‘Holy Heartbreak, Batman!’ exclaimed the USA Today on Friday as we learned of the death of actor Adam West, 88, of leukemia. The article’s headline, homage to the trademark remarks of Burt Ward’s Robin on the hit “Batman” TV program of the 1960s in which he costarred with West, was picked up in newspapers and online media outlets from coast-to-coast. It was a reminder that, while West was revered in later years, the show’s campy approach and by default, its star’s deadpan style would cause a fan backlash that would last decades.
I’ve written before about typecasting and, not since George Reeve’s TV take on Superman in the 1950s had anyone become more locked into a public mindset than Adam West would become with the Caped Crusader. Airing for the first time in 1966 on ABC the series was a runaway success, marking the first time Batman had ever taken to the airwaves in any broadcast medium (the 1940s had seen Saturday morning movie theater serials produced). With a catchy theme song, kaleidoscope costumes ideal for the newly minted color TV and twice weekly broadcasts (the second settling a cliff-hangar from the previous show) the program jumped off the screen with camp, humor and POW! BIFF! WHACK! action. I know I was hooked.
Yet, the actual Batman comic books were becoming dark and serious at that time, thanks in no small part to a young new writer, Denny O’Neill and wildly talented artist, Neal Adams, who brought a new reality to the medium that has endured for over 40 years. The shift brought an end to the comics code and, as the “Batman” TV series ended (after 3 years) and its audience (like me) grew up, the irreverent silliness of the show became passé, even embarrassing to us; and Adam West became relegated to B-lister and “has been” in the eyes of many through the 1970s and 80s.
Now, hindsight can be often be ’20/20′ and, as Joni Mitchell so famously sang in ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. The main premise, further, of pop culture author Chuck Klosterman most recent book, “But What If We’re Wrong,” is that, more often than not, we as a society don’t recognize an individuals’ talents or significant contributions while they are still living. The same might be said about Adam West, although redemption actually would come much sooner.
Though he never appeared in any of the seven Batman theatrical releases he was considered for the role of Bruce Wayne’s father in the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” – which exposed most to a Dark Knight many a fan boy had been reading about for more than 20 years. Burton’s masterpiece and follow-up would ignite an insatiable appetite for all things Caped Crusader and West would soon begin lending his voice talents to Batman cartoon features. Over the next 20 years he would subsequently and gradually make peace with this career and become an admired and appreciated pop icon; this through regular appearances at Comic Cons nationwide and well-received turns on “The Simpsons” and “Fairly Odd Parents,” as well as a recurring animated role on “Family Guy.” A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame would follow.
Funny thing, nostalgia. It can come back to grab you by the heart and mind. Two years ago, DC Comics premiered a “Batman ’66” comic with characters styled from the 60s TV Show. And, last year, West participated in the animated adventure “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders,” a direct to DVD but full-length feature which also showcased the voice work of ‘Robin’ Burt Ward and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). This will now be considered West’s swan song; “Batman” from 1966-1969, a classic. Holy vindication, Batman! It’s just how pop culture – and human nature – works sometimes.