As I write this it has been about 30 minutes since I learned of the passing of Adam West and I find that it has hit me hard. West is an actor who has a great body of work behind him and I would never want to sell his accomplishments short but I am going to focus on his performance as Batman. That is how I first discovered Adam West and that is what I most admire him for.
Growing up in the United Kingdom of the 80s many children would watch a weekly morning kids show called The Wide Awake Club on ITV. As well as launching the television careers of such broadcasting legends as Michaela Strachen and Timmy Mallet they would also show the 1966 Batman and this was how I discovered that the character of Batman existed. I watched enraptured at the adventures of this hero who believed in justice and the law as he and his boy sidekick would fight a variety of colourful villains. I remember the joy of discovering the film. Myself and my sisters would regularly play out the climactic battle together imagining we were fighting villains on the deck of the Penguin’s submarine. Batman loomed large in my childhood.
It wasn’t until many years later that I saw the show again, this time repeated on ITV 4. I fell in love with it all over again as I saw that there was another level that was there all the time that my childhood self couldn’t see. That was always part of the secret to Batman‘s success. To the kids watching it was a straight superhero show with fistfights and danger. To the adults watching it was a hilarious comedy and a lot of that was down to the perfectly judged, deadpan performance of Adam West. He was earnest enough that as a child you totally believed in him as a hero and as an adult saw how ridiculous it was to be that earnest while wearing that costume. That is such a difficult tightrope to walk and yet Adam West made it look effortless.
I would contend that there is a case that Adam West is the single most influential person on the character and franchise of Batman. Before the TV series the comics were not in great health and while the character had been reinvigorated by Julius Schwartz it was when Batmania swept the nation that sales further increased and the comics started to more directly emulate what the TV show was doing. In the 70s creators like Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams went to great lengths to distance the character from the West’s interpretation and the camp tone of the show. Characters like Ra’s al Ghul were created as a direct reaction against Batman and to take the comics into a era that was darker and more gothic. Without Batman to react against the comics may not have gone in that direction and Ra’ al Ghul might not have been created.
Through the 70s and 80s Batman kept the character in the popular consciousness via regular repeat broadcasts. It became the gateway drug that hooked new generations onto the character before they discovered the comics. It was due to my love of the character via the TV series that at age 12 I was waiting excitedly outside a cinema to see Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. All the publicity was very keen for people to know that this definitely wasn’t going to be the same as the Adam West show. The reason that they had to make this clear is that, to the non comic reading general public, Adam West was still Batman more than 20 years after the show had been cancelled. He was the only version of Batman a lot of the movie going public knew.
His influence was again felt in Batman: The Animated Series when West appeared in the episode Beware the Gray Ghost. In this episode it is revealed that a Bruce Wayne was influenced by a TV superhero called The Gray Ghost. The actor who played him, Simon Trent, has fallen on hard times after struggling to find work after the show was cancelled. When Batman encounters a series of bombings that seem based on an episode of the TV show Batman approaches Trent for help. While initially resistant to the idea Trent eventually agrees and even dons The Gray Ghost costume to work alongside Batman. Trent is hailed as a hero for his part in foiling the bombings and a new generation discovers The Gray Ghost leading to resurgence in Trent’s popularity. This episode has obvious parallels with Adam West’s own career and his relationship with the character of Batman. West himself gives a beautifully understated performance as Simon Trent and it was wonderful that the series acknowledged West as one of the influences on Batman as a whole.
I am glad that Adam West lived to see his work as Batman fully appreciated again and finding new fame thanks to his fantastically bonkers role as Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. His influence can be seen all over the world of comics both directly and indirectly. Nicolas Cage’s performance as Big Daddy in the film adaptation of Kick Ass is very clearly based on West’s Batman. West’s version of Batman has had its own run of comics and has crossed over with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The Avengers and the 70s TV version of Wonder Woman.
Adam West’s last performance as Batman was last year in the animated film Return of the Caped Crusaders making him the oldest person to have played Batman on screen. He is as intrinsically linked to Batman as Christopher Reeve is to Superman. No one who has played the role since West has achieved the same level of association with the character. He will always cast a long shadow on anyone who dons the cowl as the caped crusader. His is the performance that you either lean into (Diedrich Bader and George Clooney) or go out of your way to avoid (Michael Keaton and Christian Bale).
Whether you consider the 1966 Batman to be a triumph or an embarrassment it is still a yardstick by which all other versions of Batman are measured. Adam West was Batman in a way no one was before and no one else has managed since. He leaves behind him a unique cultural legacy and an indelible mark on the history of comics.
Rest in peace Adam West. You are will always be my hero.