“Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.” With those few words back in 1966 kids all over the world new that high adventure was at hand and that dynamic duo were about deal out swift justice to the colourful and kooky criminals of Gotham City.
Created by William Dozier this 1966 incarnation of Batman has led a turbulent history going from being the most popular show on television to later being thought of as horrible camp and a slap in the face to comic book fans, and now once again it’s being looked at fondly for what it was a fun and exciting comedy that anyone could enjoy no matter your age or inclination.
I was born the year this show first aired so I did not see it during its initial run but it has of course aired again and again over the years to either delight or appal its viewers, but when I saw it as a young boy I was simply enthralled. To me Adam West was Batman and I spent countless hours recreating his television adventures with my Mego toys as the world created by Dozier and company was bright, fun and all-together awesome to a five year old me. To this day I still hold that opinion. Sure Adam West is not the Batman Bob Kane envisioned back in 1939 nor is he the Great Detective of the Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams stories from the early seventies, but for many a young child he was a superhero come to life.
For me what makes this show still work is that no character on the show was playing it for laughs. Don’t get me wrong this show was a comedy and often contained legendary comic actors but there was never a wink at the camera, no matter how absurd the situation everyone played it straight. Leading the charge was actor Adam West who somehow managed to keep Batman’s dignity despite some of the bizarre things he was called on to do.
The world of Gotham City and Batman had two distinct faces, none of them sadly belonging to Harvey Dent, one world consisted of Police Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) who’d find themselves facing some dastardly crime and must call up the Dynamic Duo on the Bat Phone thus interrupting Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and Dick Grayson’s (Burt Ward) day of listening to Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake) prattle on about piano lessons while the ever stoic Alfred (Alan Napier) looked on. The other face of Gotham City being that of the criminal underworld; a collection of some of the craziest individuals to ever plan a caper, fiends who lived in a world full of vibrant colour and whose sole joy seemed to be in trying to thwart Batman. The use of the “Dutch Tilt” camera angles thus putting all scenes with the super-villains a little off kilter was pure genius.
Speaking of villains it is no way hyperbolic to say that Batman has the best rogues’ gallery in all of comic-dom. From the madness of The Joker to the sensual wiles of The Catwoman no other hero can lay a glove on Batman’s list of adversaries and the sixties Batman show did not stint on this.
The first episode “Hi Diddle Riddle” featured guest villain The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) whose dastardly plan hinged on suing Batman so that he’d be forced to reveal his true identity in court. I’d be hard pressed to name my favorite villain from this show, as there were so many brilliant actors giving incredible wild performances, but if push came to shove I’d have to name Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. His Riddler was the only villain on the show that came close to being scary. His manic laughter and wild cavorting made him seem truly dangerous and downright frightening at times. In counterpoint The Joker (Cesar Romero) seemed more like your drunken uncle trying to entertain at a kid’s party, not at all helped by Romero’s refusal to shave of his mustache and just pancake the white make-up over it.
Giving Frank Gorshin a run for his money was Burgess Meredith as The Penguin and like Gorshin’s character defining performance of the Riddler whenever I think of The Penguin it’s as he was portrayed so perfectly by Meredith that leaps to mind. From his trademark “Waugh-Waugh!” (Trivia: The Penguin squawking laugh came from the actor’s throat being irritated by cigarette smoke as Burgess Meredith had quit smoking twenty years ago) to his distinctive waddle he fully captured Gotham’s fowlest criminal.
Though the Riddler may have been the most dangerous of Batman’s foes and the Penguin the best dressed, on this show there was only one other that came the closest to ending the Caped Crusaders crime fighting days and that would be Catwoman (Julie Newmar). I’m not sure how many young boys watching this show got yanked into puberty while watching Julie Newman cavort around in that skin-tight cat-suit but between her and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman I bet they raised adolescent testosterone levels in North America by factor of sixty percent. Put simply she was sex on toast and if anyone was going to get Batman to hang up his cowl it would have been her. Now of course she wasn’t the only actress on the show to play Catwoman as Eartha Kitt provided a fantastic portrayal of the character for several episodes and actually came off a bit more threatening than either Julie Newmar or Lee Meriwether who played Catwoman in the movie, but the byplay between Adam West and Julie Newmar just had that extra bit of magic.
It is impossible to understate the pop culture phenomenon that was this show when it originally aired, Batmania had truly swept the globe. Actors clamored to land a spot as this week’s “Guest Villain” resulting in the show creating original rogues for the onslaught of actors wanting parts, thus we got the likes of Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter), Louie the Lilac (Milton Berle) Shame (Cliff Robertson) , Lorelei “The Siren” Circe (Joan Collins), Chandell/Fingers (Liberace), Egghead (Vincent Price) King Tut (Victor Buono) and the Bookworm (Roddy McDowal). Needless to say not all of these were winners and most were easily forgotten. To help include more actors clamoring for a spot on the show they introduced the bit where Batman and Robin would wall climb up a building via the BatRope and a celebrity would pop out of a window for a bit of a chat.
The Batman television show ran for three seasons and then was quietly cancelled when the ratings took a rather sharp turn for the worst. Some believe the joke had pretty much run its course and that the three years it had was a pretty good run for show of that type. That this Batman still remains popular today and not at all dated in my opinion, attests to all the talented people who worked so hard on it. Now after decades of waiting fans can finally re-watch these awesome adventures at their leisure and in stunningly beautiful high-definition, and if any show deserved this treatment it’s the sixties Batman as the colours just leap off the screen. Though Hi-Def does not do Cesar Romero’s “hidden” mustache any favors
• I loved that the show didn’t bother with origins. The series starts in the middle of Batman’s career with all his foes fully formed and out and about.
• Police Commissioner Gordon and his hapless police force don’t even try to solve a crime once they figure out it’s one of Batman’s villains at work.
• Aunt Harriet or any guest of Wayne Manor never seem to question a red phone in Bruce’s study.
• I really wish we could have gotten that Batgirl spin-off with Yvonne Craig.
• A lot of people tend to fall into the Bat Cave’s Atomic Pile.
• KA-POW! BAM! ZONK! BIFF! WHAM!
• The Batmobile in this show is the coolest version ever.
I love the Batman television series and sure some of that love is from looking at it through nostalgic coloured glasses but overall it really was a well put together show with a great cast and fantastic production design. I highly recommend getting this on Blu-ray as it is simply gorgeous.
Batman: The Complete Series
If any show was a product of the sixties it’s this one, with its far out colours and pantheon of wild characters this show was an acid trip in a box.