Adam West, the titular star of ABC's Batman television series that ran from 1966 - 1968 and left a defining mark on popular culture, passed away Friday, June 9th, from a battle with leukemia. The iconic thespian was eighty-eight years old.
Born William West Anderson, West grew up in the town of Walla Walla, Washington before serving in the U.S. Army where he worked as an announcer for the American Forces Network -- considering the cadence of his voice, this is a supremely fitting start if you ask me. West then moved to Hawaii to pursue acting and subsequently appeared in early classic television such as Maverick, Lawman and The Outer Limits. At 37 he got his big break when producer Lorenzo Semple Jr. cast him as Bruce Wayne/Batman in ABC's knowingly kitschy show.
During its inagural broadcasts, the show became a cross-generational insta hit, drawing in audiences from all walks of life with its zany humor and larger-than-life villains-of-the week. But what kept viewers around in those initial days was West's multi-tiered performance. It was a turn that saw Batman earnest and sincere one moment, wonderfully deadpan the next, and always, always gloriously unaware of self, and yet glorioisly self-aware. The show around him may not have been serious, but West's Batman was. Because kindness and justice is no laughing matter, Robin! *ahem* Indeed, it was a performer's master class incarnate, a balancing act for the ages.
In his brilliant article for Vulture today, television critic and historian Matt Zoller Seitz puts great emphasis on West's Batman being "the single most important screen incarnation of the character, for better or worse." And he's absolutely right. Before Adam West, Batman was an image, not a person. Not to wholly discredit the two serials of the 1940s, but West set the stage for Batman in pop culture. He gave Batman a voice, a personality. He embodied an ethos and helped cultivate a then emerging icon, one that continues to be the most mutable of the 20th century. Back to Zoller Seitz: "Every subsequent, high-profile reinvention of Batman, whether in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, Tim Burton’s alternately perverse and sincere Batman and Batman Returns, Christopher Nolan’s operatic trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s funereal Batman vs. Superman, is, first and foremost, a reaction against the Adam West-driven Batman series." I'd like to follow up Zoller Seitz and add how Chris McKay's The LEGO Batman Movie puts great emphasis on not only all of the aforementioned versions, but especially on the 1966 show. Sure, Arnett's brooding man-child take on the Dark Knight bears little resemblance to West's charming soliloquy-like Caped Crusader, but more than any other version, even more so than Joel Schumacher's much maligned camp, it totally gets Batman '66. Like the show, it puts an emphasis on teamwork and problem-solving with a whiz-bang earnestness that is infectious. That is the core of these two versions, and I feel is what draws so many children to the character, at least initially.
Despite some understandable frustrations around type-casting in the years after the show, West embraced the significance of what he had achieved with his Batman. In his later years he found a plethora of roles that were equally self-depricating and honoring of the character and also his own public persona as Adam West. In many ways, we could consider West a pioneer of meta-humor in the mainstream.
I am going to end this piece on a personal note. For when we get down to it, the major reason why West's Batman was so impactful to the culture at large is because of stories like the following.
In January 1966, my father was nine years old. He lived in Washington D.C., a city set to bursting with political and civil strife. He grew up in an evangelical family where pop music and movies of any kind were not allowed. Somehow, Television slipped through his parents' discerning sensors. Perhaps it was the absolute immediacy of the medium's presence in the home where not even a hardcore minister could intercept and diffuse such power. And so in January of 1966, my nine-year old father sat in his parent's basement and turned on the television and was introduced to Adam West's Batman. Like so many other late-boomers of his day, Adam West was my father's first Batman.
25 years later, In September 1991, my parents moved my sister and I from the American Deep South to the bustling multicultural Washington D.C. I had just turned 8 years old and was, typically so, obsessed with Ninja Turtles. While Burton's Batman had undoubtedly left a new mark on pop culture I had yet to encounter the movie. No, my first true experience with Batman was every weekday at 5pm, when the local Fox affiliate would run back-to-back episodes of the Adam West starring show. And I lapped it up. There was no force in the universe that could stop me from getting in front of the TV every day after school.
Soon, the Animated Series premiered and Batman Returns was released, and I began reading the Knightfall storyline in the comics. Each and every one of these Batmen were undeniably different in scope, size and detective abilities. I loved them all with abandon. But none of them could ever recapture the initial excitement and delight of those many hours spent with Adam West, my first Batman.
It is now that I say Farewell, Old Chum. May you Rest in Peace.