On Friday, June 9th, 2017 the Geek world lost one of its icons, Adam West. If there was a Geek Mount Rushmore, West’s face would be carved next to William Shatner, Tom Baker, and Mark Hamill. Born William West Anderson on September 9th, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington, West’s acting career reached the mainstream when he was cast alongside Chuck Connors in Geronimo (1962). But it was not until producer William Dozier saw West portraying a James Bond-like character in a television commercial for Nestle Quik did he get the role he was most famous for: BATMAN.
West beat the handsome Lyle Waggoner for the role along with a few other actors. Thankfully the screen tests still exist.
The Batman television series lasted from 1966 to 1968 with a feature-length movie also added in. It became one of the most popular series on television in a very short period of time, so popular that the Who’s Who in entertainment fought for guest roles on the show. But like a star that shines too bright, Batman also burnt too fast and was done within two years. But have no fear, syndication was here, and for millions of people like myself, Adam West and Batman would live on in the universe of UHF programming for decades to come.
My experience with Adam West and his portrayal of Batman is one of the oldest memories I have. At age 5 (1979) I was thumbing through the weekly TV guide when I saw the face of Batman! I asked my parents when the show would be on air and found out I had 3 days of waiting. I clipped out the picture of West as Batman and hid it under my mattress for months. I hoped that he and I could work together to defeat the evil creatures that inhabited my room at night. After watching as many episodes as possible I began feverishly searching for comics, any comics at all that had Batman on the cover. My first was Batman 319 January 1980 with The Return of the Gentleman Ghost on the cover. I would go on to buy every issue of Batman (The Regular Series) from issue 400 to the present time.
A year later in June of 1981, I went to the movies for the very first time. Some friends of my parents took me to see Superman II. I had never seen anything from a comic book character with the size and scope of it. I was blown away. After the movie, we went to the local K-Mart and the couple told me that I could buy myself a toy as long as it was under two dollars. So I scooped up a plastic Batboat like I had seen on the television show. They were confused as to why I did not want a Superman toy since I enjoyed the film so much but I had chosen Batman. My addiction to all things Bat was solidified. My dreams were filled with the sights of BLAM! and POW! I wanted to talk in the measured pentameter of Bruce Wayne (Adam West), an actor who could make the most inane dialogue come off sounding like an excerpt from King Lear. I hounded my parents for a Matchbox Batmobile; a Ben Cooper Batman Halloween costume was the holy grail for me. (At the time a vinyl jumper and plastic mask was the height of cosplay). And then one day at a flea narket my seven-year-old mind almost suffered an embolism when I saw the most beautiful thing I had ever encountered, a thing so fantastic that I had no words to communicate to my parents the desire I had for it. It was a used MEGO Hall of Justice. My mind raced at the unlimited possibilities of adventure this had in store for me! Luckily it was only 50 cents at the time (My god, I wish I could find one of those for 50 cents now!) so my parents let me have it.
I did not know that MEGO had a Batcave. If I had known at the time I would have probably had a stroke. After school, I would rush home, find a UHF channel airing Batman, and pull out the Hall of Justice and disappear into a multi-colored world of villains and heroes. As an adult, it is virtually impossible to simulate the ability to drift away and truly play and enjoy as you did as a child. So many of these memories have Adam West’s voice attached to them. In the next few years as I grew, Batman evolved. The colorful, comic, camp was replaced with grit and reality. Frank Miller, who had penned some of my favorite Daredevil comics at the time, wrote a graphic novel that would change the world (of comics at least) forever. That book was The Dark Knight Returns, DC Comics’ first foray into what they would call Prestige Comics, books that were printed on higher quality stock and contained mature stories. The first cover alone left me spellbound. At this point, fans were abandoning the West Batman for the hyper-realism of the new storylines.
After the success of The Dark Knight Returns, Miller would return to pen Batman: Year One, which unofficially rebooted Batman into the character we recognize today. Not soon after, Warner Brothers began discussing a new Batman feature film. Many fans were hoping that The Dark Knight Returns would be brought to the silver screen. Adam West at the time said in multiple interviews that if it were to be adapted that he should be chosen to revise his role as the caped crusader.(At the time he was about the age of the character in the book.) But alas Warner Brothers decided to try reinventing the character themselves with a little-known director named Tim Burton and comedic actor Michael Keaton in the cape and cowl. After Batman, West played many roles on stage and screen and sadly had to fight typecasting the rest of his career. He would don the cowl for television’s Legends of the Superheroes and was even considered to play Thomas Wayne in Burton’s Batman. (He eventually voiced the character in the animated show Brave and the Bold.) He was in Batman: The Animated Series but instead of Batman he voiced the Grey Ghost, a washed-up actor that once played a superhero. West would also play the voice of Mayor Grange in the animated series The Batman. In 2003 West and Burt Ward would return for Return to the Batcave on CBS, a piece of nostalgic fun for Batfans who were coming back into the fold and revisiting their love for his characterization. In 2016 Return of the Caped Crusaders included not only West and Ward but actress Julie Newmar reprising her role as Catwoman in the animated film. A sequel with William Shatner as the voice of Two-Face was set to be released this year. We can only hope it still will find its way to our screens.
Like many of you, I have shared my love of the Batman series with my children. My daughter and son have grown up with Adam West teaching them right from wrong and the occasional Batusi along the way. The legacy of Adam West is that he brought joy and adventure to countless millions. For most of us, he was the gateway into the world of heroes. Sadly I cannot take my small son to Batman v Superman or Deadpool or Logan. Comics films have left children behind. But as long as I can play DVDs or stream the Batman television series, he will grow up in the same colorful world with a Batman who seems a bit too serious surrounded by all of the camp, and that is a good thing.
When you visit my office at the college you will see several degrees on my walls. You will see the awards I received for my documentary film work. But in one corner of the room, you will see a very large die-cast model of the 1966 Batmobile and above it an 8×10 version of the Batman 1966 movie poster with an inscription that reads: To Ric From Adam West, The Batman. There it will hang for as long as I inhabit that space, a reminder of my hero, a man whose picture I kept beside me all those years to keep me safe. Adam West, gone but never forgotten, we will keep the symbol in the sky for you forever.