Adam West, who played one of the most iconic characters in TV and pop culture history — Batman — died Friday following a short battle with leukemia, according to his family and a representative. He was 88.
West died “peacefully surrounded by his family and is survived by his wife Marcelle, six children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren,” according to a statement released Saturday. “Our dad always saw himself as the Bright Knight and aspired to make a positive impact on his fans’ lives. He was and always will be our hero.”
West’s 60-year career had three very distinct parts: The pre-“Batman” era (the late ’50s-1966), the “Batman” years (1966-68) and the post-“Batman” era (1968 to the present). The first era comprised mostly westerns and a few cop procedurals, while the later comprised mostly voice-over work, notably as mayor of Quahog in “Family Guy” and often in cameo roles where he appeared simply as “Adam West.”
But it was that two-year stretch on the hit ABC show that changed his life, and the lives of an entire generation that absorbed each of the 120 “Batman” episodes as if they were holy writ, and in TV terms, they doubtless were. West’s Batman was so unforgettable, so beloved, that it would take all the promotional and creative might Warner Bros. could muster to expunge his memory after it launched the theatrical “Batman” franchise in 1989. It could not and as a result, the greatest of comic book heroes has coexisted in two separate realms ever since — West’s and Warner’s.
As Batman, West was glorious. Campy, cool, and utterly deadpan, viewers — kids in the main — had never experienced a superhero quite like him. The long-running classic comic series offered a markedly different version over the decades, one reason DC Comics was later believed to have been ambivalent about the short-lived TV venture. Over three seasons, “Batman” and West literally turned the Caped Crusader’s cape inside out. What was deadly earnest on the page became hilarious on the screen. All this required was a quick glance at West’s Batman — with an ever so slight paunch in lieu of a six-pack — and an instant recognition that his words and the way he said them were simply funny.
“You can’t get away from Batman that easy,” his loyal sidekick, Robin (Burt Ward) once yelled at some Gotham City miscreant.
“Easily,” said Batman.
“Good grammar is essential.” West’s Batman did not merely fight the Riddler, the Joker, and footman Alfred’s efforts to keep his affairs in order. He also fought for world peace and the “brotherhood of man.” When his young ward, Dick Grayson — Robin — complained about doing his French lessons, Bruce Wayne responded: “Language is the key to world peace. If we all spoke each other’s tongues, perhaps the scourge of war would be ended forever.” That a terrible war in Vietnam was raging when he said this probably escaped the attention of his young fans. It almost certainly did not escape the notice of West. Primetime circa 1966 was violent, and West and creator William Dozier’s “Batman” could have embraced the sensibility of the comic strip as well. Instead, they inverted it.
“The tone of our first show, by Lorenzo Semple Jr., was one of absurdity and tongue in cheek to the point that I found it irresistible,” West said in his Archive of American Television interview some years ago. “You can’t play Batman in a serious, square-jawed straight-ahead way without giving the audience the sense that there’s something behind that mask waiting to get out, that he’s a little crazed, he’s strange.” He said he played it “for laughs but in order to do [that] one had to never think it was funny. You just had to pull on that cowl and believe that no one would recognize you.”
Improbably, no one ever did. Even though Bruce Wayne — scion of the Wayne family and one of Gotham’s best known citizens — sounded and looked exactly like that caped guy who roared into town in his Batmobile at the exact moment he was desperately needed, no one ever put two and two together. I don’t know who he is beneath that mask of his,” said Commissioner Gordon. “But I know we need him and we need him now.” The show launched on ABC on Jan. 12, 1966 — the opening theme became a classic in its own right. Each episode ended on a cliffhanger. Fans were told to tune in the following night for resolution, or “same Bat time, same Bat channel.”
“Batman’s” villains were as memorable as their nemesis — the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Joker (Cesar Romero), and Penguin (Burgess Meredith) were forever tormenting Gotham, and forever thwarted by Batman. Julie Newmar later joined as Catwoman, and Batman’s mock-heroic resolve was sorely tested by her charms and beauty. In the end, Batman prevailed.
For West, Batman was to become the classic blessing/curse. He would never escape its shadow. For him simply to say, “Hello, I’m Adam West” was enough to score a laugh. He scored many times that way, in cameos as “Adam West” on a dozen series through the years.
In time, he stopped struggling against type, and — with good humor and grace — let fans indulge their childhood love affair. He later returned to the character time and again, in animated series such as “The New Adventures of Batman” and “Legends of the Superheroes.”
In 2000, Seth MacFarlane finally released him from Batman bondage by casting him as the mayor of Quahog in “Family Guy.” MacFarlane and the show never referred to his Batman, allowing West to finally put some distance between himself and the character
West was born William West Anderson in Seattle in 1928. His father was a wheat farmer, his mother an opera singer. He graduated from Whitman College, was then inducted into the Army, serving as announcer on the Armed Forces Network, then worked as a TV station manager in Stanford, California. He later moved to Hawaii, where he hosted a ’50s afternoon show with a chimp named “Peaches,” later moving back to California where he was put under contract by Warner Bros. — then (and still) one of TV’s major producers. Many guest roles followed, including “Lawman,” “Cheyenne,” “The FBI Story,” “Colt .45,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Maverick,” “Hawaiian Eye,” “Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Real McCoys,” “Bewitched,” “The Outer Limits” and “The Virginian,” among other programs. He was a series regular on the 1959-62 drama series ABC’s “The Detectives.” In an interview with Variety a few years ago, he was asked what “Batman” had meant to him, professionally and personally. He said, “Money. Some years ago I made an agreement with Batman. There was a time when Batman really kept me from getting some pretty good roles, and I was asked to do what I figured were important features. However, Batman was there, and very few people would take a chance on me walking on to the screen. And they’d be taking people away from the story. So I decided that since so many people love Batman, I might as well love it too. Why not? So I began to re-engage myself with Batman. And I saw the comedy. I saw the love people had for it, and I just embraced it.”
Variety and the Hollywood Reporter contributed to this story.