While the death of iconic Batman actor Adam West at 88 years of age saddened me, I realized my “old chum” had lived a long life and that helped a bit. Still, the loss of this man with such a distinctive voice who played my favorite superhero with such panache is a slap in the face realization that yet another piece of my childhood is gone.
Many years ago, I recall vividly how my friends and I were all talking about our favorite comic coming to life on TV. This anticipation was fueled by TV commercials and magazine articles regarding the new series that would debut in January that year. Lucky for me my father had given the family a terrific Christmas present – a new color TV. Up until then I had watched Soupy Sales, Bugs Bunny, and The Wonderful World of Disney in black and white, and seeing that NBC Peacock in “living color” rocked my 6-year-old world.
Whatever expectations I had about Batman were immediately met and then some. Judging from my reaction and that of my friends the next day in school, we had all gone to first grade heaven after seeing that initial episode on a Wednesday evening (Riddler was the “Special Guest Villain”), and with a cliff hanger ending and a voiceover telling us to be back the next night at the “same Bat-time and same Bat-channel” to see what would happen, we were all definitely hooked.
The show came to us in brilliant color, so having that new TV was truly advantageous. The exaggerated sets, labeled props (Bat-computer, Bat-poles, etc.), and the zany costumed villains all seemed to pop out of a comic book come to life. When Batman and his trusty sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) would fight them and their henchmen (sometimes wearing shirts with numbers like the Thing characters of Dr. Seuss), colorful words like ZAP, POW, ZONK, and BIFF would appear on screen just as in the comics.
It would be easy to dismiss the campy villains played by great actors and actresses – Joker (Cesar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt), and many others – as silly, but photographed at odd angles within lairs that seemed both threatening and like someone’s fun rec room, they had enough sinister intensity about them to scare us into thinking their nefarious plots just might work.
Of course, the most important character of all was the titular superhero. West’s Batman/Bruce Wayne, as in other versions of the story, is the product of his past – criminals murdered his parents. Raised afterwards by loyal and loving butler Alfred (the impeccably dry witted and funny Alan Napier), this Bruce Wayne is far from the brooding Dark Knight of the Christopher Nolan films or even the earlier Michael Keaton versions. While those depictions seemed to only increase Batman’s gravitas as a character, they failed to capture the essence of the TV series (and great 1966 Batman movie) which had levity woven throughout but a dash of solemnity here and there to remind us that Batman was not just fighting the bad guys but had a conflict with the duality of also being Bruce Wayne.
What Adam West did with this character is truly amazing, but I felt at the time that my parents (and other adults) thought it was just a kids’ show or a passing fad (they had been wrong about the Beatles too). They didn’t get West’s portrayal the way we younger viewers did, and I still feel after all this time that West managed to convey to us that he respected the Batman character despite the apparent frivolity of the series. He spoke his lines not with tongue-in-cheek (as many wrongly assumed) but rather with gusto and full appreciation even if they seemed nonsensical, and what truly mattered most was that West connected with those viewers whom he knew were getting it.
Over the last few days I have been talking to friends and family about our favorite scenes, and it seems all of us could never forget the one from the movie when Batman hung from a helicopter ladder with a shark on his leg. But I find one even more memorable and hilarious – the one in which Batman desperately tries to dispose of a bomb and is greeted with all the stock characters that he is sworn to protect. It is in this scene that West speaks the immortal line of dialogue: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
I think fondly of watching West as Batman as a kid, and remember being devastated when the show went off the air. Many years later I started watching the show again with my son (who oddly enough was 6 just as I had been when the show debuted). He immediately got it just as I had – Adam West’s Batman in this way is timeless. It is reassuring now seeing the show again with him and affirms my original feeling about how great the series was. Also, my son much prefers West’s portrayal over the darker film versions from recent years, although he loved the Batman in The Lego Batman Movie, as I did too, for that character is much more Light Knight than Dark.
So, all these years later, Adam West is and always will be my Batman. He captured the right amount of humor, decency, honor, and bravery in playing a character that appealed to the kid that I was and the man that I became. I realize now that the Batman films of recent years, despite being critical and popular success stories, lost the zany and uplifting aspects of the TV series. While I enjoyed those versions, I never felt completely satisfied with any of them. Now I understand why – while trying to undo the Adam West version of the character they inadvertently reinforced its essence, which is still bringing joys to millions of fans all over the world.
I am sorry to know that Adam West has gone on to that big Batcave in the sky. I can only thank him for being an indelible part of my childhood and for bringing continued joy to my son and to generations of fans old and new. Rest in peace, old chum.