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Adam West: 1928-2017

Hundreds of tributes celebrating the life of actor Adam West have been penned since it was announced that he passed away at the age of 88 on June 9 after a battle with leukemia. I would almost be willing to bet that every single one mentions his signature role of Batman in the very first sentence. It is true, of course, that he is most famous for playing the Caped Crusader in the classic Sixties television series “Batman,” a feature film spinoff and numerous animated iterations that have popped up over the years. That said, while he is most identified with that role, there was more to his career, including appearances in a couple of cult favorites and a couple of performances that might have reevaluated the perceived notions of what he was capable of as an actor.

William West Anderson was born on September 19, 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington to a farmer father and a mother who was a former opera singer and concert pianist. After graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla, he was drafted into the Army and served as a television announcer for the Armed Forces Network. Determined to follow in his mother’s footsteps by getting into show business, he moved to Hawaii following his discharge in the hopes of getting into television. He soon got a job as a sidekick to the host of the local kids show “El Kini Popo Show,” in which one of his co-stars was a chimp—he would eventually become the star of the show, though the chimp would still remain alongside him. He also made his big screen debut in an uncredited bit part in “Voodoo Island” (1957), a low-budget horror movie with Boris Karloff that filmed in Hawaii. By this time married and the father of two children, he decided in 1959 to make the move to Hollywood and after arriving, he adopted the stage name of Adam West.

In 1959, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers and quickly appeared in a supporting role in the Paul Newman drama “The Young Philadelphians” (1959) and also made brief appearances in the films “The FBI Story” (1959) and “Geronimo” (1962). Most of his time was spent working in television, appearing in episodes of such shows as “Sugarfoot,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Maverick,” “Hawaiian Eye,” “Bonanza” and “The Rifleman” before getting a recurring role on the final season of “The Detectives” in 1961. In 1963, he appeared in the films “Tammy and the Doctor” and the Steve McQueen-Tuesday Weld drama “Soldier in the Rain” and also co-starred with another young actor, William Shatner, in “Alexander the Great,” a pilot for a proposed television series. The end result was deemed too awful to air. But once West and Shatner were both better known, it was finally broadcast and yes, it was kind of terrible.

Over the next couple of years, there were appearances on such shows as “The Outer Limits” and “Bewitched” and he would also find himself in a couple of movies that would go on to become cult favorites over time. In 1964, he appeared in “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” a sci-fi update of the Daniel Defoe classic. Written by Ib Melchior and directed by Byron Haskin (whose credits include the original “War of the Worlds” [1953]), was an unexpectedly smart film that took its concept seriously without relying on silly gimmicks. Alas, West’s character did not live beyond the opening scenes, a bit of a fake-out for viewers at the time who presumably assumed that his strong and stalwart character would be the one to survive the entire story. West had more screen time as the heroic lead in “The Outlaws is Coming” (1965), a comedy-western that would prove to be the final completed film outing for the legendary comedy team The Three Stooges. Of course, playing the straight-arrow role in a Three Stooges film is about the most thankless job that one can possibly imagine—every time you step on the screen, the majority of the kids that were the film’s target audience started shifting uncomfortably in their seats waiting for you to leave and for the hitting and poking to resume. But West pulled the job off about as well as anyone could have hoped under such circumstances.

In 1966, West would become a permanent fixture in the pop culture firmament when he was cast in “Batman,” a television series based on the DC Comics character that had previously inspired a couple of dimly-remembered movie serials in the 1940s. Although the character of Batman has generally been depicted in dark and brooding terms over the years, the producers instead chose to go in a much different direction by adopting a deliberately campy approach to the material. In their version, Batman and sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) were depicted as the straightest of arrows; the colorful array of villains that they would battle in order to save the citizens of Gotham City would be portrayed in cheerfully over-the-top turns. The stories would even evoke the comic books to the point where the fight scenes would be periodically interrupted by title cards reading THWAPP, POW! and the like. Airing twice a week, the show was an instant hit from the moment it premiered as stars clamored to appear, either as one of the villains or in one of the goofy cameos that would be dropped in here and there—Batman and Robin would be climbing up a building and someone like Jerry Lewis would do schtick for a few seconds. 

Although he rarely got any real credit for this at the time, a good chunk of the reason why the show succeeded to the degree that it did, both during its original run and over the next several decades in syndication, was because of West’s performance. In a show in which practically everything was as weird and wacky as can be, West provided the strong and sound center that allowed all the craziness to occur without causing the entire thing to go completely off the rails. This is not to say that he was taking the part too seriously or didn’t realize that the show was supposed to be funny. No, watching him go through his paces, it is perfectly clear that he knows the whole thing is meant to be campy fun; there were any number of moments in which he managed to get a few sly laughs in here and there that were probably best appreciated by older viewers. At the same time, he somehow managed to come off to younger viewers as completely sincere in his approach to playing Batman. I daresay that for anyone who saw his portrayal of the character when they were children, he truly was Batman while the others who would go on to don the cowl over the years were just actors playing a part.

The downside to that, of course, is that in the minds of many in Hollywood, West could only be seen as Batman and when the show went off the air in 1968, following three seasons and the feature film spinoff “Batman: The Movie” (1966)—the result of rising costs and declining ratings—he found it hard to get work. According to West, he was briefly considered for the role of James Bond in the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” after Sean Connery vacated the part until it was decided that it would not be right for an American to play the British secret agent. Over the next couple of decades, he made the occasional appearance on the big screen in such films as “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (1969), “The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker” (1971), “The Specialist” (1975), “Hooper” (1978), the Skinemax favorites “The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood” (1980) and “Young Lady Chatterly II” (1985), the underrated B-horror film “One Dark Night” (1982) and the future “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fodder “Zombie Nightmare” (1987). During this period, he made numerous appearances on television as well on such shows as “Night Gallery,” “Mannix,” “Emergency,” “Police Woman,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “Murder She Wrote.” For most of this time, he tried to separate himself from the part that made him famous but he eventually returned to the role of Batman, supplying his voice for the animated shows “The New Adventures of Batman” (1977), “SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show” (1984) and “The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians” (1985) and appearing in two bizarre live-action specials known as “Legends of the Superheroes” (1979), one of which was a roast of a number of superheroes hosted by Ed McMahon

By the time the Nineties rolled around, West was presumably seen as a has-been still desperately clinging to whatever celebrity he was still able to wring out of his association with a show that had gone off the air decades earlier. it was at this point that he would turn up in two of the very best projects of his entire career. In 1991, Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel cast him in the lead role of a television series that they were developing entitled “Lookwell.” Considering that the character was a washed-up actor who once starred on a popular cop show years earlier and who now believes that the ceremonial deputizations he received from police departments back in the day allow him to solve crimes for real, casting West in the part might have seemed to be a little cruel at first. However, to judge by the pilot episode, he got the joke of the show immediately and turned in a performance that was both hilarious and delightfully self-deprecating. Unfortunately, the show’s absurdist sense of humor did not do it many favors and after airing the pilot episode to abysmal ratings, NBC chose not to make it into a series, though the pilot would become an instant favorite in comedy circles. I can’t say that NBC was entirely wrong in their assessment in some respects—it is hard to imagine how the premise could have sustained itself over the long haul—but that one surviving episode (available below) is a stone-cold classic.

In 1994, West turned up in a supporting role in “The New Age,” Michael Tolkin’s corrosive satire about a smug and recently unemployed Yuppie couple (that included Peter Weller). They decide that the best way to save their crumbling marriage and maintain their outlandishly cushy lifestyle is to go into business for themselves by opening a store filled with items so high-end that no one can afford to buy them—when that fails, they begin bouncing around various New Age groups in an effort to find meaning in their lives before eventually hitting rock bottom and contemplating both suicide and telemarketing. Largely overlooked when it came out, this was one of the great dark comedies of the Nineties—one that took no prisoners and which did not try to sugarcoat things in any way in order to appease a wider audience. West turned up in a few scenes as Peter Weller’s horndog father, an unabashed sleaze of certain means who still drops tacky come-on lines to anyone in a short skirt and thinks he is suave while doing so—you can practically smell the cheap cologne coming off of the guy. Even though his screen time is limited, his performance is a fully-fleshed wonder—in his few minutes of screen time, you can see exactly the kind of psychological damage he must have wreaked on his son to make him the utterly solipsistic man that he would become. When he responds to his son’s desperate plea for money by off-handedly giving him a check that he knows is pure rubber, it is a moment that is alternately chilling and heartbreaking. 

Although West would never again appear in anything that offered him the challenges of “Lookwell” or “The New Age,” he would work steadily for the rest of his life, oftentimes either playing himself or parts that poked fun of his heroic persona. He also found himself becoming an much-in-demand voice actor in numerous animated films and television shows such as “The Critic,” “The Simpsons,” “Scooby-Doo” and a number of Batman-related projects, the most notable of which, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” (2016), saw him reunited with former costars Ward and Julie Newmar (the one-time Catwoman) in the roles that they made famous. In the most bizarre of these appearances, he was cast by Seth MacFarlane in a recurring role as an addled version of himself, now unaccountably the mayor of a small Rhode Island town, in the long-running "Family Guy." In the the process winning him a new generation of fans who may have never known that he was once Batman. 

Of course, West continued to embrace the Batman character during this time. In 1994, he co-authored Back to the Batcave, a memoir that offered fans any number of juicy anecdotes about the history of the TV show. In 2003, he and Ward appeared in “Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt,” a bizarre TV movie that found the two actors searching for the stolen Batmobile while reminiscing about the hard days and crazy nights they had working on the show along the way. He was also a familiar face on the convention circuit and in 2013, he was the focus of “Starring Adam West,” a fan-funded documentary that looked at his career and the attempts to get him honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he did receive in 2012.

And now, I would like to conclude on a personal note. Every Friday, I make a brief appearance on the radio in Chicago to review the big new movies and take some degree of abuse—hey, it’s a living. Every once in a while, they surprise me by having a celebrity on the line and tossing me into the conversation without any sort of advance warning. Last fall, I found myself talking to West, who was promoting the aforementioned “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” DVD. Once he heard I was a critic, he started praising me in the most outlandish and knowingly absurd manner imaginable. Asked to name some of my favorite performances of his, I chose to omit Batman and brought up his work with the Three Stooges, which he talked about for a minute, and I think—I hope—that I mentioned “Lookwell” as well. (It wasn’t the right forum for “The New Age,” I fear.). Anyway, talking to him was exactly what you might expect talking to Adam West would be like and it was, all things considered, pretty damn awesome. 

And seriously, give “Lookwell” and “The New Age” a look if you can—he may always be Batman but those particular projects showed without a doubt that he could do more than save Gotham City.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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