July 27, 2008
West Was the ‘Bright Knight’
By John Beifuss Scripps Howard News Service
Nobody thought to call Adam West's Batman a "Dark Knight."The screen Batman of the 1960s was pop, not noir; the Joker he battled was not an "agent of chaos" but an icon of camp.
"People ask me about the new Batman movie, which I haven't seen, but I've seen bits and pieces of it, and the trailer and some of the ads, and my only impression at the moment is that if you like anarchy and nihilism and Gotham City in desperation, you might enjoy this," said West, 79, now a regular character as "Mayor Adam West" on the hit Fox animated series "Family Guy."
In other words, if Burt Ward's Robin had been among the thousands who watched the grim adventures of "The Dark Knight" this past weekend, he might have exclaimed: Holy bummer!
Said West, in a recent telephone interview from Santa Monica, Calif.: "My feeling is, they have their Dark Knight -- I'm the Bright Knight."
Paired with Ward, who portrayed Batman's "Boy Wonder" sidekick, West starred as the Caped Crusader from 1966 to 1968 in 120 episodes of the ABC-TV series "Batman" and in a spinoff movie, also titled "Batman."
Sometimes called "Batman: The Movie" for promotion purposes, the 1966 film was released on Blu-ray and on a "Special Edition" DVD on July 1 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
The release obviously was timed to ride the capetails of "The Dark Knight"; in fact, the misleading packaging and advertising for the new discs exploit the connection.
A color ad for the Blu-ray release that has been running in Entertainment Weekly magazine darkens the figure of West-as-Batman into a near silhouette, and it places this newly spooky character against an ominous sky filled with bats. Any "Dark Knight" fans unfamiliar with West's Batman who fall for this ad will be shocked when they discover that the movie they've bought showcases a Batman in unflattering tights rather than high-tech body armor and a Joker (Cesar Romero) who actually is more clown than psycho.
They'll also find a movie that begins with an onscreen dedication to "lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment (and) lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre."
At the height of its popularity, "Batman" was a true 1960s pop- cultural phenomenon, like the Beatles, James Bond, "Laugh-In" and the "Peanuts" comic strip. The series spawned numerous imitations, merchandise items and homages. The TV series ostensibly was aimed at kids, but it remains popular because it also worked on an adult level, with camp humor, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, political satire (in one episode, Batman and the Penguin battle at the ballot box, to become mayor of Gotham City) and the all-star roster of guest villains played by veterans of the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Vincent Price (Egghead), Tallulah Bankhead (Black Widow) and George Sanders, Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach (all of whom portrayed Mr. Freeze).
Another popular foe was Julie Newmar as Catwoman.
The gimmick of director Leslie H. Martinson's 1966 movie was that it united Batman's four most popular foes -- Penguin, Joker, Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (former Miss America Lee Meriwether, replacing Newmar) -- in a scheme to reduce the world's leaders to "dehydrated" piles of dust.
In the words of Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton): "Penguin, Joker, Riddler and Catwoman, too -- the sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate." Or, as Robin puts it: "Holy nightmare!" (During the course of the movie, the Boy Wonder also exclaims "Holy Captain Nemo!,""Holy Merlin the Magician!" and - - when a shark grabs Batman by the leg-- "Holy sardine!")
West said people still quote lines from his "Batman" movie to him.
"Like ... the scene on the pier when Batman's running around with the bomb and he can't get rid of it. Because there's a duck, and there's a baby buggy, and there are nuns and there's a Salvation Army parade. I was set up beautifully for the final line, which is, 'Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"'
Plucked to be Batman after producers spotted him as a James Bond- esque character called "Captain Quik" in a Nestle's Quik commercial, West already was a screen (not to mention Army) veteran who had a small role in a Boris Karloff movie, "Voodoo Island," in 1957, and starred in a Three Stooges feature, "The Outlaws Is Coming!," in 1965.
"To play the leading man in a Three Stooges movie, you've got to think funny," West said. "Thank God I think funny."
In 1995, Ward wrote a tell-all book called "Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights," which depicted the era of Batmania as a time of rock- star-like, nonstop sexcapades for West and Ward.
"He made me sound like a cross between King Kong and Errol Flynn," said West of Ward's book, which he has characterized as "baloney." As a corrective, West suggests people read his own memoir, "Back to the Batcave," co-written with Jeff Rovin. He also maintains his own Web site, adamwest.com.
As he nears his 80th birthday on Sept. 19, West is as busy as he's ever been. On Fox's "Family Guy," he provides the voice (and likeness) for a cartoon version of himself, "Mayor Adam West," mayor of Quahog, R.I.
"I've always been able to work," West said. "I think it's an actor's obligation to keep working if you can ...
"There are so many parents now who come up with their children, certain ages, who have introduced them to our Batman, and they've watched the movie -- our movie -- over and over. And then there are those who hear me on 'The Fairly Oddparents' (a Nickelodeon cartoon series), who are even younger, or 'Family Guy,' and they're a little older, because that's pretty cutting-edge and absurd. ... Now I have four generations (of fans). It's wonderful. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
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