Adam West: Hostage to a Cowl


September 19 is the birthday of the late Adam West (William West Anderson, 1928-2017).

West had been a workaday actor in Hollywood for a dozen years before becoming a parody of one in Batman (1966-1968). His leading man looks, fine physique and rich voice took him through scores of television and film roles in the 1950s and 60s, most often guest shots in westerns, but he also had some starring film roles like the astronaut in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

In 1966 the creators of the campy Batman television series were looking for the modern equivalent of the stuffed-shirt nonentities who had played the Caped Crusader in movie serials of the 1940s. It was between West and Lyle Waggoner. Their choice of West was not mistaken; he was smart enough to give the most bizarre, distinctive, wooden, staccato line readings on the show, one of the most memorable and delightful features of the program, among many. You might say having done so doomed the rest of his career, but not really. If West had not gotten Batman it’s hard to imagine he would have distinguished himself beyond his usual cheesy appearances on television. The only difference now was that going forward they would all unavoidably be colored by his identity as the former Batman (whom he also continued to play in personal appearances and cartoon voice-overs).

Along the way, an odd thing happened. West’s mind seems to have gotten warped into thinking that he had played the genuine Batman, and had done so as a real character. The delusion is somewhat understandable. For a long, long time he was the only Batman available. When we were kids, the Batman toys all bore his likeness, and we reenacted the Batman show as though it were a real superhero drama. But make no mistake. It was no more the “real” Batman than the 1967 Casino Royale was the “real” version of Casino Royale. Even when I was 13 years old I was eager to see a “real” version that resembled the one I knew from the comic books, as most comic book fans were.

Thus the interview he gave A Current Affair in 1989 about the then-upcoming Tim Burton Batman made the poor man look like a stark, raving lunatic. Heed the Delphic Maxim, Caped Crusader: “Know Thyself.” But, and this I think sheds light on the whole thing, in an alternate universe, West COULD have played a serious Batman when he was the right age. This is what he knew, and regretted very much didn’t happen and couldn’t be.

For more illumination on the Westian questions of our day, I highly recommend the films Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt (2003) and Starring Adam West (2013.) Both helped me to know way too much about Adam West, which is my preferred state of being.

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