Famed television actor Adam West has died at the age of 88.
West cemented his status as a pop culture icon in the title role in the 1966-68 television show Batman. The show might have only lasted three seasons and produced 120 episodes, but it would be West’s enduring legacy.
His role in the phenomenally popular show and his inimitable performance would become a shadow that would follow him for the rest of his career. It would also be that indelible performance that millions of viewers would cherish him for and would gain him new young ones who would discover him years, and subsequently decades after the original show had ended.
West was the face of a such a monster hit show that it would be both a blessing and a curse.
Today we read about the Bat-Craze that ignited across the country in 1966 from the show and it’s hard to get a handle on just how big it was.
Merchandise, songs, dances. Batman became so popular so fast they fast-tracked a theatrical movie for the summer of 1966 as soon as the first season ended.
West was a huge part of the success of the show. It was a poppy, bright, amusement park of fun adventures. Colorful villains, tilted fight angles and outrageous Bat-Toys, with West always in the middle of it all. He would provide melodramatic line readings with his distinguished voice playing all the outlandish threats towards Gotham City with the utmost seriousness, which added to the humor of it all.
This would play the show two ways. Kids could watch the thrilling crime-stopping West and Burt Ward would accomplish. Saving the citizens of Gotham, sending the villains to jail, while also reminding kids to always look both ways before crossing the street. Meanwhile, their parents could chuckle at the absolute off the wall presentation of it all and catch the surreal humor that was flying over their kids heads.
I think that’s one of the reasons why the show has endured for as long as it has. It wasn’t just a kids show, but a surreal comedy series. Depending on your age you can enjoy the show either way.
Batman was so big West appeared on the cover of Life Magazine at the time! This was when magazines were a big deal and were serious pieces of media consumed by millions of readers.
I was always curious as to what else Life Magazine had featured as their covers during the year West appeared jumping in the air among a bunch of yellow bat signals. So, I looked it up and among some of Life’s cover stories throughout the year were the Vietnam War, the Flu Germ, the Texas Sniper, electronic snooping, the death of India Prime Minister Shastri and Robert Kennedy.
Yeah, so among that coverage Life dedicated a cover to Adam leaping in the air with his shiny blue cape.
The show has never faded. Just consider what a huge fanbase the show has attracted. It’s a real testament to its charm. Batman became one of the programs that would find everlasting life in syndication where it would attract subsequent new generations of Bat-Fans. That was my first exposure to it. Batman would play on syndication and there I would sit and watch it after school everyday.
And it continues to happen. Little kids are just as familiar with Adam West and the Batman show as any of the newest, big-budget superhero movies today. My nine-year-old nephew had gotten the long-awaited box set of all the television episodes – finally, they released the entire series after years of fans waiting for it. I saw him later in the day after having learned of West’s death. I told him that Adam West had died and he immediately looked sad saying, “Adam West died??? Oh no!”
Let’s face it, West will forever be known as television’s Batman. In a lot of ways it was a shame that he became so typecast with the role. After the show ended the acting offers didn’t come rolling in for him. His post-Batman career would have very few acting highlights.
I always thought he would have been great in Naked Gun-style projects, where his leading man looks, dry delivery and comedic timing could have been effectively utilized. He would have been perfect in soap opera spoofs or goofy police shows (which was attempted in the short-lived 1986 sitcom ‘The Last Precinct’ with West playing a police captain).
The closest and best he came to finding his second memorable niche would have been the 1991 television pilot ‘Lookwell’, which didn’t get picked up. Watch the pilot, it’s on Youtube and it’s pretty good.
He did a lot of guest-starring television roles throughout the 70’s and 80’s. There were a few supporting movie roles he scored. Recently, I was re-watching the 1978 Burt Reynolds action/comedy Hooper, where West appeared as somewhat of a popular movie-star version of himself. It was a small role, but he was a highlight in the movie.
But really for the longest time the big punchline that folks pointed to that West had done was the 1980 camp comedy The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.
It was a tough time, but West was always able to return to Batman for public appearances, television specials and voice work to keep busy.
He put on a positive face about it all, but I always thought it was a bit unfair he was forced to do some of those appearances right after the show had ended. Watching footage and seeing photos of some of those public appearances he was doing in the 70’s (during the really, really lean years) where he would appear in his Batman costume waving to fans and signing autographs looked incredibly awkward.
I think it’s seeing him wear the costume for public appearances after the show was cancelled that strike me as being unpleasant gigs. It’s not like he was an elderly actor who was no longer able to work. He and Ward were still quite young and their careers just stopped. They were wrapped in those masks and they just couldn’t get out from behind them.
Today we think of how the Batman show stamped a big colorful scarlet ‘POW!’ on superheroes and comic books. With its success also came the drawback that superheroes got pegged as childish and silly. That stigma would take decades for superheroes to shake off. Back then there was nowhere near the amount of mainstream respect that the genre gets today.
But Batman also unjustly pegged West as the ‘guy who wears a cape and cowl’. And that’s how he was viewed for a very long time.
There has been one funny thing that struck me as I have been reading articles about West’s death. Quite a few of the write-ups would follow this format – break the news about West’s death, talk about the popularity of Batman and his role in it and end with something like, ‘West later supplied the voice of Mayor Adam West on the Family Guy.’
Ok, yeah West was doing steady voice work on Family Guy for the last fifteen years. But, that leaves A LOT of time that has passed since Batman ending in 1968 and when West was hired for Family Guy in 2000! That really shows how long a stretch West had had between Batman, struggling to find work, doing forgettable obscure projects away from the Batman world and finally enjoying something of a resurgence in his latter years.
I think West’s first major revitalization was around 1989 when Tim Burton’s summer blockbuster Batman was coming out. The film got HUGE attention! It was Bat Summer and you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a Bat symbol on a wall.
West and the old Batman show caught that Bat-wave of excitement that was sweeping the world. West and the original cast became A-list interviews. All over the television you would see them being interviewed, being featured in reports, being asked about the new movie and telling anecdotes about the old show.
West was so strongly associated with Batman that when a new Batman movie was first announced it was assumed by a lot of people that he would star in it. It sounds crazy now, but it’s true! I’ve talked about this before, but I vividly recall my friends and I sitting in the school cafeteria discussing whether West should have been cast and theorizing how Michael Keaton would do in the role.
If you were around then you might remember this novelty song by Wally Wingert – ‘Adam West’. It does show how big a deal West and his Batman was and how in that summer of 1989 he continued to be ingrained in pop culture. I listened to this song a lot that summer!
One pet peeve I’ve had with all the Batman movies since then is that not one of them ever gave a cameo to West. In the 1989 Batman I can kind of understand his absence. They wanted to affirm that this was going to be a new Batman that was completely different from the old show. So, having West pop up in a small role might have been too risky a reminder to give to audiences and taken them out of Burton’s dark Gotham City he wanted to create.
But with all the Bat-flicks since – not one appearance was offered to West? Really? Marvel has Stan Lee cameos dotting their movies. They’re talking about Lynda Carter appearing in the next Wonder Woman movie. The Flash television show has given John Wesley Shipp a recurring role. Supergirl is always featuring special guest-stars from DC shows and movies from the past. Even 1978’s Superman: The Movie had Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill show up briefly. But no West in one single Bat Movie. Not even as a guy selling newspapers on a street corner in the background. That just seems wrong.
At least he got to voice the Grey Ghost in Batman: the Animated Series. That was a real touching tribute episode towards West. He was given more reverence from the animated Bat-Universe in various forms than any of the live-action films ever gave him.
Gradually West started to become more respected and a new appreciation towards him and his Batman developed. The silliness of his Batman and the show became more acceptable to be a fan of. Maybe folks realized just how unique and special he and that show was.
The generation that originally grew up watching West became the ones working in entertainment and they would lovingly cast their idol in roles in their projects. West was more prolific in the last twenty years than he ever was. He was no longer ‘Adam West as Batman’, but he simply became ‘ADAM WEST’.
He would consistently return to Batman in different incarnations, mostly doing voice work in animation. He had such a great voice. I do have to mention his return wearing the cape and cowl in the 1979 TV program ‘Legends of the Superheroes’. I did a review of that show, it’s really not very good, but it’s almost worth watching just to see West and Ward back in costume.
I remember being very excited to watch the 2003 TV-movie Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt. That was entertaining. Just last year he voiced a new animated Batman adventure with pal Ward in The Return of the Caped Crusaders.
And he continued to make public appearances. I’ve sounded a bit down about his early public appearances being dressed up as Batman, but he continued to be a huge draw at conventions all around the world. There would always be long lines of fans waiting to make the pilgrimage to meet Mr. Adam West.
That might not have been the trajectory he had ever planned for his career, but a part of me thinks it was an unexpected good one. I was thinking, with all his live appearances, going to events, meeting fans one-on-one, he must had gotten an idea of just how special and important he was thought of. How much he meant to fans, how much he and his Batsuit had entertained them, how much enjoyment he had provided to so many. That’s really pretty great.
And to his credit, he maintained a real sense of self-deprecating humor about all of it. I have never seen an interview with him where he came off arrogant or bitter about anything in his career. I’m sure he would have liked to have been able to do more roles, but he always conveyed a genuine appreciation towards his fans and embraced what Batman had given him.
I was one fan – one of the millions of fans – that got to meet him at a convention and it was a big deal for me to finally shake hands with Adam West and get his autograph. He was nice and I was struck by how good he looked at the time. That was one thing about him, he barely aged through the years! Seeing recent photos of him now it’s hard to believe he was 88 years old. Amazing.
I don’t think Adam West is through gaining fans. As long as the old Batman show is around and able to be watched, new young fans will dazzle at the silliness on display and be captivated by West and Ward’s fighting crime in the most absurd of ways. He was a very special Batman.
Farewell Mr. West.