With all due respect to Ben Affleck, Christian Bale and Michael Keaton, Adam West is Batman.
At least West — who died Friday — is for millions who grew up with the campy Caped Crusader he played on ABC’s whirlwind Batman phenomenon in the late ‘60s.
Many baby boomers were too young to understand the tongue-in-cheek nature of the dialogue, as when a nightclub maître d’ asks: “Ringside table, Batman?” and a man wearing a cowl, cape and purple body suit responds: “No, thank you. I’ll stand at the bar. I would not wish to be conspicuous.” The absurdity of that comment flew by a child's consciousness like a poorly aimed Batarang.
West's bromide-dropping, milk-drinking depiction was completely at odds with the forbidding Dark Knight, a great character of comic books and and more recent films, and the TV show's primary-color, over-the-top take is often derided by superhero purists. But he was the Batman we knew. He was ours. We all tend to bond tightly with elements of our youth, no matter how biff-bam-pow silly they may seem later through the more jaded vision of adulthood.
I had the good fortune to meet Adam West three years ago at San Diego Comic-Con. First impression: At 85, the guy looked fantastic. Handsome George Clooney, a later Batman, should be as lucky in his twilight years.
And West was still able to cause a scene, as fans — some born decades after the 1966-68 series ended — milled about, gawking and taking pictures of this beloved Batman. We got away via elevator, dashing my hope that he would have something in his utility belt to facilitate an escape.
Multiply that lobby reception by a million and you get an idea of the Beatles-esque fan craze that briefly surrounded the TV series, whose cliffhanging, two-night episodes briefly dominated pop culture. Millions of adults were watching, too. However, the series faded quickly, getting too ridiculous, even for itself, with increasingly ludicrous "special-guest villain" cameos (Lola Lasagne? Really?).
West’s career, unfortunately, suffered in the aftermath, as often happens with actors so closely identified with iconic characters. And it’s hard to be more iconic than Batman.
When we sat for our interview, the actor, who was promoting a long-delayed DVD collection of the TV series, acknowledged the role’s effect on his career, but he accepted it with bonhomie, perhaps channeling a character who frequently referred to sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) as “old chum.” By this point, he simply seemed happy that so many people still enjoyed the series. He even offered the latest film Batman some advice: "Ben Affleck, if you're (reading), make the costume work for you!"
What really struck me was how funny West was. I realized he was in on the joke back then and he was in on the joke now, occasionally dipping into portentous Batman baritone, complete with pregnant pauses, for comic effect. He ranked Frank Gorshin's Riddler as his top special-guest villain because of his "manic intensity," while getting a little frisky when discussing Julie Newmar's sultry Catwoman: "I didn't want to talk about Julie, because I get curious stirrings in my utility belt." Oh, Batman!
That sense of humor couldn't have hurt in getting recent roles playing himself on The Big Bang Theory; 30 Rock; The Fairly OddParents, which featured his superhero alter ego, Catman; and Family Guy, where creator and West fan Seth MacFarlane made West the mayor. Perhaps the children who watched asked their parents about Adam West, creating an opportunity for family Batman bonding. It seemed the typecasting effect was now working for him.
With the heroic assistance of my non-caped colleague, photographer/videographer Robert Hanashiro, we packed a story interview, photo shoot and a video Q&A into a 20-minute window, the guerrilla-style journalism common at Comic-Con. Time was of the essence: I had a story to write; West had DVDs to promote. I'm surprised he didn't depart by rappeling down the side of the hotel.
Despite such a short visit, I left feeling really happy. I got the opportunity to meet my Batman — I mean, Adam West. Take care, old chum.
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