We have all awakened this Saturday morning to discover that Adam West, who played Batman in the once hugely-popular television series, has died at the age of 88.
When the series premiered in 1966, I was thrilled. Already I was reading the comic books and scribbling Batman stories instead of doing my math homework (much to the consternation of my father), but I was hooked beyond redemption. Beforehand, ABC had devised a brilliant TV spot for the show, displaying only a front chrome wheel of the Batmobile (the coolest car, ever) and a voiceover artist intoning, “He is coming.”
I was slightly disappointed to realize that the show itself was going to be an exercise in camp. Years later, West commented that they could’ve done the show in the serious spirit of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films if they had wanted to. Indeed, at least one of the Batman novels I read in 1967 was done in a serious, straightforward way; and, if you go to YouTube and look at the first two episodes of the series (episodes that were West’s favorites), those two were done in a far less campy manner than all the others.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much fun the villains had on the show, but they did. The Riddler, played with psychotic glee by Frank Gorshin, was my favorite. He was the villain in those first two episodes, and did a great job. The success of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as the Joker in their respective films, however, made me go back and begin to admire the work of Cesar Romero as that character. He was played for laughs, yes, but Romero always had a cruel sneer under that makeup, particularly when the Dynamic Duo captured him at the end of an episode–a sneer that was there long before Nicholson and Ledger got hold of the role.
What I admired most about West was his sense of humor about himself. He freely acknowledged that he might be typecast forever because of Batman, and he was; but he knew also that the role could make him comfortable in life, and it did. He enjoyed the work; he accepted the risks that came with the job (he could not see out of his cowl every time he made the leap down the steps of the Batcave to the Batmobile); and he got along with his co-stars. Stories of West introducing the twenty-year old Burt Ward to the Hollywood pleasures of wine, women, and song have become the stuff of legend, and I believe the legend. I also believe, however, that West took seriously the responsibility of being a role model to young kids. All the cast did. West, Ward, and Yvonne Craig, who died over a year ago, did personal appearances at schools, hospitals, conventions, and the like for years after the show ended, and they were happy to do so. They were of the spirit, if not quite the generation, of George Reeves, who, for all his personal travails, also took his relationship with children quite seriously all the time he was doing Superman in the 1950s.
West was never a great actor, but he was good enough in a TV series like The Detectives, with Robert Taylor and Mark Goddard, to show that he could handle action sequences, and good enough in his work in commercials (like the one for Nestle’s Quik, also viewable on YouTube) to show that he could handle humor. Batman combined the two, and the formula was successful, at least for a while. Although he was occasionally discouraged after the show ended, West persevered. As the 2012 documentary Starring Adam West reveals (I’ve seen it), he kept his good humor and sweet spirit with the fans who never forgot the fun he helped them have. He escaped the Hollywood rat race and moved to Idaho. He married for love, and raised fine children.
The present generation watches re-runs of Batman now and again on television, and they know him as the Mayor of Quahog on Family Guy. I am saddened a little by his death, because it takes away a tiny but essential piece of my own childhood. That child learned through him that there were–and are–good guys and bad guys in the world, but the good ones, bent and twisted though they may be by the daily struggle against evil, far outnumber the bad ones. That’s a pretty good lesson to learn, as early as any of us can learn it; and if it can be taught to us by someone as witty and cheerful as Adam West was, well, so much the better. If we have to leave this life (and we all do), that’s a good example, even a shining one, to leave behind for others to follow.