Tue, 07/18/2017

Adam West: My Batman

Adam West

I don’t envy kids today. In this age of dark, sometimes morally ambiguous superheroes, it must be difficult at times to know whom to root for in comics and on screen. We’ve seen the most recent version of Superman arrested and in chains, and Batman using our own cell phones to spy on U.S. citizens. You even have the United Nations condemning the actions of The Avengers! How is a seven-year old supposed to grasp such storylines? This is one of the many reasons I’m glad the Batman I grew up with was Adam West

I’m not old enough to have been around to see Batman’s original ABC run, but as a kid I watched it almost every day of my life on WPIX, channel 11 out of New York City. They had a “superhero” lineup each afternoon. “Batman, The Adventures of Superman, and The Lone Ranger, weekdays at 4” (kind of a stretch to call The Lone Ranger a superhero, but we’ll let it go.) Adam West, George Reeves, and Clayton Moore were a veritable Mount Rushmore of decency and American values in those roles. For them, the “right thing” was easy to identify in every situation, and they always took that path. Adam West in particular was a natural at playing that role.

It’s difficult for any actor to carry off wearing any superhero costume, and the batsuit is a particular challenge. Any actor runs a risk of looking silly right off the, uh, bat. Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and Christian Bale were actually lucky, as their batsuits were various iterations of black armor and Kevlar. They looked cool as hell. Adam West had to don a costume of blue stretchy nylon and vinyl, with printed on eyebrows, and a yellow utility belt. Against all odds, West wore it very nicely, indeed. It just seemed to belong on him. It was a tribute to West’s complete understanding of how to play this version of that character.

As a seven-year-old, I had no idea that the 1966 ABC television version of Batman was a comedy. To me, at the time, there was nothing funny about Adam West’s earnest portrayal. He was the center of everything good and right. While Batman was the reliable rock that you rooted for, it was the villains you were entertained by. Like Bewitched, Batman assembled a classic group of guest-starring character actors, the likes of whom could not exist today. Julie Newmar was the ultimate Catwoman. No one else who’s played the part has come close. Ok, scratch that. Eartha Kitt, who took over for Newmar in the final season, had a completely different interpretation, and made it her own. I would submit that every single actor who ever played the Joker (until Heath Ledger redefined him) owed a debt to Cesar Romero. Still, as wonderful as these actors were, it was Adam West’s interplay with these characters that made them seem believable, and even like tragic figures, in some cases.

I believe Adam West wasn’t even doing a parody of the comic book version of “Batman,” as much as he was of Dragnet’s Joe Friday. Completely incorruptible, a Boy Scout in a cowl and cape. This was the greatness of his performance. In the insane universe that was the 1966 Batman series, he always played it straight, never winked, never broke. I also think he made for the perfect Bruce Wayne. He was the quintessential philanthropist/playboy with a young ward. 

A quick acknowledgment of one recent on-screen superhero that I believe is a call back to the kind of hero Adam West was playing. Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman” is a throwback to a simpler time, when good and bad was more well defined in our superheroes. The actress plays her without ambiguity, and Gadot is stunning in the role. 

Rest in peace, Adam West. You gave us Generation-X kids something to strive for, while making the adults laugh. We will not see his like again. He joins George Reeves, Clayton Moore, and Christopher Reeve in that great firmament of actors who played decent, moral role models in the sky. And boy, could we use them now.

- John Dalton