Last week we lost William W. Anderson at the age of 88; the world got to know him, however, as Adam West.
When I was a little kid watching reruns of the Batman TV show on WPIX, I had no idea it was supposed to be funny. I knew some things were laugh lines, but most of the humor was lost on me. I was not a sophisticated, precocious child. I was a child who liked superhero stuff and colorful characters, and Batman had them all -- mostly the solid, stolid Mr. West as our smart and battle-ready champion. The Batman of the comic books in the 1950's to mid-60's was pretty much the same, no dark avenger then, but played straight -- and the difference between the character done as hero and as parody hero was not a difference a kid like me would get.
|He had a pal named Ace the Bat-Hound.|
The closest I got to meeting Adam West was one day when the old Batmobile was in Times Square for an appearance on one of the morning chat shows. I could not get an autograph from the Batmobile, but I did get this picture.
If I ever had had a chance to talk to Adam West, I think I would have asked him what it was like to work with Curly Joe DeRita.
Just to see his reaction.
The Outlaws Is Coming was the last Three Stooges feature film, which featured West as the handsome leading man, a year before he began his career as Batman. Coincidentally, perhaps, WPIX would later promote showing the Three Stooges shorts and the Batman show this way:
In a way, Batman had joined the Three Stooges years before this.
The Batman show had other things in common with the Three Stooges, who spent 23 years making short films for Columbia -- its roots were in the two Batman serials made by Columbia in the 1940's, Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949), which starred Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery respectively as the Caped Crusader. According to Alan G. Barbour's Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, "In 1965 Columbia released all fifteen chapters of its 1943 Batman serial to theaters to screen in a single sitting, after a series of midnight screenings of the title in Chicago had created quite a stir. Batman, with its silly stereotypes and preposterous scripting, was well received.... It spawned the popular television series starring Adam West in a heavily burlesqued format in which Batman battled an all-star cast of big-name villains..." Barbour attributed the audience enthusiasm for the 1943 Batman serial in 1965 to the fact that it was lousy, like most Columbia serials, whereas the Republic Pictures Adventures of Captain Marvel was not well received by 1960's audiences because "it was too good."
It's well known that the Batman show, like several high-concept sitcoms of the 60's, burned like a skyrocket -- breathtaking and done. Then West found himself terribly typecast, unable to find work. (A neat and painful summary of his lousy years can be found on the generally NSFW site Merry Jane. Note that a lot of other talented people were involved in some of these horrific projects with him, like Jack Klugman, Sammy Davis Jr., and even Adrian Zmed!) But then he had a wonderful career resurgence, essentially playing himself or a combination of himself and Batman, in all kinds of things, from Family Guy to Big Bang Theory to Meet the Robinsons. So we shouldn't feel too bad for him. Remember, "working actor" is generally an oxymoron.
The last thing I heard West do was a long interview on Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast in 2014 (check it out here, quick -- they're going to put the archives behind a paywall soon). It's terrific. West has some great stories and a great attitude about his career, and it's just so much fun.
As I said, when I was a kid I loved the Batman show like a kid; as a teen I found it an embarrassment to a great and serious character, and I believed people when they said it was funny because West was too stupid to know it was funny. As an adult I came to enjoy the show all over again, and it was clear that Adam West was brilliant in it.
And now we bid a fond farewell to our hero, Adam West. So long, old chum; thanks for the adventure.