Batman, forever: A farewell to Adam West

On June 9th, Adam West passed away in Los Angeles at age 88 after a short battle with leukemia, according to his family. He’s survived by his wife Marcelle and their six children, five grand children, two grandchildren, and an estimated net worth of $6 million. Not bad for a man who made a career out of poking fun at the one major role of his career.

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Born on September 19, 1928 as William West Anderson, West was born in Walla Walla, Washington. His father was a farmer and his mother was an opera singer and concert pianist who abandoned her own dreams of stardom to care for her family. West obviously felt that same call for the spotlight—at college, he worked as a disc jockey and during his two years in the Army, he worked at various radio and military TV stations.

He moved to Hawaii in 1955 to pursue a career in TV and landed a role on El Kini Popo Show, which featured a chimp. Ironically, West, the human, was the sidekick. Sadly, there are no clips of this show available on YouTube, despite the fact that “Adam West and chimp” sounds like a winning combination that could rack up millions of views.

After a string of supporting roles in various TV shows, West finally made the move that would define his career for years to come.

The Batusi, of course.

Batman the TV series only ran for three seasons, from 1966 to 1968, but its campy take on Batman and traditional comic book tropes is still lovingly mocked (because how can you not make fun of a show that seems to know exactly how ridiculous it is?), and is still fondly remembered today. However, as we all know, the post-Batman careers for Adam West and his other co-stars were not as bright as that Technicolor show, but they certainly were just as colorful.

West tried to prove he was worthy of serious, leading man roles in attempts to break away from typecasting, but his first post-Batman role, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969), didn’t change Hollywood’s perception of him as a goofy guy in a spandex suit. There are no clips available online, save for a jazzy but generic two-and-half-minute opening credits sequence that just follows Adam West driving around town, but if that’s any indication as to how the rest of the movie plays out, it’s no wonder it was a box office disappointment. There were no “POW!”s or “WHAM!”s or even a call to go to “the generic silver cruiser!”

For the majority of the 1970s and ’80s, West continued making small appearances in TV  series or forgettable theatrical films, but he quickly found a new surge of popularity when he began doing voiceover work, especially when he played characters who were either goofy parodies of superheroes (Histeria!), washed up actors best known for playing goofy parodies of superheroes (Batman: The Animated Series), or deluded actors who really believe they’re superheroes (The Fairly OddParents).

It would have been so easy for him to have become embittered by the fact he was forever linked to one silly part he played when he was 38 years old, but instead he embraced it. He wasn’t afraid to tackle how being Batman simultaneously destroyed and created his career. Reportedly, the producers of Batman: The Animated Series considering scrapping the “Beware the Gray Ghost” episode that West guest-starred in, because they worried the character of the Gray Ghost was too much like West, but West insisted on carrying on and gave an emotional and touching performance.

And of course, who can forget all the various times he played grandiose versions of himself on The Simpsons30 Rock, Big Bang Theory, and Family Guy?

Okay, he wasn’t really playing himself on Family Guy, but the role was indicative of the wry, absurd sense of humor that West himself possessed. But the point is that people weren’t laughing at West anymore—they were laughing with him.

Although being Batman gave West so many opportunities, it’s tempting to wonder where his career would have gone if he never took the part of the Caped Crusader, or if his post-Batman career garnered more box office returns. We could speculate, but I think West himself would have told us not to bother.

At Comic Con 2014, he indicated to the crowd in attendance that being Batman was one of the best things to happen to him. “I look around and I see the adults — I see you grew up with me, and you believe in the adventure,” he said. “I never believed this would happen, that I would be up here with illustrious people like yourselves. I’m so grateful! I’m the luckiest actor in the world, folks, to have you still hanging around.”

At the time of his death, he had earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, appeared in almost 200 films and TV shows, was surrounded by friends and family, had a TVTrope named after him, and just wrapped up production of the 2017 animated feature Batman vs. Two-Face, as well as a cameo on the recently cancelled NBC comedy Powerless.

There’s that saying that goes, “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman.” Adam West somehow managed to succeed at being both. Rest in peace, old chum.

Susan Velazquez

Susan is a recent college grad and writer who enjoys all things from the 1980s, snarking on dumb television, and reveling in celebrity gossip. Oh, and she has serious interests like reading historical fiction, getting involved in social issues, and consuming French fries.

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  • GreenLuthor

    Really have to wonder what would have happened if West had taken the Bond role in Diamonds Are Forever. Not only for his career, but for Roger Moore’s, as well…

    • Kenneth Morgan

      Over on an MST3K board, a poster remarked that, within about a month, we lost Moore, the fun Bond, and West, the fun Batman. Sad, really.

  • Kenneth Morgan

    You forgot a very funny cameo on “NewsRadio”, when we discovered one of West’s poorer career moves. And his turn as host of one of MST3K’s Turkey Day marathons, courtesy of his role in “Zombie Nightmare”.

  • Greenhornet

    There is an odd moment in “Topper” I’ve wondered about for years. When Constance Bennett is arguing in a night club with Cary Grant, she turns to an extra and says something.
    The thing is, that the man looks EXACTLY LIKE ADAM WEST! It couldn’t have been him because the man looks to be around 30, so who was it? A relative, maybe?