We’re very sorry to learn that Adam West, who played Batman in the hugely popular 1960s TV series and movie, has died at the age of 88 following a short battle with leukaemia.
Five men have played Batman in live action since West, and yet it’s likely that nobody will ever supplant him as the Batman in the general public’s consciousness. The arch, witty, high-camp tone of the 1960s series revitalised the character and made him the biggest name in superheroes – and while it was something that was often kicked back against in the 1970s and 80s by fans desperate to see Batman taken “seriously”, more recent decades have thankfully seen a bit more of a reconsideration – and an acceptance of the fact that it was always just as valid a take on the character.
West was born William West Anderson in 1928, and pursued a career in television after serving as an announcer on American Forces Television in the 1950s. After moving to Hollywood he appeared in several films and TV shows – often in the Western genre but also including several appearances on Perry Mason and an Outer Limits episode – before his big break saw him cast as Batman by producer William Dozier.
The Batman TV series began in January 1966, with a feature-length movie following after the first season in July of the same year, and ran until 1968. Essentially a tongue-in-cheek sitcom, it derived much of its humour from the way West played the character with a completely straight bat – prefiguring the likes of Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin. It made Batman the American pop-culture sensation of the mid-1960s, and was a valuable shot in the arm to the comics industry that produced him.
Later criticism of 1960s Batman seemed to be based on the notion that the show – and West – was somehow unaware how ludicrous it was, a notion that barely stands up to watching more than a few minutes of it. It’s entirely self-aware, and knows exactly how funny it is. What’s more, nothing that the show ever does is a betrayal of the fundamentals of the character – the Batman of Batman ’66 is just as much the “true” Batman as any other in terms of his characteristics, ethos and trappings. It’s simply a consequence of the lens through which the show is filtered that means that it works as a comedy rather than a grim ‘n’ gritty vigilante saga.
While the TV drew most attention for its colourful array of guest villains, West’s part in its success can’t be understated. A clip that will doubtless be shown over and over again in the coming days is the classic “Some days you can’t get rid of a bomb” sequence from the movie, undoubtedly one of the most gut-bustingly funny things ever to happen on celluloid:
But just as funny as the famed line itself is the entirely sincere delivery of the line to Robin afterwards: “They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also… human beings. And may be… salvaged.”
As so often happens, following Batman West struggled to find work that didn’t typecast him; and was known as much for turning up in character on the public appearances circuit as he was for an array of forgettable movies, and a return to guest starring on TV series.
But as the kids who’d grown up with his Batman stopped being teenagers who were trying to forget it, and became adults who could look back on it more fondly, his work in the role began to be appreciated again. A famous 1992 guest spot on The Simpsons showed him gently poking fun at himself and would set the tone for a run of work in the ’90s that often saw him playing up to, rather than trying to get away from, his caped past.
(Everyone will have their individual favourites, but I remember being delighted to see him turn up in two of the best kids’ shows of the 1990s: The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Johnny Bravo.)
Then there was his appearance in Batman: The Animated Series as Simon Trent, a washed-up former actor who used to play a superhero (The Grey Ghost) on TV. It’s only a shame that he never got to appear in any of the modern Batman films – he was up for the role of Thomas Wayne in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, but didn’t get it; although he did voice that character in the 2008 Brave and the Bold cartoon, a show that owed much to the spirit of his own incarnation of Batman.
Aside from Batman, to modern audiences he’ll probably be best known for his role as Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. This was an often superbly hilarious turn that both played on the audience’s cultural knowledge of Adam West, but completely subverted it by making him into an appallingly self-obsessed and delusional figure, and furthermore never once actually making reference to Batman.
But his work since 1968, really, is incidental. For those three, glorious years on screen – and for fifty years since in all our imaginations – Adam West was Batman. He is an iconic, irrevocably important piece of superhero screen history, and he will be sadly missed.
Adam West, September 19, 1928 – June 9, 2017
Source: The Hollywood Reporter