Last week we lost an icon of not only television or even nerd culture but of all modern culture itself. Adam West died aged 88 after being diagnosed with leukemia. Throughout his career he kept one of the world’s most famous comic book characters alive in our hearts and made us laugh out loud with his absurd genius at self parody. Adam West‘s talent, charm and comedic brilliance won him generations of fans and admirers.
Adam West comes from a wonderful generation of early television actors. This new medium was scoffed at by thespians of the stage and cinema as being beneath them. This left literally hundreds of men and women who were eager, hungry and ready to work at a moments notice. They starred in so many pilots, serials, live dramas and commercials that by the time everyone in America had a television they had perfected the art of acting for the small screen. West wasn’t a big star but he had a long list of credits to his name. Some of the most memorable are an ambitious episode of The Outer Limits called “The Invisible Enemy,” a crime drama called The Detectives starring Hollywood leading man Robert Taylor (a rarity for the time) and as Doc Holiday in the cowboy series The Lawman. West‘s strikingly handsome features, his love of horse riding and his willingness to perform his own stunts saw him play many heroes in westerns, most notably one he made in Italy called The Relentless Four. He also made a pilot with another future nerd icon William Shatner for a television series based on Alexander the Great. West himself calls it the worst hour of television you’re ever likely to see (I’ve seen it; still better than Oliver Stone‘s version) but it’s a thrill to see these two legends on screen together.
Of course with television comes commercials and Adam West was no stranger to them either. You take what you can get. A commercial for a Nestle chocolate drink caught the attention of producer William Dozier. Commissioned to make a colour TV series based on the hugely popular comic book hero “Batman”, he and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. injected the pop art style comedy which made the show unique. Adam West was chosen for the for the lead role and the world would never be the same. Along with Burt Ward as Robin, Batman debuted in 1966 and was a phenomenal success. Entire books have been written about Batman and I can’t begin to do the show justice here. Needless to say that the outrageous villains, brightly coloured sets and dutch angles, a witty screenplay just on the right side of parody and some of the best casting any television series could ask for cemented Batman as a landmark of the 60’s, of television and indeed of pop culture itself.
There are those who dismiss the show (Frank Miller fans mostly) but real Batman fans know how important it is. Adam West brought Batman back to his detective roots at a time when his comic counterpart was flying through space with his magical pixie friend Bat-Mite. The show also had a tremendous scientific and technological foundation. It had the first ever use of a digital camera and retina eye pattern scanner. It was also an extremely funny show played absolutely straight, especially by West, whose exquisite timing and delicious pauses and inflections made every single line he delivered pure gold. Despite only getting a home release in 2015 due to ownership rights (Warner own the character but Fox owns the show) it’s impact was strong enough to keep the show in the public eye for decades. Last year an animated feature film was made based on the series and with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles. The film was very well received and a sequel is scheduled for release in 2018 with William Shatner as Two-Face. Sadly this will be the last time we hear Adam West as the caped crusader but he leaves behind a legacy and connection with the character that no other actor, no matter how successful, is ever likely to duplicate.
After Batman was cancelled in 1968, Adam West had difficulty finding work. He kept relatively busy but there were dry spells and nothing that offered any kind of stability outside of personal appearances as Batman. In his autobiography Back to the Batcave he writes “In retrospect, I realize that I should have done what Leonard Nimoy did after Star Trek cancelled. He took his case to the people, went out and did summer stock and regional theater, starring in Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Caligula. He made audiences see him differently. Of course, then he came back and did Mr. Spock again for the big screen but at least he got a great deal of money each time he put on the pointy ears.”
In 1992 a cameo appearance on an episode of The Simpsons helped put him back into the public eye. But not as Batman; as Adam West. Cast in the episode Mr. Plow simply because writer Jon Vitti and creator Matt Groening were huge Batman fans, his two minutes of screen time depict West as having an ego bordering on the delusional and slightly creepy. This is the first time audiences worldwide saw him be so self deprecating and it was utterly hilarious. This was the relaunch Adam West needed and his brief part in The Simpsons served as the catalyst for Adam West being loved for simply being Adam West.
Or was it? A pilot for a spoof detective show called Lookwell was aired a year before and is one hundred percent pure West. Ty Lookwell is an out of worked actor who used to star in a popular detective series. At a loose end and with delusions of grandeur he interferes in actual police work convinced they need his help as he once played a detective on TV. Single camera comedy shows weren’t very popular in 1991 and perhaps it was too satirical and cynical but I very much recommend it. Ahead of its time is a phrase that gets used a lot but I firmly believe this show would have been a success had it been made ten years later. Adam West called it the funniest pilot that never got sold and he’s right.
The Simpsons led to other voice acting work throughout the 90’s, most of which were outrageous parodies of himself as Batman. (Johnny Bravo being one of my favourites). This new appreciation led to a whole the term “Adam Westing” being coined. It’s not everyone that gets a trope named after them, let alone a participle. By far his most famous endeavour as Adam West is that of Mayor Adam West of Quohog in Seth McFarlane‘s Family Guy. Making his debut in 2000, the role of Mayor West eschewed all references to Batman and was intended as a parody of actors whose narcissism convinces them to enter into politics and become elected officials. Nobody could give this concept the send up it deserves like Adam West. All of McFarlane‘s insanity and vulgarity was delivered with his dry cool wit and trademark comedic pauses all while adding a hilarious dark tone. West played West in over a hundred episodes and opened him up to a while new generation of fans.
There are so many other amazing things Adam West loaned his voice to such as Fairly Odd Parents, Animaniacs and a high concept, post modern Disney game based on the in universe movie version of the real world movie version of Chicken Little (whew). But I have to end it with what is in my opinion the best voice work he’s ever done. That of Simon Trent aka The Gray Ghost in Batman:The Animated Series. Taking the familiar concept of a washed up actor who once played a super hero on a popular television show, this isn’t a parody and is dramatic. We don’t laugh at this man, we feel sorry for him. He is down on his luck and can’t find work. But when a mad bomber’s scheme mirrors that of an episode of The Gray Ghost, Batman requires Trents’s help in bringing the villain to justice. Written specifically for West, this is a perfect tribute to not only the actor but what his role stands for. It also acknowledges that even Batman can be inspired by costumed crime fighters too. The Gray Ghost was Batman’s hero. Batman was ours. He still is. We owe all of this to a true cultural icon, Adam West.
Until next time, old chum.