The TV star who made Batman a camp classic
Adam West 1928–2017
With his classically chiseled features, Adam West might have been just another one of those bland leading men who proliferated in the 1960s. Instead, he became a camp icon in Batman, which burst onto TV screens in 1966, burned out after three seasons, andleft a gaudy mark on pop culture. West played the clean-cut, milk-drinking millionaire Bruce Wayne, who secretly doubles as the Caped Crusader and battles crime in Gotham City with his ward Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Boy Wonder. Acting alongside a rotating cast of scenery-chomping “special guest villains”— including Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Cesar Romero’s Joker—West proved a flawless straight man with his deadpan delivery and sonorous baritone. He later struggled with typecasting but ultimately embraced his alter ego. “How many actors get a chance to create a signaturerole?” West asked. “Not many.”
Born in Walla Walla, Wash., West was a farmer’s son, said The New York Times. After college, he joined the Army, and “worked in radio and helped create military television stations.” West’s acting career began in Hawaii, where he co-starred with a chimpanzee on a TV variety show and made 1957’s Voodoo Island, “a zombieladen horror movie starring Boris Karloff.” Moving to Hollywood, West guested on Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, “and just about every Western on television,” and appeared in nearly a dozen films—including 1959’s The Young Philadelphians, opposite Paul Newman. Batman was “a garishly bold supernova,” said The Washington Post, with psychedelic sets, skewed camera angles, and fistfights graphically represented with comic book–style captions— “Zap!” “Pow!” and “Bam!” West was “like a Shakespearean actor who wandered into a slapstick routine,” anchoring the zaniness with just the hint of a wink under his unsmiling façade.
West’s career slumped after Batman, and he was relegated to “schlocky B films,” said The Guardian (U.K.). He later applied his comic timing to selfspoofing cameos on The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, and to a 14-year run on Family Guy voicing an insanely corrupt mayor—named Adam West. But Batman endured, living on in reruns, something West had predicted. “I would tell [Batman castmates], ‘I want you please to make this moment, this scene, the best of your life,’” he recalled. “Because this show will be lasting.”