Deadpool, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange…as even a cursory glance at this year’s movie calendar will show you, Hollywood’s–and the audience’s–obsession with comic book-based films show little sign of weakening. Add in television, video games and other fields of entertainment (with the possible exception of the books themselves, whose sales in our post-printed page society have been declining for decades), and it’s clear that the public has yet to tire of costumed superheroes. It may seem like a fairly recent trend, stretching back to the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies in 2000-01 or perhaps to the summer of 1989 debut of Tim Burton’s Batman film. In truth, though, today’s cinematic costumed crime-fighters can thank a good deal of their success to a tongue-in-check, twice-weekly romp that debuted a half-century ago today.
That’s right, Bat-fans: January 12, 2016 marks the golden anniversary of Adam West and Burt Ward’s debut as Gotham City’s Caped Crusaders in ABC’s Batman TV series, the first half of a two-part story featuring Frank Gorshin as “Special Guest Villain” The Riddler. The show was an immediate success with viewers of all ages, from youngsters like a seven-year-old yours truly–to whom the Dynamic Duo’s exploits were straightforward adventure, to older watchers who saw the proceedings as camp fun (West himself has never been a fan of the “c-word,” stating that the show’s humor came from its earnestness rather than cheesiness).
Within weeks of its premiere, Batman was one of the few hit programs on the ABC network. It was also a pop culture phenomenon, launching a dance craze (the “Batusi,” revived by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction) and spurring a renewed interest in superhero comics, from Batman’s home, DC Comics, to the nascent Marvel line and several smaller companies. Meanwgile, it inspired a merchandising boom that included coloring books, trading cards, lunchboxes, posters, action figures, plastic models, board games, kid-size capes and cowls, and hundreds of other items. And it led to the release in the summer of 1966 of a feature-length film with the TV cast, a film which was to have opened before the series and served to introduce the characters (ABC had just had another of its typically disastrous fall roll-outs in 1965 and needed to fill airspace as quickly as possible).
The “Batmania” craze–and the show that inspired it–ultimately lasted just a few years. By the 1967-68 campaign ratings were slipping, and the third-season introduction of Yvonne Craig as distaff do-gooder Batgirl didn’t stop ABC from cutting the show down to one episode per week and ultimately cancelling it after three seasons.
To honor the Dynamic Duo’s never-ending fight for justice, we’d like to present a selection of random Bat-Facts about everyone’s favorite millionaire playboy, his youthful ward, the other residents of Stately Wayne Manor, and their Gotham City friends and foes:
- Among those who were considered for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman was The Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner, who would later play another DC Comics character–Col. Steve Trevor–on the mid-’70s Wonder Woman series. Another almost-caped crusader was future film Tarzan Mike Henry, who was nearly cast when the series was in pre-production by another company as a more serious venture.
- When it came to casting the show’s villains, the producers had their pick from among some of Hollywood’s biggest names, from Tallulah Bankhead and Vincent Price to Liberace and Cliff Robertson. Supposedly, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Natalie Wood were among the celebrities who wanted to at least make a cameo appearance. One star who came at too high a price, though, was Spencer Tracy, who was sought to play that monocled master of fowl play, The Penguin. It’s said that the notoriously cantankerous Tracy was up for the role…but only if Penguin could actually kill Batman in the episode! After Mickey Rooney passed on the part, the umbrella was passed on to Burgess Meredith.
- So, which member of the Dynamic Duo’s rogues gallery made the most appearances on the show? That honor goes to Meredith’s Penguin, who waddled his way onto 20 episodes (not counting cameos). The Joker, “deliciously” delineated by Cesar Romero, comes in a close second with 19, with Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman with 14 and The Riddler, played by Gorshin and John Astin, at 11. It’s worth noting that Kitt’s sensual third-season purr-formances as Catwoman marked the first and only instance that Batman and Robin faced off against an African-American supervillain, at a time when recurring black characters were still something of a novelty on prime-time TV.
- That count for The Riddler, by the way, nearly stood at 12. But when Frank Gorshin was unavailable (due, some say, to a contract dispute) in the second season, a Riddler script was rewritten and the character morphed into The Puzzler, based on a minor Superman villain and portrayed by Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius in the original Planet of the Apes).
- Along with the four major villains, The Mad Hatter and Mr. Freeze (originally Mr. Zero in the comics) were the only Bat-antagonists to make the transition intact from paper to TV. The other bad guys were either created specifically for the show (Shame, Ma Parker, King Tut, and my personal favorite, The Bookworm, for example) or loosely based on other DC foes (the aforementioned Puzzler and Clock King, borrowed from Green Arrow).
- Some of the Batman villains who could have been used but didn’t make it to the tube: Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Killer Moth (who turned up in an unaired pilot to introduce Batgirl), and Clayface. The best-known baddie to not appear, Two-Face, was the adversary in a script written by noted author Harlan Ellison. But, due to Ellison’s less-than-congenial relationship with a certain ABC executive (look up the story online sometme, it’s a hoot), his script never made it before the camera.
- Some in the comics community lamented the less-than-serious tone of the TV show, but it was instrumental in bringing back a key member of the Bat-family to the books. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, was killed saving Batman and Robin from being crushed to death in a 1964 issue of Detective Comics (that same story also introduced Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet Cooper). Portrayed in the series by veteran British actor Alan Napier, Alfred gained new-found popularity and led the editors at DC to bring the faithful manservant back to life (trust me, that sort of thing happens all the time in comics) in late 1966.
- The stentorian voice of the show’s narrator (“Meanwhile, at Stately Wayne Manor…”) was none other than series producer William Dozier’s. After auditioning several actors to serve as narrator, Dozier decided to take on the job himself. He must have enjoyed himself, as he performed the same role on 1966-67’s The Green Hornet and later parlayed the gig into a minor acting career (that’s him as Lauren Hutton’s lawyer in American Gigolo).
- For all you completists out there, any idea how many different fight scene sound effects popped up on the screen during the show’s run? There were 84 of them, from “Aieee!’ to “Zzzzwap!” (with some multiple spellings).
- How about the number of “Holy…!” exclamations Robin made? Would you believe 352, from “Holy Agility!” to “Holy Zorro!”?
- And then there were the guest stars who would pop their heads out of windows, interrupting Batman and Robin on their Bat-rope climb up the sides of buildings. They were, in alphabetical order: Dick Clark, Bill Dana (as José Jimenez), Sammy Davis, Jr., future Bat-villain Howard Duff, The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee), Don Ho, gossip columnist Suzy Knickerbocker, Jerry Lewis, Art Linkletter, rug merchant Cyril (Carpet King) Lord, Lurch (Ted Cassidy) from The Addams Family, Edward G. Robinson, and Santa Claus (played by Andy Devine)…plus, in a strange inter-network crossover, Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer) from Hogan Heroes.
- Although ABC canceled the series at the end of season three, Batman almost made it to a fourth year. In the summer of 1968 NBC expressed interest in picking up the series. Sadly, that bit of news came two week after the producers demolished the massive (and expensive) Batcave sets, and the network didn’t feel like picking up the costs of rebuilding them.
- Four years after the TV series ended, Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig donned their tights once again for a Department of Labor TV PSA in which Batgirl shows up to save a captive Batman and Robin–but first lets them know that, under the Equal Pay Act, she’s entitled to the same compensation as the Boy Wonder! Adam West, unfortunately, wasn’t available to play Batman; the actor behind the cowl here was none other than Get Smart’s Hymie the Robot, Dick Gautier.
- While they would pretty much remain typecast as Batman and Robin throughout their careers, West and Ward did reprise their roles, first in animated form in 1977’s The New Adventures of Batman, and later in a pair of live-action 1979 specials, Legends of the Superheroes, that were even campier and more juvenile than the ’60s series. Joining the Dynamic Duo were such four-color comrades as Black Canary, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Huntress, making these shows the biggest live-action gatherings of DC heroes to date.
For all its parodic style and light-hearted attitude, the Batman TV series did help to keep comic books popular from the mid-’60s well into the next decade, when the moody, somber Batman came back into vogue, and introduced a new generation of fans to the Darknight Detetective. To this day, even in an age of serious and more adult-oriented “graphic novel” fare, you still see media reports starting off with a cacophony of “Bam! Biff! Pow!” onomatopoeia (much like this very article), with allusions to assorted Bat-paraphernalia and “Holy!” puns. Yes, it was a goofier era. But, as recent superhero hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man showed, a little levity doesn’t necessarily hurt the drama. Adam and Burt, you were my first Batman and Robin, and for your earnest dedication to your duty, I thank you.
Do you have a favorite villain from the Batman TV series? If so, vote in MovieFanFare’s poll.
For a more detailed look at the 1966 Batman feature film and its quartet of bad guys, click here.