While Adam West was been best known for puncturing nearly every stereotype of the classically stoic superhero, somehow it was impossible to see him as a mere mortal, vulnerable as all human beings are to the passage of time itself. Though not technically the very first live-action Batman–two black-and-white movie serials did it first–he was the first to leave a massive pop-cultural footprint, one that he lived long enough to see first typecast him and then make him an icon to generations. The news that one of our first great TV superheroes was felled by a short bout with leukemia hardly seems possible; surely there was some magically medical Batspray, or a way he could “Bif! Zap! Pow!” his way out again. It was not to be.
West began his TV career as an announcer on the U.S. Army’s American Forces Network, and got his start in westerns, including one with the Three Stooges called The Outlaws Is Coming(which can be seen in its entirety for free on YouTube):
In 1963 he costarred opposite William Shatner (and John Cassavetes!) in an Alexander the Great TV movie, little knowing that three years later, both would go on to define larger-than-life, humorously over-dramatic, square-jawed leading men of action not just for that generation of TV fans, but every one thereafter. But while it took Shatner a decade or two to embrace self-parody, West was in on the joke immediately, playing the colorful caped crusader as a poker-faced undercover lawman who took his responsibility to model justice and ’50s-style family values absolutely seriously, even as the world around him was an absurd confection of pop-art.
While West dealt with typecasting after the initial Batman series went off the air, starting in 1977 he began to play the role again in multiple animated shows, buoyed by the pop culture conventions that were becoming a fixture of the landscape, and that first generation of children who’d loved him growing up with fond memories. When the Tim Burton Batmanmovie came out, he was mocked for insisting that he should still have been allowed to play the role; this, however, arguably led to the development of a new persona as “himself”; the character of “Adam West,” as played by Adam West, appeared frequently as a guest star on various shows as a comically clueless aging actor who still believed he was an actual superhero, but again, West was in on the joke.
Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel even tried to build him a whole show around that notion in 1991.
In the end, though, it was Seth MacFarlane who gave the Adam West persona its longest life as Mayor Adam West on Family Guy, where he played himself as a clueless, comically crooked politician who spouted nonsense and delusional ravings with utter sincerity.
His return to the role of the 1966 Batman in animated form last year in Return of the Caped Crusaders was a delight to fans young and old, and we still have its sequel to look forward to, in which Shatner will play Two-Face. As his last movie, it will be a fitting swan-song, and while his signature show frequently made a joke of the word “Holy,” it will join the canon of what, for many, is one of the most sacred superhero interpretations of all time.
Rest in peace, Batman.
Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment