“BATMAN” the high-camp TV series burned so brightly in the ’60s night zeitgeist, and then so swiftly burned out, that it took both the Caped Crusader and the man who played him years to recover from the program’s pop impact.
Ultimately, though, despite what the rogues’ gallery of skeptics might still say, both Batman and Adam West — who died Friday at age 88 — were greatly enriched by this garishly bold supernova of a show.
To at least a generation of young Bat-lovers, the cheeky ABC series was their true introduction to the DC Comics crime-fighter created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and first popularized at the dawn of World War II. As “American Gods” and “Sandman” writer Neil Gaiman once told Comic Riffs: Decades before he was crafting Batman comics, he was glued to West’s series — this sly, psychedelic-era confection — when he was a boy in Britain who absorbed whatever American pop (or “Pop”) culture he could find.
The candy-colored costumes and sets. The askew camera angles. The balloon-popping special-effect “sounds.” The over-the-top character-actor villains. The array of impossibly wacky gadgets. The singular look. The double entendres. And of course, Neal Hefti’s earworm of a theme song that offered only one actual word, repeated by the recording’s spirited geek chorus.
And anchoring this ship of caped zaniness were the sonorous tones and deftly pitched delivery of the actor who wasn’t breaking the fourth wall so much as he was winking through each of its bent-perspective portholes. With stentorian sincerity and a strong chin beneath that velvet cowl, he somehow pulled off both the old-timey radio text and the form-fitting Spandex.
(Mr. West would later often joke about the show’s sublimated subtext, telling Comic Riffs in 2014: “I had three Catwomen. I was so lucky. They all gave me curious stirrings in my utility belt.”)
“Batman” became such a hot hit for ABC that it aired twice a week at one point. But by 1968, the audience fell away as if a once self-aware joke had been played out. The zeitgeist moves on and “the hip” needs replacement.
Suddenly, it was “Holy Typecasting, Batman!”
Mr. West had broken into ’50s TV and film largely by playing Western lawmen, flashing a badge instead of a Bat-signal, and he also found a home on crime dramas. He seemed to have a face that lent itself to playing symbols of power and authority.
But after highflying “Batman,” the good roles grew scarce, and Mr. West eventually moved far away from Hollywood for a while. Even the ’70s and ’80s Bat-books, featuring such future comics-industry legends as Neal Adams and Frank Miller, read like dark, forceful correctives to the long shadow of Mr. West’s “Batman” interpretation.
But after Tim Burton’s 1989 film starring Michael Keaton sparked a Bat-Renaissance, a re-appreciation of Mr. West took hold. As had occurred with William Shatner’s contemporaneous “Star Trek” character about a decade earlier, West’s campy ’60s star-turn gained the distance to become appreciated as warm nostalgia. Burton’s work turned Batman into such a big pop-cultural tentpole that Mr. West could bask in a bit of the franchise’s massive glow.
After that, Mr. West’s career resurgence featured a wealth of voice-acting roles and cameos, from DC’s animated series to “The Simpsons,” “The Fairly OddParents” and “Family Guy.” And when he began to hit the comics-convention circuit with renewed gusto, he appeared to have made peace with his lasting attachment to an American icon.
Mr. West, who was born Sept. 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Wash., was still booking conventions well into his eighth decade. He and Burt Ward — who played his sidekick Robin on the show — were set to top the bill of guests for this summer’s Rose City Comic-Con in Portland, Ore. And last June, upon the “Batman” series’s anniversary, West and Ward appeared before a cheering, appreciative audience at Awesome Con D.C. in Washington.
“All of these years — what is it, our 50th anniversary, Burt? — we have always had people show up and show their affection,” West, smiling behind tinted sunglasses, told the crowd. “And we love you, too, believe me.”
Mr. West then waited an expert comic beat before alluding to the huge Hollywood budgets for such current-wave superhero films as last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” — so far beyond what he received to wear the cape and cowl.
“Forget the [millions of] dollars for the new film,” he said warmly. “It’s better to see you.”