Thursday saw the Bat-signal flash across the night sky of Los Angeles, per mayoral decree, as Hollywood paid tribute to one of my childhood heroes, the late Adam West:
I’ve had plenty of time to pay my respects. In fact, I wrote this tribute to Batman‘s golden anniversary last year that, emotionally, still rings true today. But the timing of West’s passing is what fascinated me the most about that sobering news.
It happened during Pride weekend across America. This was fitting not because certain high-ranking members of the United States government used to think two men named Bruce and Dick living together was a tad suspect, but because of one of West’s early roles that only came to my attention some time after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which happened almost a year ago to the day of his death.
Those of you who are of the same generation as I knew him as the Caped Crusader, or perhaps better, in some cases, as Mayor West on Family Guy–a different kind of “batty,” as it were. Most of you, however, probably have never heard of a 1959 movie called The Young Philadelphians, nor his supporting role in it. Though not for nothing, you can’t even YouTube his appearance, even though it was a very prominent pre-Batman gig for the versatile young actor.
Don’t worry, I can thumbnail the details. Paul Newman co-stars with real-life wife Barbara Rush–who, funny enough, would appear as the celebrity villain du jour on one of Batman‘s cringe-worthiest episodes years later–as an unscrupulous lawyer who, as a teenager, is more or less forced by his family to pursue that way of life. Fortunately, in the end, he pulls a Lloyd Christmas and totally redeems himself.
The story begins, however, with West center stage, having to summon the courage to come out of the closet to his character’s bogus wife, played by Diane Lawrence (an actress, like West, better known for her TV work)–and on their wedding night, to boot. Finally, he blurts out to her, the eventual mother of Newman’s character, that he can’t make love to a woman.
I couldn’t remember another thing from The Young Philadelphians if my life depended on it, but seeing West play out this lone, thought-provoking scene on TCM one random evening really pulled me in and put the puritanical history of our country into perspective, to say nothing of his acting prowess. Today, the LBGTQ rights movement remains a major national issue, and it has made progress despite what happened in Orlando. Back then, it was so blasphemous to be gay you couldn’t even use the word in that context.
In depicting the struggle of many members of the LBGTQ community to be true to themselves in a sometimes intolerant world, Adam West demonstrated to me what a pro he always was, even before the decision-makers at ABC gave him his biggest break of all. Ultimately, he embraced the role that, because of other, less visionary people in high places, was both gift and curse at various points in his career. He will be missed because, no matter what mask he wore, literally or metaphorically, he “got it,” whether he was called upon to be silly, serious or the groundbreaking combination of the two that defined his signature small-screen alter ego.
I’ll always remember seeing him and Burt Ward hold court with a packed room of Bat-fans, including me, at Steel City Con in Monroeville a couple years ago. He made eighty look like the new forty with how eagerly he engaged us and answered questions, even though, presumably, he had answered some of them thousands of times before. Just as six-year-old me always knew, in my heart of hearts, that Batman–with help from “Boy Wonder” Ward–would be there to restore justice, Adam West was there, as always, to make us smile.
I suppose I’ll always have my Batman reruns on MeTV and on DVD, at my convenience (thank you, Courtney). I’ll always have my copy of Return of the Caped Crusaders, the animated swan song that may never fully recapture the magic of the television series but will remain a proud part of my collection for the same sentimental reasons. The camp and comic book pizzazz, years ahead of its time, will always be there, but this time, the deceptively brilliant man who made it what it was and what it remains today won’t be.