Batman has always been and will probably always be my favorite comic book hero. There’s something about a man dressed as a bat who comes out at night to pow, wham, and biff criminals to serve up some hard justice that just appeals to little boys growing up in 1990s America, as well as so many others. Batman has consistently worked within the fringes of what is legal and moral in order to protect people from the (sometimes literal) monsters among them, all the while keeping to the shadows in a world as gray as his actions’ ethics. Except for the 1960s, when Gotham City was more colorfully kooky than Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This strange departure from the normally dark and brooding detective and his grimy Gotham that is as filthy as the bad guys within it may be looked at it with some disdain or at least annoyance from some Batman purists. However, while I too am more on the side of the Dark Knight being, well, dark, I also believe that taking into account the full history of a thing is essential for recognizing its impact over time and its probably bearing on our future. For example, early zoos began as menageries to showcase exotic beasts from faraway lands and frequently housed the animals in poor conditions with little to no idea of what was best for them in the way of food and social development, however now zoos have evolved into conservation organizations that provide a safe haven for endangered and threatened species to educate and expose people to them and their plight, all the while working to establish or restore habitat spaces that will be viable homes for the progeny of the animals in their collection, and in some cases directly rehabilitate species of this generation. Modern zoos are often upfront with the fact that their beginnings were not always graceful and that they have learned much from the mistakes of the past. Now they work to preserve bats all around the world, helping to save the winged wonders that make up roughly 20% of all mammal species for the future.
The environment and entertainment industry are not regularly similar, but in this instance, the world of comic book characters was brought into the forefront of American culture by ABC’s popular series Batman which ran from 1966-1968 and featured Adam West as the Caped Crusader. The television show started in January and a full length film starring the same cast was released later that year in July marking the first time Batman had been brought to each respective screen, and one of the first times any comic character did so in such grandiose fashion. It’s easy to forget in today’s comic crazed cinema that superheroes were not always such popular fare. The 1960s Batman series helped to infatuate America with heroic figures dressing up in costumes to battle bad guys for their well-being. It was colorful, it was campy, but most of all it was centered by a man who knew he had to own it and play the part as straight as he could, all the while embracing the silliness off-screen, which he did for decades after until his death just a few days ago. Adam West passed away last Friday at the age of 88 and left behind a legacy dominated by his time in the bat cowl, but there was more to the man than paving the way for superhero stories and being a role model for children.
Born William West Anderson in Walla Walla, Washington (which sounds like a jump rope chant), West played many a cowboy and cop before he was Batman, among some comedic roles. During his stint as the world’s greatest detective, West was a righteous figure not just dishing out boofs and bams, but also encouragement to be a good citizen, especially to children whom he preached the merits of healthy eating and living and responsible work ethic to.
West beat out Lyle Waggoner for the title role, apparently chosen after being seen in a Nestle Quik commercial where he played a caricature of James Bond. Waggoner eventually got into the DC universe in the role of Steve Trevor in the 1970s Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter. As it happens, West almost got to be the actual James Bond too. Executive producer for the Bond series, Albert Broccoli (not pronounced like the vegetable like I always assumed in my youth) offered West the role of the suave super agent in the film Diamonds Are Forever which saw Sean Connery reprise the role once more officially after the one-and-done by his initial replacement, George Lazenby. Think about that for a moment, Adam West could have been both Batman and James Bond, two of the most iconic and coveted roles in pop culture history, but he turned down the role because he felt Bond should always be played by a British man.
West’s career post-Batman was hampered by him being typecast, but he grew to embrace it, as much for laughs as for capital gain. My favorite of these is when he and Burt Ward (who played alongside him as Robin for those Batman years) voiced the younger versions of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in a SpongeBob episode.
West did find other work outside of his bat-related fame, but most of it was in poorly-received films, some of which he acknowledged were not great, yet he always gave his best in his performance and addressed his true feelings toward the projects with humor. A great example is Zombie Nigthmare an 80s B-movie that is best known now for being the subject of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. West introduced this episode while hosting Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day on Thanksgiving in 1994 and made good-hearted jabs at himself and the character he played in the film.
Years later, West found a resurgence as he played a wacky version of himself who was certifiably crazy, but also the mayor of Quahog, Rhode Island, the town Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy is set in. MacFarlane helped West earn a new group of fans at Comic-Con and West helped a show that could easily fall (and has fallen) to be a derivative of the Simpson‘s to offer something more unique.
Whether you first saw him dressed as a bat dangling from a hot air balloon constantly asking your grandma how he and Robin were going to get out of this one while she smiled because she’d already seen them all, or if it was when he stabbed the ocean to avenge the sailors it had presumably swallowed up or when he rolled in toxic waste to gain superpowers to battle the gifted Griffins, chances are you felt a pang in your heart when you saw the news of Adam West’s passing. Cheers to you, Mr. West. Thanks for the funny and cartoonish moments always, both from your cartoon and live-action roles.
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