As an actor, presented with the Faustian deal of a role which could make you fabulously rich and reviled or a role which would make you beloved and leave you working for the rest of your life, what would you do?
What if I told you this single role you would play in your life might forever change how you were viewed by your fellow man? Would you take it on? What if I told you, for some, you would be a mockery, something to be derided and shunned. For others, you would become a beacon of decency, of humanity, of abiding respect for that which is the best of us, would you take up this mantle?
No one told Adam West this when he went from commercial actor, Captain Q, a pitchman for Nestle’s Quik, to the role of Bruce Wayne, millionaire of stately Wayne manor. Or within this role he would be playing a character who would, over the next five decades, become a media phenomenon unlike any other. Adam West became the Batman.
Not the Batman you know today; grim, serious, master of martial arts, the dark night detective, always prepared, never surprised, man of a thousand talents.
This Batman was urbane, modern, sophisticated yet more than a little square, in the local 1960s parlance. Adam West was a Batman for a different era. He played the role as camp, over-the-top, and without reservation. He and Burt Ward, the intrepid young Robin would for just two years, battle even campier villains, escape dubious deathtraps, and enthrall millions.
For just two years. Three seasons. One hundred and twenty episodes was all it took to make or break a career. Imagine that. Adam West would take this role, run with it and when it ended he would wonder if he’d ever work again.
He would, but it would take some time. Like a number of other actors from the period, he found himself typecast and challenged to escape this signature role. Batman’s grasp on him was too strong.
There was only one thing left to do. He embraced it. Adam West shunned Batman no longer. He decided he would become as wonderful a person as the Batman was a character. He would go to conventions, meet fans, and everyone who met him says he was a wonderful person. His costars, though now they are few, all extol his virtues.
His friend of fifty years and the former Robin, Burt Ward says: “I loved him, We had the best time. We could talk about any subject. All we did was laugh.” Given the campy nature of the show I can see how this might have been a running theme. I’d pay money to see bloopers from that series!
West would never be an amazing movie star. But he was a prolific working actor. He would diversify and do voice work in numerous roles in just about every kind of heroic possibility. He appeared in the Simpsons, Futurama, Rugrats, Kim Possible, and Johnny Bravo just to name a tiny sliver of his work.
Three of of my favorites were his role as Catman in the animated Fairly Odd-Parents, a bumbling, easily distracted hero, whose tone and behavior always reminded you of West’s Batman persona. Right down to the heroic chin.
He would also become Mayor West of Quahog, a stranger role where Adam would portray a comic version of himself if he were just a little bit duller and a little more confused. Mayor West was a nice addition to Family Guy.
He would even reprise himself in Batman: The Animated Series in an episode “Beware the Gray Ghost”, where he plays the role of a Golden Age heroic actor opposite Batman.
Instead of losing his career as he thought, Adam would go on to be a force for good on the screen and off. West was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.
Los Angeles, June 15, 2017
West died in Los Angeles on June 9, 2017, following a brief battle with leukemia. He was 88. The City of Los Angeles paid a final tribute to the Bright Knight, inviting fans, cosplayers and his friends and family to a lighting of the classic Bat-signal. The famed Red Phone would also get a signature spot alongside the podium. The event gathered thousands who would pay their respects, check out the classic Batmobile and share cosplay adventures with friends.
The guests were many: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, West’s wife, children and grandchildren were also in attendance. DC Entertainment sent Diane Nelson and Jim Lee. Burt Ward and Lee Meriwether (the second Catwoman) were also there. Ward spoke briefly but enthusiastically.
Mayor Garcetti who headed the lighting ceremony had this to say: “We don’t gather on these steps very often at night, but when we do, it is for a solemn and holy purpose. Tonight, we’re going to light up your City Hall for own bright knight, the legendary Adam West.”
This night was something special to those fans of Adam West, a man whose wonderful voice and stage presence could have catapulted him to fame, but instead gave him a chance to affect the lives of millions over fifty years, reminding them of how to be their best selves.
West, in an interview, called himself the ‘Neon Knight’ for his campy depiction of Batman. I can’t argue with that. If this outpouring of love and affection for him as an actor is any indication, his Batman and acting career lit the way for so many. He will be missed. I already do.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.