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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Adam West as Batman

The news of the death of Adam West has shaken us Baby Boomers. West was by no means a superstar--I'm not even sure he was a good actor--but his signature role, as Batman on the ABC series of mid-'60s, is ground zero for nostalgia. As the stars of boomer TV shows slowly die out--Leonard Nimoy, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.--we are reminded that we are getting old, too. Could Adam West really have been 88? How old does that make us?

I'm on board with many of the remembrances of the Batman series. It ran from 1966 to 1968, so I would have been five to seven when it was on, but I know I was watching first run episodes, cause my father liked it, too (the magic was that it's camp attitude appealed to both young and old alike). It was aired twice a week, with each story taking two half hours, with a cliffhanger at the end of the first half hour.

Purists were upset at turning Batman into a campy sit-com, but it fit right in with the pop-art '60s. The use of dutch angles for the villain's lairs, the word ballons with onomonatopeic sounds for fisticuffs, and the arch dialogue, with the Dynamic Duo always maintaing the straight and narrow, was great stuff. As a pre-teen, I loved that show, and it was my introduction to superheroes, as I didn't buy comic books until much later. It was innocent; justice always prevailed, and Batman never needed a gun. He always out-witted his opponents (many of them left puzzles as clues) and was a scientific genius who always had the right gadget in his utility belt.

I haven't seen the shows in a long, long time, but observing clips in the wake of West's death show me they still hold up. Trying to get rid of a bomb (of course black and round with a fuse, like the anaarchist's bombs from the early cartoons) he looks into the camera, exasperated, and says, "Somedays you just can't get rid of a bomb!" The cluelessness of everyone who doesn't realize that Bruce Wayne is Batman, or the simple wordplay--one of my favorites was when Commissioner Gordon was on the phone with someone. We only hear one side of the conversation, as the Commissioner repeatedly says, "You don't say." Upon hanging up, he is asked who was on the phone. "He didn't say."

The villains were high camp, also. There were the core four: the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, and the Penguin, but a score more. A fun trivia game is to see who can name the most, including the one-show wonders, like Van Johnson as the Minstrel, Art Carney as the Archer, or Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac. My two favorites were Vincent Price as Egghead (even now when I say the word "exactly" I give it the Price pronunciation--"egg-zactly") and Victor Buono as King Tut. All of the actors seemed to be encouraged to go nuts with their portrayals, and more than a few seemed to choose the sexually ambiguous route.

West's success in the role was to play it completely straight, as if it were Shakespeare. His acting style was very similar to William Shatner's on Star Trek, though I believe West knew what he was doing while Shatner was just doing what he knew how to do. Unfortunately for West, aside from voice roles (he was a long-time fixture on Family Guy) he never latched on to another successful role. Supposedly he was offered James Bond, but turned it down because he thought the role should be played by a Brit. I don't know if that's true, if so, it was a bad decision.

But like many stars associated with only one role, West made the best of it. By all accounts he embraced his fixture as a camp icon, gracious to fans for all these years, and always in good humor about his role in pop culture. He certainly meant a lot to me during my childhood. Batman was taken back to its darker origins by Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan, and for those under fifty West is probably not the first Batman they think of. So be it. Time passes. But this little show and its cast remain a permanent part of my past, as well as millions of others.

Farewell, old chum.

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