5 things to love about the '60s Batman TV show
The recent passing of Adam West (and in such close proximity to that of Sir Roger Moore!) has already led to a beautiful tribute to him being written on this site by one of my colleagues. So I’d like to take this opportunity to look back at the Batman TV series which aired on ABC from 1966-1968 and became West’s legacy. Specifically, I’ll look at five aspects that made the show, and by extension West, so endearing to millions.
1. The theme music
Despite the later films from Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan, I doubt there’s anybody that can think about music relating to Batman without hearing this show’s theme song in their minds, even for a brief moment. My oldest niece has even chanted it in the past.
Neal Hefti’s “Batman Theme” instantly told audiences at the beginning of each episode of the series that they were in for a fun time. The animated title sequences which accompanied the music added to the fun. It’s no surprise that this theme song has been endlessly parodied in the decades since.
2. The villains
Of all the superheroes (whether from Marvel Comics, Dark Horse, or the Caped Crusader’s own DC Comics), Batman has always had the best rogues gallery. One advantage that a TV series often has over a movie series is that it can take its time developing numerous characters. The series understood that and took full advantage of its format to give us plenty of Batman’s adversaries in all their flamboyant glory. Both Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith, to this day, remain the definitive takes on the Riddler and the Penguin, respectively. This is because, unlike the subsequent movies with Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Danny DeVito’s Penguin, the series allowed Gorshin and Meredith enough time to truly create these characters.
Then there was the Joker, played in the series by Cesar Romero. While Jack Nicholson and later Heath Ledger would become acclaimed for their takes on this character, Romero was the first to prove that a criminal wearing clown makeup could indeed pose a threat that only a superhero could deal with.
In addition, this series gave us not one, but three actresses playing Catwoman: Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether. All three were memorable in the role, showing great chemistry with West.
Newmar played Catwoman the most (in the show’s first two seasons), which is why she’s arguably the most remembered of the three actresses to play the role. But Kitt (who played Catwoman in the third season) and Meriwether (who played the role in the the 1966 theatrical film which premiered in between the show’s first two seasons) managed to be memorable in the role as well. Kitt’s Catwoman managed to break racial boundaries on TV at the same time that Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura was doing the same on Star Trek. While Meriwether only played the character in the movie, she did return in two subsequent episodes playing another character who, like Catwoman, was a love interest for Bruce Wayne. All three actresses did memorable work with the role because, unlike the Catwomen played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Anne Hathaway, or Halle Berry, they were never overshadowed by confusing plot lines or less interesting villains.
Like many later Batman films, this series often had some of its villains team up against our hero. Indeed, the 1966 theatrical film had Batman fighting the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. The good news is these villainous team ups were always fun, with each bad guy having their chance in the spotlight.
There were also Bat-villains that were made specifically for the series. Of these, my favorite is Egghead, played by Vincent Price. The character was a bald-headed mastermind with a penchant for placing the prefix “egg” on any words he could (such as “egg-xactly”, “egg-xchange”, “egg-xplitives”, and “egg-xquisite”). Price had already become a legend by the time this series premiered, hence he was already known for his on-screen villainy. His genius in playing bad guys was, in part, due to how he was clearly having the time of his life whenever he was acting villainous on screen. Egghead was certainly one of the finest examples of that, making Price a perfect fit for this series.
3. The cliffhangers
For the first two seasons of the series, Batman aired two episodes on consecutive nights each week. The first episode would always end with Batman and Robin being captured and about to be done away with by the Bat-villain of the week. An announcer (Batman series creator William Dozier, who wasn’t credited for the narration) would then wonder if this would be the end of the Dynamic Duo before advising viewers to tune into the next episode, “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”
Yes, the desperate situation would be resolved within the first five minutes of the next episode, but this method succeeded in making the audience want to see that next episode.
Cliffhanger serials had been a staple of cinema throughout the 1920s-’50s, before the rise of television basically brought them to an end. There were even Batman serials in the 1940s. But while TV shows even in the ’60s occasionally had two-part episodes, none during that period could generate the wonderful sense of anticipation that Batman did for the next installment. Looking back today, one could argue that Batman doing this would pave the way for cliffhangers on future series, such as Dallas and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The show would air only once a week during its final season, with mainly self-contained stories. But the episodes would end with a tag announcing the villain Batman would lock horns with the following week, once again whetting our appetites for the next installment.
While some comic fans hate the fact that Batman’s sidekick even exists, there’s no doubt that this character became Watson to Batman’s Holmes. As played by Burt Ward, Dick Grayson/Robin was a nice compliment to West’s Batman/Bruce Wayne. Some may hate how often he said, “Holy (insert word), Batman!” Heck, Batman Forever even parodied this. But I must admit, I did have fun trying to figure out how many times Robin could express astonishment in that way (turns out it was a lot, and happened in pretty much every episode).
That aside, West and Ward never failed to show great teamwork during the show’s run, making the POWs! and OOOFs! that would appear on screen when our heroes fought bad guys endearing rather than insufferable. This helped make the show truly a comic book come to life.
Even when the show added Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (Yvonne Craig) in its third season to revive ratings, Ward’s chemistry with West remained strong. They made the show’s simplistic morality as effective to kids as any after-school special. Heck, I’d say even more so, because what kid wouldn’t want to watch an after-school special with superheroes as the main characters?
ABC cancelled the series after three seasons and 120 episodes because of poor ratings. But NBC was willing to pick up the show for a fourth year. Tragically, the sets for the show had already been torn down before that deal was finalized.
None of the four strong previous points would have made this show a success had it not had a strong anchor in the lead role. West never failed in making Batman heroic and noble. While some may argue that later Batmans had cooler-looking Bat-suits, West’s Bat-attire was the textbook example of how to look super-heroic. His Batman was a perfect reflection of the optimistic spirit of the ’60s, as well as how Batman was presented in the comics at that time. The character himself became more lighthearted during the 1950s and ’60s, mainly because of concerns that superhero comics would be blamed for the corruption of America’s youth and come to the same premature end as grisly comics such as The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. So, whether you liked West’s Batman or not, you can’t say he wasn’t being true to the character as the comics portrayed him at the time.
While later Batmans were noted for being “darker” (in other words, less family-friendly), West managed to bring fun to the role by embracing how campy the proceedings were. While we may poke fun at some of the dialogue, West read those lines like nobody’s business (besides, I’m sure there are some people who would love to have Shark Repellent Bat-Spray at their disposal). His charisma made people actually want to play Batman themselves, something that none of the previous or subsequent Bat-actors managed to duplicate. In fact, the only one who came close was Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Caped Crusader on Batman: The Animated Series, which aired on Fox from 1992-1995.
West himself would voice a character on that series. In addition, he voiced Batman on several animated shows. This illustrates how, despite initial attempts to move past his superhero role, West would eventually embrace his legacy as Batman. This was proven when he and Ward played both themselves and their TV personas in the 2003 TV movie Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt. Gorshin, Newmar, and Meriwether also appeared in the film, which revolves around the heroes’ attempt to retrieve the Batmobile they used on their show after it gets stolen. The film itself is a wonderful look at how not only the title characters, but the whole cast could laugh at and embrace who they were.
As a result, West would continue to entertain and inspire millions.
Farewell, old chum! You shall be missed, and thanks for giving the world such great entertainment.