Sunday, September 20, 2009

Happy Batday, Adam West

Yesterday was Adam West's birthday. I forgot to send him a card.

West was born September 19, 1928, which makes it his 81st birthday, although the "Born On This Date" column in my local newspaper said 79. West is still working, still going to conventions, still greeting his adoring fans who have never forgotten his most famous role, Batman, from the 1966-67 ABC television series.

Like Beatlemania before it, Batmania swept the nation. The Batman producers had rightly sensed the comedic possibilities of a grown man and boy dressed in oddball costumes, fighting oddball villains. The force of the show was such that it glowed hot for a time and burned out quickly. But its fans never forgot it, either.

I always thought West played the character perfectly. He had the look of a distinguished gentleman, and as Bruce Wayne was the perfect millionaire, but played it much the same when he donned his costume. He was a fighter, but he was a gentleman fighter. The folks who created the Batman show also realized that instead of the Batman and Robin team being a straightman and funnyman, a la Abbott and Costello, that they would both be played as straightmen to the assortment of villains.

West acted with some of the top character actors of the day, Frank Gorshin as Riddler, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and my favorite Catwoman amongst a rotating cast for that role, Julie Newmar, whose sexiness was a direct counterpoint to Batman's square and non-sexual demeanor.

And speaking of sex, in the early 1950s when the nationwide anti-comics campaign was going on, in his book, Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., claimed that Batman and Robin of the comics were living in a homosexual fantasy. In 1966 the network censors would have been all over any references to a gay relationship and none was implied. Burt Ward, who played Robin, was older than Robin in the comic books, who looks more like he's 13 or 14 than Ward's twenty-something. Batman often refers to Robin as "old chum," which is far from an endearment.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, in his 1965 book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, grew up reading the earliest Batman comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He wrote that Batman was who he could grow up to be, but Robin was someone he was supposed to be right now. So he was glad to hear Batman and Robin were "fags." (Feiffer used that disparaging word in a less enlightened time.)

I wonder now, in retrospect, if gay people looked at the TV show as being a gay fantasy.

Batman as a show only lasted a short time, but lasted a long time in reruns. I don't think it's available now or it would be shown. It would still be popular today. It introduced the concept of camp, which is almost indescribable. The nearest I can come is something so bad it's good. I think it's more akin to the famous quote on pornography, "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it."

For the most part the producers of Batman succeeded in their campy quest, but there were some dud shows. I hated Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze and Vincent Price as Egghead with his awful egg puns, "Egg-zactly, Batman..." On the other hand, I don't know a normal male anywhere who wouldn't want Julie Newmar purring away at him while wearing that skintight costume.

West was able to parlay his stint as Batman into a career of a lifetime, appearing for years with Burt Ward in their costumes at public functions, and even now West appears at conventions or in public appearances and signs pictures of his 38-year-old self as Batman.

For American kids, Baby Boomers especially, no matter who plays Batman in the deadly serious Batman action movies, we'll always think of Adam West bounding into Commissioner Gordon's office like he was stepping onto a tennis court. We remember the "Be here tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel" exhortation of the announcer at the end of each show. We remember Batman doing the dance, the Batusi. We loved to watch Batman and Robin climbing up the side of a building, actually a set lying flat and then set to vertical by the camera, and see who popped out of the window. Every Hollywood type vied to be on Batman.

Adam West entered our consciousness forever as that character. So, even though it's a day late, happy birthday, Adam. Hope to see you next year, same Bat-day, same Bat-month.

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