Last weekend, the Bat Signal shined a little less brightly upon news of the death of TV’s most beloved former caped crusader, Adam West. From 1966-1968, over the course of three seasons, West was a fixture on television screens across America as the breakout star of “Batman“, a campy, fun version of the dark knight that is virtually unrecognizable when compared to the brooding Bat that we know today. Yet despite this popularity, Adam West’s Batman, in the many years following its departure from television, was the subject of ridicule and scorn; a veritable example of how not to portray the Caped Crusader. However, nothing could be further from the truth. While I know I will suffer the slings and arrows of my fellow Bat-Fanatics, the fact is that Adam West actually saved Batman. Yes, it’s true-and years later, Batman would return the favor.
The late 50’s and early to mid 60’s were not good times for the Batman comic book series. Perennial “second fiddle” to Superman, who had achieved a cult like following evidenced by the Superman Radio Serials, Superman Thanksgiving Parade Float and soaring Superman comic book sales, Batman languished in the background of superhero popularity. While it’s true that the Batman title usually found itself within the Top 10 selling books each year entering the early 1960’s, in some instances it was beaten by Archie Comics or even Woody Woodpecker. Meanwhile, Superman remained consistently in the number one and two spots for overall comic sales. Apparently, prior to 1966, Batman co-creator Bob Keane had actually been quoted as stating that DC Comics was considering cancelling the Batman title altogether. With things looking grim for the Dark Knight, hope came from an unlikely source, a television show and a virtually unknown actor who turned Batman on its pointy ear. (Link)
Cast as the title character after being spotted doing commercial work, Adam West shot to fame almost instantly with his portrayal of Batman. The success of the show owed much to West’s deadpan delivery which was always accompanied by a sense of satire that he particularly aimed at the adults he knew would be watching alongside their children. Although the show’s producers wanted a campy, lighthearted version of the character, at first they questioned West’s approach. “I got many notes, many memos, many phone calls ‘Kid what are you doing?’ “ said West, recounting his initial days on set. “I said, sorry, I have to do it this way or it’s not going to last, or be funny for the adults. I saw the humor in it.” It turned out he was right. Whether it be his thoughtful but panicked expressions while trying to dispose of a bomb, his confident reliance on “Bat-Shark Repellant” to combat a hungry great white, or his unforgettable dance floor rendition of the “Bat-tusi”, Adam West brought the laughs. With Burt Ward as Robin, The Boy Wonder providing the perfect compliment, celebrities began beating down the “bat door” for an opportunity to guest star as one of the many villains who would spar with TV’s Batman. Ratings soared, and you know what? So did comic book sales. Taking their cue from the success of the television series, DC put forth a lighter version of Batman which in 1966 actually unseated Superman for the first time as that year’s top selling superhero title. (Link)
Like all good rides though, this spin in the Batmobile eventually had to come to an end. By 1968, suffering from declining writing, rushed production values and the loss of most of its adult demographic, Batman faded from television popularity. In 1968 the show was cancelled and West, found himself in typecast hell. Producers were fearful that viewers would only see “Batman” anytime he appeared on screen, so West was forced to take whatever jobs he could to make ends meet. The once mighty hero now was reduced to roles in films such as The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood and Zombie Nightmare. West also began to descend into alcoholism as his fame and finances started to dwindle. After agreeing to be literally shot out of a cannon at an Indiana Fair, West began to view Batman through resentful eyes. Reflecting on his downward spiral, he recalled; “I was doing things I wasn’t very comfortable doing…there were definitely times when I regretted ever being Batman.” Hope, however, was not lost. As any dutiful fan of the Caped Crusader will tell you, Batman always wins and this time, it was The Dark Knight’s turn to save Adam West. (Link)
Depressed and in despair, West was still dogged in his search for work. This ultimately led him to become part of the convention circuit. It was there that he would learn that he had not actually vanished from public conciousness. Batman was still in the hearts of the faithful. “To hear a judge or a janitor say that I made a difference in their life, that’s marvellously rewarding.” said West of his interaction with fans of the TV show. “One man said I made him want to be a superhero and he did the next best thing, which was to join the Marines.” said West. And so, it was by re-embracing the Bat, that Adam West began an extraordinary resurgance in his career. He was cast by Seth McFarlane for voice over work on the hit animated series “Family Guy” where he played “Mayor Adam West”. He also played himself in the Lego Batman video games, was the subject of a documentary about himself and became an even more sought after participant on the international Comic Con circuit. As an additional homage ” Batman ’66“, based upon his version of the character was released as a regular DC Comic title in 2013 and ran until 2016, cementing Adam West’s place in the pantheon of men who have worn the cowl. (Link)
Like many heroes, Adam West’s contributions will always be questioned. While there will be those who will never admit to his role in saving the Batman character, there can be no denying that he “Broke the Bat”. He accomplished this by portraying one of the darkest characters in comic history in a way that never took the hero too seriously. In so doing, Adam West changed how we looked at Batman. He showed us that it was ok to laugh, poke fun and yes, dance while saving the world. In turn, by accepting the love of a character that he helped create and that of the fans he inspired along the way, West was able to lift himself up as well. If that’s not the hero we deserve, then I don’t know who is.