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SOCK! POW! ZOK!
Whether you were a kid in 1966 or you were born in 1986 like me, chances are you know exactly what I’m going to talk about, and I haven’t said more than four fairly gibberish words.
At 7:30 PM on January 12, 1966, hoards of eager children tuned in their TV sets to ABC, ready to witness the birth of a new era of television. How could anyone have known that this colourful, campy, kooky, comedic trip to the streets of Gotham, was going to be a hit, and would effectively mean the demise of much beloved black and white series like The Munsters and The Addams Family?
It ran for only three seasons between 1966 and 1968, but it racked up an impressive (by today’s 10-13 episode standards especially) 120 episodes.
The ’66 “Batman” series, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, seems like an unlikely hit. Batman was a well-established comic book character who’d been around since 1939. By 1966, there were a couple of Batman movies, and the Caped Crusader was still gracing the pages of comic books everywhere, brooding, fighting crime, and kicking bad guy butt. But one thing remained constant: Bruce Wayne was a serious man still mourning the loss of his parents as a child. He was proper with a no-nonsense attitude, and Batman was a hero that struck fear into the hearts of his villainous enemies. I mean, he was called “the Dark Knight” for a reason.
And then the 1960s happened. Colour and calamity exploded on the scene! Bra-burning, flower power, all you need is love and LSD, psychedelic grooviness was suddenly where it’s at. And not even the world’s greatest detective would escape the hipster decade unscathed.
But thank God he didn’t!
I have NO fondness for the things that made the ’60s so memorable for most, but I LOVE this fresh, new, BIFF! BANG! POW! incarnation of Batman. From the colourful celebrity guest villains to Robin’s famous “Holy…” catchphrases, I simply adore everything about this series.
In 1966, Batman just wanted to have fun: Let his cowl down, do the Batusi, live a little while he hit bad guys so hard that words describing the impact would suddenly appear out of thin air! That’s just the kind of guy that Adam West’s Batman was.
And Adam West was the perfect casting choice for this role. He was handsome and not too boyish-looking, which meant that he could get away with playing a ridiculously campy, tongue-in-cheek Batman yet not lose his dignity as a man. And that made for a very likable lead character.
But West wasn’t producer William Dozier’s initial preference. Said Dozier: “My first choice for Batman was Ty Hardin,” an actor who was unavailable at the time. It was Hardin’s agent who suggested West. “He’s very bright, Adam, and when I explained to him that it had to be played as though we were dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, with that kind of deadly seriousness–that he wasn’t going to be Cary Grant, full of charm, but just had to play a very square, hard-nosed guy– and I said, ‘Hopefully, it is going to be funny’. He got it right away and understood what we were trying to sell.”
Interestingly enough, two other integral characters were originally meant to be played by different actors as well.
There’s no question, the Joker is my favourite Batman character, and Cesar Romero’s debonair Clown Prince of Crime tops my list of best Jokers. Even with his painted-over signature moustache, Romero brought a level of appeal to the Joker that in my opinion has never been matched.
Jack Nicholson in the 1989 movie “Batman” was a class act. And Heath Ledger (big favourite of mine) gave the performance of a lifetime when he crawled inside the mind of a lunatic to become the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”. But to use the Joker’s own catchphrase from the latter film… “Why so serious?” That is what every Joker leaves me asking. All except for Cesar Romero.
He just makes everything more fun! He looks like he was born in that purple power suit, and when he clasped his hands and cackled that gloriously maniacal laugh for the first time in 1966, I’m sure that children’s faces simply lit up in unbridled delight.
Some fans will best know Burgess Meredith from his four appearances on Rod Serling’s sci-fi morality-checker series “The Twilight Zone“. Whether it was the iconic image of Henry Bemis holding his broken glasses or Mr. Wordsworth’s declaration that you can’t erase God with edict, like him or not, Meredith’s acting abilities are undeniable.
Who could possibly quack so convincingly as he waddled around Gotham, swinging his knockout-gas-tipped umbrella as if he hadn’t a single care in the world? According to the fabulous book “The Official Batbook” by Joel Eisner, it was Mickey Rooney that producer Dozier had wanted for the role of Penguin. “Almost had Mickey Rooney for Penguin, but couldn’t juggle conflicts. Too bad, he was dying to do it.” All due respect to Rooney, but there’s no way he could have pulled it off.
This show introduced us to so many comical and memorable villains. In addition to Romero’s Joker and Meredith’s Penguin, there was also the hyper-bubbly Riddler played by Frank Gorshin in seasons 1 and 3 — John Astin took over the role in the Riddler’s two season 2 appearances. Most Batman fans will agree that twice was enough. It’s not that Astin did a BAD job, but Gorshin was so perfect for the role (“Never thought of anyone for the Riddler except Frank Gorshin. He was my first notion for the Riddler and never anybody else,” said Dozier) that no one was going to adequately fill his shoes. Least of all the guy who was famous for playing cigar-chomping, eccentric billionaire playghoul Gomez Addams on “The Addams Family”!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two of Batman’s lesser-known but exceptional enemies. King Tut and Egghead may not have seen as much screen time as the big favourites did, but the show would have been sorely lacking without them.
King Tut, played by the larger-than-life Victor Buono, was a visual delight. The character of Yale Egyptology Professor William McElroy (who takes on the persona of King Tut after a nasty crack on the head) was created specifically for the 1966 series, and is one of my favourites.
Edgar Heed, better known as Egghead, is another made-for-the-series bad guy. Sounds like a terrible name for a villain, right? But the character had one important thing going for him: He was played by Vincent Price.
Batman ’66 succeeded where The Twilight Zone had failed (wouldn’t that have been amazing? Vincent Price in an episode of TZ!?), adding the master of horror to their cast list. And as expected, Price did an egg-cellent job portraying the self-proclaimed “world’s smartest criminal”.
And if you enjoyed the beautiful Julie Newmar’s devilish tendencies on TZ’s “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”, then I’m sure that Ms. Newmar poured into a slinky black catsuit was also a welcome sight.
I would venture to say that Catwoman could easily give the Joker and Penguin a run for their money when it comes to most loved villain. And that is due in no small measure to the sexy portrayal of the feline fatale in this Batman series.
Now, as much as I adore Julie, I have to admit that she is not my favourite Catwoman. In addition to Newmar, two other actresses donned that signature catsuit during Batman’s three-year run. Newmar was the first, playing Catwoman in seasons 1 and 2. When a scheduling conflict made her unavailable for the film “Batman: The Movie” after filming for season 1 wrapped, it was Lee Meriwether who was tasked with creating meow-hem for the Dynamic Duo on the big screen.
When Newmar vacated the role after Batman’s second season, it was cabaret star Eartha Kitt that squeezed into that iconic costume, and it’s Kitt’s purrrrrrfect performance that does it for me.
Real-life pin-up girl Newmar had the look, no question, but if I can be honest for a moment, I never found her to be an exceptional actress. And Kitt brought a whole new dynamic to the role. She created a Catwoman who could rock that suit AND claw your eyes out. Newmar was a bit mellow. Kitt was a spitfire. If I picture each of these women as actual cats, Newmar would be lounging in a sunny window somewhere, her gaze languid and indifferent. But Kitt? Kitt is like the quinessential Halloween cat: hissy, prissy, and lying in wait — with claws extended — for her next victim to walk past. And for my money THAT’S the kind of kitty that Catwoman should be.
So we know that Batman had a zany yet lovable cast of characters going for it. There were also elaborate sets, including a super-cool bat cave, Penguin’s lair and all the little shops and businesses around Gotham where Bat-duties lurked behind every corner. And of course George Barris’s iconic Batmobile! But visuals alone aren’t enough to make a show successful.
While reading the aforementioned Eisner “Batbook”, I found the following quote from producer William Dozier. And I think this pretty much sums up why Batman “worked”: “There was no room for a comedian in this show at all. If a comedian had tried to do these parts, they would go right out the window. They would’ve been trying to be funny. They would’ve been mugging; doing their little comedy shtick to get laughs. That was not the way to get laughs on this show; you got laughs if they are there and just playing it straight, and over doing the straightness.”
I think Batman was meant to be a show that made fun of itself. It’s supposed to be a real-life comic book, where everything is exaggerated and the intensity is dialed right up, from the characters to the sets to the dialogue. And how can you make fun of yourself while still coming across as serious? Dozier nails it in that quote. The humour of Batman is incidental. The characters aren’t trying to be funny, they’re just going about their business the way larger-than-life people would, and as Dozier says, are “playing it straight.” And so their silly antics become just believable enough (because THEY believe it) for us to suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the anticipation of what’s coming next.
It’s a testament to the talents of the cast and writers that Batman was such a huge hit. While it may have been ultra campy, there was also a lot of substance to the series. The dialogue was clever and the plots were inventive, original and masterfully straddled the line between total fun and outright dangerous. And of course my favourite aspect of any show: Good vs Evil, and Good always wins. No matter what harrowing “Holy…!” moment the Caped Crusaders found themselves in, there wasn’t a villain crafty enough to best our heroes. And that’s just the way it should be.
And perhaps that’s the real reason that 50 years later, we still tune in next time. . . Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel! To watch Batman and Robin save the day again.