael Keaton, Christian Bale or even Ben Affleck, but in terms of true mass-media recognition over several decades no one loomed larger in that cape and cowl than Adam West. There’s something quite amusing about that since looming was never part of his incarnation’s repertoire of poses, but there was also something great about it. West didn’t just understand how non-threatening his version of Batman was, he embraced it — just as he continued to embrace 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. Over the first decade or so of his career, West appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows mainly in supporting roles ranging from Gunsmoke to Bewitched. Then came “the Caped Crusader.”
In the comics, Batman had been struggling to click with readers following a long stretch of lightweight stories characterized by aliens, alternate dimensions, and other elements that would have been better suited to Superman or Green Lantern. Shortly before the TV series debuted, the character underwent a thorough revamp intended to return him to his roots as a crime-solver rather than the super-power-free superhero he’d become. It’s a testament to the show’s popularity that the comics came to reflect the show instead of the other way around. While the excellent supporting cast helped — particularly when it came to the villains — the main reason for this was West.
No matter how preposterous the villain’s plot or how dire the inevitable episode-ending cliffhanger, West’s Batman was perennially undaunted by the challenge. His earnestness may have superficially marked him as being a bit square, but the truth was that he had cool to spare. Even when extolling the virtues of the establishment with lines like “Good city government is its own reward, Commissioner,” he stood apart from the crowd effortlessly.
In the 1980s, stories like The Dark Knight Returns and the blockbuster movie directed by Tim Burton worked hard to convince audiences that Bruce Wayne’s defining trait was how effectively he brooded. That view wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it was certainly reductive. The beauty of Batman as a character is that he could be everything from an obsessive avenger to an earnest and avuncular crime-fighter. Adam West’s Batman unashamedly fell into the latter category, and any honest assessment of the character’s place in pop-culture will recognize it as the most enduring.
While the ’60s version 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 show cancelled before its time, Batman lived on in reruns, keeping West in the public eye. In addition to public appearances at conventions, he reprised the role in a number of productions both as a parody and playing it seriously, though, admittedly that line tended to be blurry. His only live-action return was in a pair of 1979 TV specials that could most charitably be described as time capsules, but his voice work could always be counted on. This included last year’s animated release, Return of the Caped Crusaders, and the movie that will be West’s final performance as Batman, the upcoming Batman vs. Two-Face.
Both of these productions were a response to the popularity of the DVD release of the 1960s series, which is a story worthy of an article of its own. With no disrespect intended to the many talented people who contributed to the success of the program over its 120 episode run, it’s impossible to imagine the show having had this impact without Adam West at its focal point. Producer William Dozier reputedly 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 ability to retain his dignity amid the craziness surrounding him makes him something of an aspirational figure for own crazy times. That may not be the tribute anyone envisioned for him, but that doesn’t make it any less fitting.
– Don Klees
Photo Credit: Public domain image of Batman TV series.