Dozens of actors have portrayed Batman at one time or another on radio, in films, on tv, in commercials, in cartoons and on voice-overs, but, for me and those of my generation the “real” Batman will always be Adam West. West, who portrayed the famous comic book character in the campy, popular tv series Batman from 1966 to 1968, passed away yesterday at the age of 88. To many people, the character, Batman, and West are synonymous. It’s as if Batman were the only role of his career. In reality, as you will see, West enjoyed a seven decade career in tv, films, commercials and voiceovers.
William West Anderson was born on September 19, 1928 in Walla Walla, WA. His father was a farmer; his mother was a former opera singer and concert pianist, who, as was customary in those days, abandoned her professional aspirations to tend to her family. When West was 15 his parents divorced. He and his mother moved to Seattle where he graduated from high school and Whitman College with a degree in literature and a minor in psychology. Then, he was drafted into the Army where he primarily served as an announcer on Armed Forces Television. After his discharge he worked at odd jobs for a while (including as a milkman).
Eventually, he moved to Hawaii to pursue an acting career. One of his early jobs was as a sidekick to a chimp on a local tv show called El Kini Popo Show. Sounds funny, but remember Ronald Reagan once played opposite a monkey, and look how he ended up.
In 1959 West moved to Hollywood. One of the first things he did was to change his name to Adam West. In his autobiography West explained he chose “Adam” because he “liked the way it looked and sounded with ‘West.’ ”
Perhaps, the best way to view West’s career is to divide it into “pre-Batman and post-Batman stages. Pre-Batman, he appeared in more than a dozen minor tv and movie roles. Most were forgettable, but among his more notable roles were in the movie, The Young Philadelphians starring Paul Newman, and guest spots in a variety of tv series, such as Sugarfoot, Colt 45, The Real McCoys, The Rifleman and Perry Mason. Not much of a resume, but he made a living.
How did West get the role of a lifetime? The story is that the producer of the show, William Dozer, saw him in a commercial for Nestle Quik in which he portrayed a “James Bond-like character,” and thought he would be “good for the role.” Whether the story is true or not, it sounds good. Incidentally, among the other actors who competed for the role was Lyle Waggoner, whom you may remember as the announcer and sometimes performer on The Carol Burnet Show in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Batman ran on ABC for only three seasons (1966-1968), but it was very popular, particularly with the teen and college set. West and his co-star, Burt Ward as Robin, were also very popular individually, but in the long run the roles hurt their respective careers, because they became severely typecast. Other roles were hard to come by, although West was offered the role of James Bond in 1970. He turned it down, because, as he put it, in his autobiography, “the role should always be played by a British actor.”
West’s roles post-Batman were primarily related to playing a version of Batman. For example, he made an appearance on behalf of the US Wrestling Association in which he engaged in a fake “war of words” with wrestler Jerry (the “King”) Lawler. Also, he reprised the Batman role in the short-lived and forgettable animated series The New Adventures of Batman, as well as The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour and Tarzan and the Super 7, among others. Furthermore, he performed guest roles on many tv shows, such as Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Maverick, Bonanza, and King of Queens. Due to his distinctive voice, West was in demand to do voice-overs in many animated series, including, among others, the Simpsons, Family Guy, Rugrats and SpongeBob Square Pants, as well as a Batman video game. Surprisingly, West never appeared in any of the Batman franchise movies (nor, for that matter, has Ward).
West was married three times and had a total of six children. In 2012 he was honored with a “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As I said, even though West’s career spanned seven decades, he is primarily remembered for one role. Ironically, West never took that role very seriously. He often said he played Batman “for laughs.” He just had to “pull on that cowl and believe no one would recognize [him].”
Mark Hamill, who met West while, doing the voice-over for the “Joker” in “Batman, the Animated Series,” remembered him as a “wonderful actor [and] so kind.” Also, Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, tweeted “Adam West was a joy to work with…His positivity, good nature and sense of fun were undeniable.”
Rest in peace Batman. You will be sorely missed.