Remembering the Real Brilliance of “Batman”

Adam West in

Photo Credit: Internet Movie Database

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.

Holy heartbreak…

Holy Half-Century, Batman!

Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of a pop culture phenomenon that forever changed television, my childhood and, to a lesser extent, the world.

Hyperbole, sure, but hyperbole befitting the occasion; it was exactly one half-century ago that audiences tuned in to the network television premiere of Batman.

While it was ABC who raised the curtain on this revolutionary incarnation of the Dynamic Duo, my first exposure to Batman came in syndication. I was in first grade, and I stumbled into the episode “The Joker’s Hard Times” on The Family Channel (which, coincidentally, later became ABC Family before its more recent name change). The rest, as they say, is Bat-history. My father, ever vigilant of what I was watching, stopped to watched some too. He almost always did.

Here’s all you need to know: It was the middle episode of a rare three-parter in which Batman and Robin were trying to thwart an equally rare team-up of villains dujour–in this case, the Joker and the Penguin. The Joker trapped them and Robin was about to get swallowed whole by a giant, cartoonish clam. From that moment on I was hooked.

Batman became after-school appointment television. I was eating birthday cake in Batman’s likeness, dressing up as Batman and Robin with my older cousin on play dates and playing with Batman action figures, including the elusive Robin figure by Toy Biz that I just had to have before my cousin did (usually, back when that stuff mattered to me, it was the other way around). My parents, looking over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of a “POW!”, “ZAP!” or “BIFF!”, were always happy to oblige, or so I hope.

It really is the perfect show to pass down from generation to generation; that same cousin, who has been screening the series on DVD for his own kids, will corroborate. As a boy, I loved the action, the adventure and the comic-book pizzazz. It’s what inspired me to start buying actual comic books on my parents’ dime. As an adult, I learned to love the melodrama, the innuendo, the occasional homoerotic undertones and the sheer camp of it all. Michael Keaton may be my favorite movie Batman, but there’s just something about Adam West bursting into a room in full Bat-costume and asking, with palpable concern, “Have you seen any unusual-looking people around here lately?”

Batman taught me, among other things, the importance of dental hygiene, feeding parking meters–“Good citizenship, you know”–staying in school and keeping both hands on the rope during a Bat-climb. (Despite having an endless supply of string and a trusty Batarang from my Batman accessory playset, that last one was one of the times my parents were not happy to oblige.) Then, one day, after seeing Batgirl asleep in the Batmobile and going through those first oncoming thrusts of manhood, a light bulb went on and I realized, “Holy shit, this is funny!”

I looked up to Batman. But I wanted to be Robin. In addition to asking my childhood barber to cut my hair like a young Burt Ward, I randomly repeated my favorite “Holy” phrases within earshot of anyone who wouldn’t be Burt Ward's autographterribly annoyed, and I dressed as the Boy Wonder before, during and after Halloween. While Batman put on the morality play, captured the bad guy (or girl, sometimes) and got all the glory, Robin, with his puzzle-solving and Bat-fighting skills, proved that Batman couldn’t have done it without him. Robin taught me that sometimes, age really is just a number, and that young people can make a difference in the world.

Receiving my copy of the complete series from my girlfriend was one of the greatest Christmas presents I’ve ever received. Receiving my copy of Ward’s tell-all book, My Life in Tights, from her parents–with a special surprise inside–was equally fantastic.

So imagine my surprise when this news was shared with me by West and Ward themselves, whom I saw in the flesh for the first time ever at Steel City Con over the summer (video courtesy of Screen Rant, via Mad Monster):

In the meantime, while I enjoy my special edition copy of the Batman movie from my mother and have a drink to toast my heroes, feel free to take a look at a few of my own hand-picked, definitive Bat-moments below.

Bartender! One large, fresh orange juice, please…

Episode #1: “Hi Diddle Riddle” –

Batman and Robin trace the Riddler to the new discotheque in town. Robin monitors while Batman investigates. It’s the scene that made the Batusi world-famous, but even before that, Batman’s answer to the manager’s question perfectly sets the tone for the entire series:

Episode #28: “The Pharaoh’s in a Rut” –

Speaking of the Batusi, the title of this clip says it all:

Batman (The Movie) –

Before it knew what the future held, 20th Century Fox wanted to premiere the movie to help sell the show. Instead, the show became an overnight sensation, and the movie, filmed shortly after the first season, capitalized on that. I apologize for the spoilery title of this clip, but I could not, in good conscience, leave the film’s best line off this list:

Episode #93: “Ice Spy” –

For my money, there’s just too much to choose from in Season Two. The highest-rated pair of episodes, which begin with Bruce and Dick skipping out on an all-male camping trip and a date, respectively, to chase Liberace (you draw your own conclusions) was just the tip of the iceberg. But speaking of icebergs (and money), Mr. Freeze concocted a plan that involves kidnapping a figure skater for a hefty ransom, and Batman, with the help of Bruce Wayne, is trying to pull a fast one on the frosty felon. So then this happened:

Episode #104: “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!” –

The decline of the ratings coincided with the height of the camp.

Batman surfs. Enough said:

Episode #119: “The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra” –

An alchemist develops a ray gun that turns Batman, Robin and Batgirl into cardboard. Alfred comes to their rescue. But there’s a problem: Batman has to anesthetize Batgirl, lest she learn the location of the Batcave, thus piercing the secret of his and Robin’s identity. What started as a harmless whiff of Bat-sleep beget one of the all-time great ad libs in television history: