Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Late Great Adam West

Over the years many actors have had a significant impact on my life, so many that I probably could not name all of them at once. Perhaps no actor had as large an impact on my life as Adam West did. He was not necessarily my favourite actor of all time (although he certainly numbered among them), but I cannot think of any other actor who had quite the same effect on my life. Quite simply, Batman was the first show of which I was ever a fan. It debuted when I was only three years old and, after a little over two years on the air, it aired in reruns across the nation throughout my childhood. As a fan of the TV show Batman I quite naturally started reading comic books as soon as I could read. In fact, I loved comic books so much I decided I wanted to write them. Eventually I would shift from wanting to write comic books to writing fiction and still later non-fiction. Ultimately, I think it is safe to say that it is because of Adam West as Batman that I became a writer. What is more, I know of other men my age who can tell the same story. Sadly, Adam West died yesterday at the age of 88 after a short battle with leukaemia.

Of course, Adam West was much more than just Batman. Fans of classic television will remember him from the many guest appearances he made on Warner Bros.' various shows in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He appeared on nearly all of them, from 77 Sunset Strip to Maverick. Older fans might remember him as Sgt. Steve Nelson on the TV show The Detectives. Younger fans might remember him as Mayor Adam West on the animated series Family Guy. While Mr. West will always be remembered best as the Caped Crusader, he actually did much more in his career.

Adam West was born William West Anderson on September 19 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington. His father was a wheat farmer, while his mother was a pianist and opera singer. He attended Walla Walla High School and then Lakeside School, a private school in Seattle. When he was a senior in high school he worked for a local radio station, where he handled everything from being a disc jockey to reading the news to Sunday morning religious shows. At the same time he appeared in plays at a local theatre. Mr.West attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in literature. He did postgraduate work in communications at Stanford University. While at Stanford University he worked at the university radio station.

In the early Fifties Adam West entered the United States Army and served in the Signal Corps. He helped set up TV stations at bases in San Luis Obispo, California, and Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and he also served as an announcer on the Armed Forces Network. After his service in the Army, Adam West took a job at a radio station in Sacramento, California before moving to Hawaii. There he was the co-host of the children's TV show The El Kini Popo Show with a chimp named Peaches. Among the highlights of his time on the show was getting to interview actor William Holden.

After several years in Hawaii, Adam West moved to Hollywood. It was there that he chose the stage name "Adam West". He took the name "West" because it was a family name and he simply liked the sound of the name "Adam". Hollywood agent Lew Sherrell spotted Mr. West in a production of Picnic at a community theatre. He set up a screen test for Mr. West and as a result he was signed to a contract by Warner Bros.

Adam West made his network television debut in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1954 (curiously enough, it was titled "The Joker"). He made his film debut in an uncredited role in Voodoo Island in 1957. Signed to Warner Bros. in the late Fifties and early Sixties he appeared in several of their films and TV shows. He appeared in the film The Young Philadelphians (1959) alongside Robert Vaughn, who would eventually play Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He appeared on several of Warner Bros.' television shows, including Lawman, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, Bronco, Colt .45, 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, and Bourbon Street Beat. He seemed to be Warner Bros.' choice for playing legendary gunfighter and dentist Doc Holliday, as he guest starred in the role on no less than three of their Westerns: Lawman, Sugarfoot, and Colt .45.

Adam West eventually left Warner Bros. after which he continued to make frequent guest appearances on such TV shows as Johnny Midnight, Overland Trail, Goodyear Theatre, and Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. He began the Sixties with guest appearances on such shows as Tales of Wells Fargo, Bonanza, Michael Shayne, and The Rifleman. In 1961 he received his first regular role on a television series, playing Sgt. Steve Nelson on the final season of The Detectives. Following The Detectives Mr. West guest starred on several shows, including such shows as Perry Mason, The Real McCoys, Laramie, Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, The Outer Limits, Bewitched, and The Virginian. He starred in the legendary TV pilot Alexander the Great opposite William Shatner. He also appeared in feature films, including Geronimo (1962), Tammy and the Doctor (1963), Soldier in the Rain (1963), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), The Outlaws Is Coming (1965), and I 4 inesorabili (1965).

In addition to making frequent guest appearances on TV shows and appearing in feature films in the early to mid-Sixties, Adam West also appeared in television commercials. In 1964 he appeared as a father of a little girl in a commercial for Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes. More significant would be a commercial for Nestlé Quik in which he appeared in 1965. The commercial was a sly parody of James Bond with Adam West playing the dry-witted Captain Q. The advertisement attracted the attention of producer William Dozier, who was then in the process of putting together a TV show based on the long running comic book feature "Batman". After a screen test with newcomer Burt Ward as Robin, Adam West won the role of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman.

Batman proved to be the smash hit of the 1965-1966 season.  Airing twice a week, the debut episode on Wednesday, January 12 1966, received a phenomenal  27.3/49 rating in the Nielsens. The Thursday night episode performed even better, getting a  29.6/59 rating. The show was still doing phenomenally well a month after its debut. For the week ending February 13 1965 it received a  28.5 rating. To give one an idea of just how large the audience for Batman was, today's top rated drama, NCIS, only managed a still respectable rating of 21.34 during its peak in the 2012-2014 season.

Batman not only proved to be one of the biggest television successes of the Sixties, but it also became an outright fad. There was so much Batman merchandise on store shelves that both Sears and Montgomery Ward had to dedicate multiple pages of their catalogues to Bat-paraphernalia. An exclusive soundtrack album for the TV show was released, and "The Batman Theme" by the Neal Hefti Orchestra was released as a single. The theme was also covered by such diverse acts as The Marketts, The Standells, and The Who. Adam West also appeared as Batman on other ABC shows. He appeared as Batman on The Milton Berle Show. Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin hosted ABC's preview special for their 1966-1967 season as well. A feature film was even spun off from the series. Batman was released on July 30 1966.

Unfortunately Batman would not maintain such impressively high ratings for long. When it returned for the 1966-1967 season its ratings were still respectable, but not nearly as high as they were. It lost its time slot to The Virginian on NBC. Worse yet, its ratings would continue to slide throughout the season. In attempt to save the show, the producers introduced a new character, Batgirl (played by Yvonne Craig), even shooting a presentation film for her. ABC renewed Batman on the strength of that presentation film, although it was cut back to once a week. Sadly, even Batgirl could not save Batman. ABC cancelled the show in the wake of still falling ratings. Its last original episode aired on March 14 1968.

Following the cancellation of Batman, Adam West found himself typecast.  He guest starred on The Big Valley in 1968. In 1969 he appeared in the film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969). Reportedly Mr. West was offered the role of James Bond in the film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), but turned it down because he thought Bond should be British.

The Seventies would not be a pleasant time for Adam West. He appeared in the films The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971), Curse of the Moon Child (1972), Partizani (1974), The Specialist (1975), Hooper (1978), and The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980). He also appeared in several TV movies, including The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), Poor Devil (1973), and Nevada Smith (1975). He guest starred on such TV shows as Night Gallery, Alias Smith and Jones, Alice, Police Woman, Operation Petticoat, and The American Girls. He would return to the role of Batman during the decade was well. He provided the voice of the character in the Saturday morning cartoon The New Adventures of Batman and played the character in two TV specials titled Legends of the Superheroes. While Batman had proven to be a hit as a syndicated rerun, Adam West got little in the way of residuals. To make ends meet he often appeared in the Batman costume at county fairs, rodeos, and store openings. Perhaps the lowest point of his career came when he was shot out of a cannon in costume at the  Hadi Shrine Circus in Evansville, Indiana in November 1977.

To a degree the Eighties would be better for Adam West. During the 1985-1986 season he starred as Capt. Rick Wright in the short-lived sitcom The Last Precinct. He also starred in the title role of the unsold pilot Ace Diamond Private Eye. He voiced Batman on the "SuperFriends" Saturday morning cartoons SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. He guest starred on the TV shows Laverne & Shirley; The Love Boat; Hart to Hart; Fantasy Island; Murder, She Wrote; Zorro; and The Flash.  He appeared in the films One Dark Night (1982), Hell Riders (1984), Yellow Pages (1995), Young Lady Chatterley II (1985), Zombie Nightmare (1987), Night of the Kickfighters (1988), Doin' Time on Planet Earth (1988), Return Fire (1988), Mad About You (1989), and Omega Cop (1990).

The Nineties would see Adam West's career revitalised. He starred in the 1991 television pilot Lookwell, often counted among the best unsold pilots ever. In 2000 he began his long run on Family Guy as the voice of Mayor Adam West. He had a recurring role on the short lived comedy anthology Danger Theatre. He was a regular voice on the animated series The Secret Files of the SpyDogs. He was also a guest voice on Batman: The Animated Series, playing actor Simon Trent and the hero he had played on television, The Grey Ghost. He was also a guest voice on the animated shows Rugrats, The Critic, Johnny Bravo, Animaniacs, and Histeria!. Mr. West starred in the Comedy Central soap opera spoof The Clinic. He guest starred on such TV shows as Tales from the Crypt, The Good Life, Nurses, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Hope & Gloria, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Burke's Law, Pauly, The Wayan Brothers, Murphy Brown, Diagnosis Murder, NewsRadio, and Pacific Blue. He appeared in the films Maxim Xul (1991), The New Age (1994), Run for Cover (1995), The Size of Watermelons (1996), An American Vampire Story (1997), Joyride (1997), and Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). He provided the voice of Leonard Fox in the animated short "Redux Riding Hood".

The Naughts may well have seen Adam West at his busiest since the Sixties. He continued as the voice of Mayor West on Family Guy. He had a recurring role as Breathtaker on the TV series Black Scorpion. He had a recurring role as the voice of Mayor George on the animated series The Batman. He was a recurring voice (as himself, no less) on the animated series The Fairly OddParents. He guest starred on the TV shows The Drew Carey Show, The Mullets, The King of Queens, George Lopez, and 30 Rock.  Alongside Burt Ward he starred in the TV movie Return to the Batcave. He was a guest voice on the animated shows The Simpsons, Kim Possible, The Boondocks, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. He appeared in the films Seance (2001), "From Heaven to Hell" (2002), Baadasssss! (2003), Tales from Beyond (2004), Buckaroo: The Movie (2005), Angels with Angles (2005), Sexina (2007), and Super Capers: The Origins of Ed and the Missing Bullion (2009). He provided voices for the animated films Chicken Little (2005) and Meet the Robinsons (2007).

In the Teens Adam West continued on Family Guy. He guest starred on the shows The Big Bang Theory and Powerless. He was a guest voice on the animated shows Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero. and Moonbeam City. He was the voice of Batman in the animated film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016). The film reunited him with Burt Ward. He also provided the voice of Batman in the upcoming film Batman vs. Two-Face (2017), which again reunited him with Burt Ward.

I think there can be no doubt that Adam West will always be identified with Batman. It has often been said that the Sixties were dominated by Three Bs: The Beatles, Bond, and Batman. The show was certainly one of the biggest fads of the decade. And while Batman only lasted a little over two years, it would have continued success in syndication. To this day it still airs on TV stations and cable channels around the world. Much of the show's success rests with Adam West's performance as the Caped Crusader. The show was meant to be high comedy for adults and high adventure for children. To that end Adam West played Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman completely straight. Viewers of the show might find its situations totally absurd, but Adam West as Batman took them entirely seriously. In this regard it was one of the most brilliant comedies of all time, and its lead played his role brilliantly.

Of course, Adam West was much more than the Caped Crusader. Before his stint on Batman he made numerous guest appearances on television. He even played villains from time to time. In the Laramie episode "The Betrayers" he played cold-hearted outlaw Kett Darby, about as far from Batman as one could get. The Big Valley episode "In Silent Battle", made after Adam West had donned the cape and cowl, was even further from the Caped Crusader. Mr. West played Major Jonathan Eliot, a Civil War veteran who is an outright psychopath. And while Adam West may forever be known as the extremely straight-laced Batman, he could be charming and debonair in other roles. After all, he played the very Bondish Captain Q in that famous commercial for Nestlé Quik. In the 77 Sunset Strip episode "Thanks for Tomorrow" he played gambler Lonnie Drew. On Petticoat Junction he guest starred as Dr. Depew's handsome assistant Dr. Clayton Harris.

 Arguably Adam West was at his best playing comedy. Indeed, what may be his two most famous roles were in comedies: the extremely square Batman in Batman and the eccentric, often corrupt Mayor West on Family Guy. Lookwell numbers among the funniest unsold pilots ever made, in a large part due to Mr. West. While it did not run long, The Last Precinct was also a very fine comedy. Adam West definitely had a gift for comedy. His delivery was often perfect and his timing impeccable. Even in interviews Mr. West could be a very funny man, delivering one-liners that would make many experienced comics envious.

In the end Adam West will always be known best as Batman. And it was largely that role that shaped his career after 1966. That having been said, over the years he played many more roles and he played them well. He may always be best known as Batman, but he did much more.

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