We’ve received the sad news that actor Adam West passed away on June 9th after a battle with leukemia. He was 88 years old, and is survived by his wife Marcelle, six children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Like all of you reading this, we here at the Atomic Junk Shop were fans of Mr. West, so we thought he deserved an Atomic Roundtable where we talked about Mr. West, his career, and our personal memories of him.
John: Like most everyone here, when I think of Adam West, I think of Batman. I grew up watching Batman ’66 in syndication as a kid in the 70s, so I’ve run through the full gamut of emotions on the show. When I was really young, I loved it unironically. The humor and campiness went right over my head. That’s a gift that really young kids have. You just love what you love, and you don’t even question it.
As I got a bit older, I started to catch on that the show wasn’t entirely serious. I distinctly remember Batman doing a Pied Piper thing in one of the Louie the Lilac episodes of the third season and thinking, “Oh, come on…”
I then progressed to the next stage in my fandom of Batman ’66, that of the self-serious fanboy, who resented the show for making my beloved Batman look silly. This is the kind of ultra-seriousness you have when you’re about 13-17 years old, and you act super serious because you’re desperate to be taken seriously yourself. Batman was the Darknight Detective who fought a homicidal Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul, not the upright citizen we saw West play on TV. This was serious business. The 1989 Batman movie came out when I was about a month away from turning 17, and I distinctly remember how important it felt for us to have a serious Batman movie, one that would finally put the specter of the Adam West show to rest after 20+ years.
And now? The show’s just fun. I eventually came to realize that the Batman series was an absolutely brilliant parody of the comics of the 50s and 60s. My only problem with it was when people mistook the parody for the real thing. And now, even that isn’t a big deal. There are so many different versions of Batman out there that it seems silly to get worked up about one particular one. Now, I just enjoy the show for what it was, and MAN, is it ever a fun show to watch. It’s colorful, it’s fast-paced, it’s wonderfully shot & lit, the writing is clever, and the actors are all obviously having a ball.
And West is great in the show. Without the right actor in the title role, Batman ’66 would’ve been a utter failure, but West had the exact sort of light touch to keep the show on the right track. West’s Batman and Bruce Wayne were so square they were cool. Here he is in his screen test with Burt Ward, contrasted with the screen tests of Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell:
Check out this scene from the episode “Ice Spy”, where West shifts between his Bruce Wayne and Batman characterizations in a single phone conversation.
Greg H: I have been trying to think of what my life might have been like if the Batman TV show hadn’t existed and I honestly can’t imagine. It was my gateway drug to…. EVERYTHING. Not just Batman, but the whole concept of superheroes and comic-books and adventure. Before this, the stories Mom had been reading to me were things like Barney Beagle or The Wizard of Oz… nothing like Batman was even on my radar at age five.
I’m telling you all this to try and put across how HUGE that show was for me. Dad wasn’t around and Mom was just trying to do the best she could, and I was a difficult, weird kid. She parked me in front of the TV the night it premiered, probably just hoping to distract me a little while she made dinner or something.
But it was way more than a distraction. Pretty much from the first moments of “Hi Diddle Riddle” I was… I don’t even have the words. Something between awestruck and having a religious experience. Every synapse in my five-year-old’s brain was on fire saying, YES. THIS. THIS IS MY KIND OF STORY, THIS IS WHERE I WANT TO LIVE. I probably looked like Keir Dullea going through the space warp in 2001. I was so on board with all of it. Even today, watching reruns, I can still feel the memory of that visceral thrill of just sheer excitement when they jump into the Batmobile. Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed. Roger, ready to move out.
It was hitting me at exactly the right age and the right time. This is going to sound so hopelessly cornball, but honest to God, Adam West’s Batman gave me the adult father figure that was missing in my life. Dad was not someone to emulate, even if he had been around. We weren’t a happy home, Mom was stressed and bitter all the time; and even at age five I understood this was wrong, that our family was damaged somehow, that it wasn’t fair. But here was a world where the bad guys got what was coming to them, where a good man went down a slide with his teenage son and came out SO MUCH COOLER, and then went out into a world full of bad guys and MADE THINGS FAIR. The upright nobility of Batman and Robin was played for laughs but it was always deadly serious for me.
It was irresistible. And the show still works that way for kids, it doesn’t age at all. When our five-year-old godson used to come and visit, watching Batman was his favorite thing. And he’d seen the movies first. Didn’t matter. This was the version he loved. Batman 1966 and the episode of the animated series where the kids are doing the Rashomon thing where it goes from Dick Sprang to Frank Miller. He would watch Batman, that Silver Age good-guy version of Batman specifically, on an endless loop if we’d let him. Sprang’s and Adam West’s were his Batman, not Keaton or Bale.
Like John, I aged out of it for a while– somewhere around the time Batman went surfing I began to feel like Adam West was making fun of all us kids that were looking up to him, and considering that I was getting beaten up at school every so often for being a comics-loving nerd kid, the idea that I had been somehow misled was hard to take. But I never stopped loving Batman as a character, and looking back it was really a pretty short interlude, maybe sixth to ninth grade, that I was put out about Adam West. By high school I’d found my own nerd posse and we all owned up that we still loved it, and we could appreciate the comedy. We could quote whole segments of various episodes to each other.
Jim: Adam West gave me a bit of reflected glory and made me popular for most of second grade, and the truth was, I didn’t even want to watch the show at first. As a small child (literally; in second grade I was often mistaken for a kindergartener), I was timid and insecure, afraid to try anything new, especially anything that looked scary, and the first commercial I saw for Batman looked scary to me, or at least off-putting. All those weird villains, and they’re fighting a guy in a black mask? (we had a black-and-white TV in 1966, so I didn’t know his costume was blue.) I was going to nope out, but my older brother wanted to watch it, and it happened that there was nothing on the other channels that my mom wanted to watch (Dad was at the bar, most likely), so we were watching Batman.
It was the animated opening credits that hooked me; I’d been an absolute nut for animation since I was in diapers. My earliest memory is the opening credits to the Mickey Mouse Club. Seeing cartoon Batman and Robin fighting the bad guys clued me that he was the hero, and the show that followed seemed very much like actors recreating a cartoon, so I was all in.
The next day at school, I tried to draw Batman the way he appeared in the animated credit sequence. I guess I did okay at it, because every kid in class asked for a Batman picture, and by the end of the week the teacher commissioned a big version to adorn the bulletin board. Suddenly the weird quiet kid with the lisp was popular. (Of course we moved across town a year later, and I was back to being the weird quiet kid with the lisp, only by then Batman was not quite the ticket to coolsville that it had been.)
Naturally Batman was the gateway for me as well. One day I was with my mom when she stopped at Young’s Market to pick something up, and for the first time, the comics on the spinner rack meant something to me; there he was, on the cover of a comic book, with a bunch of other heroes. After some begging, I became the owner of Justice League of America #44, which opened the floodgates.
Unlike most young Bat-Fans, I never really rejected the show. I watched it in reruns for years, and still found it amusing and exciting. I was always pleased and surprised when Adam West turned up in other roles, like playing an evil corporate executive in 1973’s Sammy Davis, Jr. TV movie, Poor Devil, or his bit part as an actor that Burt Reynolds’ Hooper is playing stuntman for in Hooper. I was never one of those who resented the show or felt that it insulted comics or superheroes, and, probably because my little brother was a TV actor, I always understood that Adam West and Batman were not the same. I liked them both. I still do.
John: I also find it interesting that West went through his own period of resenting the Batman series and what it meant for him. Here’s a quote that Variety included in their obituary of West:
“Some years ago I made an agreement with Batman. There was a time when Batman really kept me from getting some pretty good roles, and I was asked to do what I figured were important features. However, Batman was there, and very few people would take a chance on me walking on to the screen. And they’d be taking people away from the story. So I decided that since so many people love Batman, I might as well love it too. Why not? So I began to reengage myself with Batman. And I saw the comedy. I saw the love people had for it, and I just embraced it.”
I think that’s the secret. When you play an ironic role like Batman, at some point you have to realize that the role is bigger than any one person who plays the part and make your peace with it. West absolutely did that and enjoyed playing parts that either sent up or paid tribute to his Batman image. Here are two of my favorites: Lookwell, an unsold 1991 pilot written by a pre-fame Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien, and a 1998 episode of News Radio, where West confesses that he’s the infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper:
Another one of those parts playing on his Batman image was on Batman: The Animated Series, where West guest starred as Simon Trent, an actor who’d played the superhero the Gray Ghost on television, only to see his career fall on the skids due to typecasting. The producers had originally planned to cast Gary Owens as Simon Trent, but at the suggestion of BTAS director Dan Riba, Adam West was cast instead. It was an inspired meta touch that made it one of the standout episodes of BTAS.
Earlier this year, I got to ask Kevin Conroy about West’s guest role in the episode “Beware the Gray Ghost,” and he confirmed that West was an absolute gentleman and a total pro. I’ve got to say, it warms my heart that the two Batmen were friends. I reached out to West via his website in the hopes of getting a quote or two from him about his appearance on BTAS, but I never got a reply. I’m sad that I’ll never get the chance to interview him now.
Jim: I never got the chance to meet Adam West, which makes me a little sad now. I did meet Frank Gorshin, Caesar Romero, and Yvonne Craig, and got a chance to tell each of them how important the show was to me, so I’ll have to content myself with that.
Greg H: I got to meet him just once, briefly, at a car show. He was touring with one of the Barris Batmobiles, in full costume, and the outfit looked a little threadbare, frankly. This was in the mid-80s or thereabouts.
I felt a little sad for him, but then I noticed that he wasn’t sad at ALL. He was enjoying the moment. Everyone that came up and stammered and stuttered how much he had meant to them when they were kids, he was so gracious to each of them, and made us all feel like he GOT it. I mumbled something about how trying to draw Batman had eventually led me to art school and a career in commercial layouts for an advertising firm, and he said, “Well, that’s great. Good for you.” I’d brought my copy of the DC Batman-Ra’s al Ghul Treasury Edition with the wraparound Neal Adams cover, because if I was going to have Adam West sign a Bat comic it was going to by God be the most treasured one I owned.
He’d never seen it before and he burst out laughing. Then– I love this so much– he clutched his fists to his chest and DID THE SAME POSE and said, “GRRR!!” Then he signed it for me and wished me well.
The person in line after me was a mother with a little kid in full Bat costume and West thanked him for being a Bat helper and shook his hand. The friend I was with got photos of all of this.
Sadly, I lost the comic not too long after, along with the photos my friend took of the Great Moment, because I was such a moron in the 1980s. But I still value the memory. And this was West at a pretty low point, around the time The Last Precinct had nosedived. But he still was doing his best for the Bat-fans that had more or less killed his acting career.
Jim: One thing he doesn’t get credit for. He (and Clayton Moore) taught two generations of actors how to handle massive fame followed by typecasting and rejection, and do so with dignity and class. Even at his lowest point, when he couldn’t get work as anything but a joke (let’s face it, that ’70s superhero roast was just a paycheck that he really needed), he never attacked the fans, always did his best to uphold their image of him and his most famous character, even if he hated it. I never heard any stories of him flipping out and screaming at somebody.
John: I have one last thing to share, something that a few of my friends on Facebook requested I tell. It’s a story I’ve told many times to my friends, but I’ve never committed it to print before. It’s the story of the first time I met Adam West.
Somewhere around 2002, West was appearing at a local con here in New Jersey. I went along with some friends on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to meet as many of the guests as we could. We soon saw West at the outdoor tent when they had most of the media celebrities. It was late in the day, probably around 5 or 6pm, and the con was starting to wind down. I don’t think they were shutting down the booths yet, but it was getting towards that time. I wanted what just about anybody who goes to a con to meet a guest hopes for: a quick, personal moment with someone you look up to. I mean, c’mon, it was BATMAN, people.
West was engaged in conversation with someone else when I first approached his table, so I cautiously hung back for a couple of minutes, waiting for an opening. I didn’t want to be pushy, but I wanted my moment with Batman. Finally, he was free. ADAM WEST standing there behind his table, in the flesh, with no one else around. This was my moment. I walked up, extended my hand, and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m John.” Adam West took it and gave me a firm handshake.
And then, mid-handshake, Adam West uttered nine words that chilled me to the bone (To get the full effect, it’s absolutely essential that you read this next sentence in the voice of Adam West):
“We’re getting ready to wrap it up here, John.”
Oof. Now, as mild as that response might read in print, that landed harder than any hay-maker Batman dished out to the Joker or the Riddler on TV. Batman had no time for me. It was Sunday, the con was nearly over, and Adam West was done with fanboy bullshit for the day.
I muttered some awkward response, and quickly slunk away. And I’m not going to lie — I honestly felt really rotten for the next ten minutes. I mean, c’mon. I’d just met Batman, and Batman didn’t like me. To someone who’s loved Batman all his life, that was a blow.
For the record, I was somewhere around 30 at the time.
But that’s not the really sad part. The sad part is how I shrugged it off. This was my rationalization: “Wait, that wasn’t Batman, That was just the guy who played Batman. I bet if the real Batman ever met me, he’d totally think I was cool.”
Once again, 30 years old.
But you know what? He was Batman. He was Batman on the 1960s TV show, on the 1970s variety specials, on the Filmation Batman cartoon, on the last season of Super Friends, and at countless cons over the years. And he was certainly Batman a few years later on Facebook, when I sent him a friend request and this happened:
Adam West took a moment out of his day to wish me well and give me the thrill of a lifetime. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, people.
R.I.P., Mr. West.