Adam West was Batman.
He danced the Batdance before Michael Keaton. He owned cartoonish camp better than Joel Schumacher. There was no gritty or grim realism like Chris Nolan. Instead, he was a performer who felt perfectly suited for the swinging, vibrant colors of the page; completely in tune with a beaming sense of self-awareness while he sprayed marauding meat eaters with shark repellant. That’s not to say those who followed weren’t as good; he was merely his own man in that blue and grey cape and cowl – effortlessly conveying a manic love of entertainment audiences desired as he battled a bevy of eclectic supervillains.
Born William Anderson on September 19, 1928, West’s run as a television player (who studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio-West) is legendary. Beginning with The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse (which was home to directing talents such as Arthur Penn), he was cast in almost every classic Western serial the 50s/60s had to offer – from playing Doc Holliday in Lawman (’59), to appearing opposite James Garner on Maverick (’57 –’62), and guest starring in Bonanza (’61) and Gunsmoke (’63). His path to immortality came via Leslie Martinson’s Batman: The Movie, which spun off from the smash series that premiered earlier in 1966. Gone was the actor who acted alongside Paul Newman in Vincent Sherman’s The Young Philadelphians (’59), replaced with icon incarnate – a seamless marriage of material and mentality that brought Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s classic detective comics to life with goofball flair.
Post-Batman, West continued to apply his self-effacing sense of humor to several pieces of parody, including Mayor Adam West on Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy (‘99 – Infinity & Beyond). He’d also graciously send up his own persona on both the big and small screens in Drop Dead Gorgeous (’99), The Simpsons (in a ‘02 episode), and 30 Rock (‘09). The guy had no limits, making a mint on video game voice work and DTV animated spin-offs. If you lit the Bat Signal, West answered – no job was too big or small for him handle. That’s not only a savvy approach to one one’s career longevity, but also a graciousness shown toward fans who appreciated the constant charm and charisma that radiated from the thespian whenever his visage or voice appeared.
For this writer, the key to loving West is appreciating not only his defining run as Batman, but also the B-Movie output he produced during the 60s/70s in such roles as ill-fated astronaut Dan McReady in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (’64), or Ranger Sam Garrett in The Relentless Four (’65). Then there’s the madcap voyeurism romp The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (’71), or Howard Avedis’ “little guy vs. the water company” slice of weirdness The Specialist (’75). Though West undoubtedly made his mark on pop culture by battling Caesar Romero’s Joker, his filmography is a veritable goldmine for those who love to dig into the bizarre nooks and crannies of cult movie history. It always feels like “too little, too late” when discussing an artist’s body in the wake of their departure from this mortal plane, but that doesn’t mean said work is going anywhere anytime soon. Dive in, youngsters. There’s pleasures to spare.
Beyond the screen, it’s good to remember that Adam West lived to be eighty-eight years old. And boy, did that man LIVE. In a 2005 interview with the Independent, West recalls being invited to the Vatican during his heyday as Batman to meet Pope Paul VI. During those days, West indulged in liquor and women on the regular, and lived up to his reputation by getting rip-roaringly hammered the night before his trip. The next morning, he had “the worst hangover of his life” and was afraid to kneel before the Pope while standing in line to kiss his ring, because West was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get back up or, worse yet, may actually vomit on His Holiness. So instead, he bowed his head and the Pope showed his gratitude and fandom for the man’s time onscreen. In response to what West feared could be viewed as disrespect, The Pope said, “oh Signor West. I have seen all your shows. I love Pipistrello.” If this isn’t proof that the man touched the world, I’m not sure what is.
(Note: header art provided by the great Martin Ansin)