This morning we all woke up to the news that the world is a far less fun and magical place. The reason, we lost the great Adam West. He was 88 and passed away after what his publicist described as a “short but brave battle with Leukemia.” The man who will forever be known as the first iconic Batman earned a permanent and beloved spot in pop culture. He essentially invented ironic acting in Batman, doing it all with a wink and a smile to let the audience know he was in on the joke. After Batman left him typecast, he turned an ironic take on ‘Adam West’ into a second career. In carving out a unique cultural space for himself, he also laid the groundwork for an ironic celebrity that will continue long after anyone can remember the 1966 Batman. That’s a special achievement that will never be repeated. Plus, he invented the Batusi, and for that, we are forever grateful.
Born in Walla Wall, Washington in 1928, West expressed a desire to perform from an early age (initially his parents hoped he’d be an opera singer, but thankfully that path didn’t come to fruition). After studying literature and psychology in college, West was drafted into the Army where he worked as an announcer for American Forces Network television (hey, you’ve heard the voice). After that, he was a milkman, which is just great, and eventually started work in television. Years of supporting roles in everything from Maverick, and Bonanza to The Outer Limits, and Bewitched followed. He also appeared in commercials and weirdly enough it was one of those that attracted the attention of the producers of the Batman TV series. Specifically, there were commercials for Nestle Quick in which West played a knowing parody of James Bond through his brand of ironic and winking acting that was deliberately overplayed and invited the audience in on his joke. Few people dared to do such things at the time, and coincidentally enough that was the exact tone that was intended for Batman.
When Batman hit the airwaves in 1966, it was an instant phenomenon like few others. Kids marvelled at the fact that one of their most beloved comic book superheroes was treated to a splashy TV series (in colour!). Adults giggled at the campy writing and gloriously knowing overacting delivered by West and co (as well as the gloriously bright and hyper-stylized aesthetic). The show only lasted for two years, and West worked endlessly, cranking out 120 episodes and a feature film between 1966-1968. Batman was a worldwide phenomenon and made West a star. Sure, it flamed out quickly, but the campy nature of the series meant that even the worst episodes were worth of giggles in their own way. Sure, the network set the series out to pasture too soon, but it’s pretty much been in syndication ever since and has been embraced by every subsequent generation.
Of course, Batman 66 was so iconic and long-lasting that it made West’s subsequent career rather difficult. He was instantly recognizable, and perpetually typecast. He was briefly considered as Sean Connery’s replacement as James Bond, but wisely turned it down. After that, the 70s and 80s were pretty rough with West returning to guest roles and TV movies, as well as voicing Batman in several not-so-great animated series. However, the guy was an icon and never lost his sense of humour about himself.
At first, that meant jokey interactions with fans at Comic Cons, yet as those fans grew up and started running their own TV shows, they started to bring back West. On The Batman Animated Series, he played a fictional hero who inspired the new dark knight, and hilariously spoofed himself on The Simpsons. The throwaway Simpsons gag would soon open the second chapter of West’s career. First, a young Simpsons writer named Conan O’Brian attempted to craft a hilarious series around West playing a failed TV star fighting crimes in the infamous failed pilot Lookwell. After that, the guy turned being ‘Adam West’ into a cottage industry.
When you look at Adam West’s IMDB page now, there are two roles that he returns to time and time again. One is Batman and the other is ‘Adam West.’ The master of self-effacing humour and ironic acting returned to an insane and self-mocking performance as himself perpetually in the 2000s. His most famous ‘Adam West’ appearances were of course as the Mayor on Family Guy where he frequently said the most outrageous and insane lines of dialogue on a show defined by outrageous insanity (thanks, Seth MacFarlane!). West may have frequently played himself as a lunatic with a massive ego, but he clearly didn’t suffer from arrogance himself (the lunacy is a possibility but in a lovable way). He delighted in pleasing fans whether they employed him or not and played the role of Adam West with a vigour, hilarity, and fearless commitment that went even beyond his role as Batman.
Thanks to Adam West’s second wind as an ironic celebrity, he arguably had the greatest success of his career since the 2000s. He never stopped working, he never stopped being funny, and he never stopped visiting fans and conventions worldwide where he always appeared with class and good humour. The guy never ceased to impress and even got to return to his original iconic role last year in film Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders, a gorgeous and lovingly recreated animated feature film version of Batman 66 that worked as both homage and a delightful new adventure in its own right. The project was such an instant smash that a sequel was quickly commissioned. It’s currently in post-production and Adam West was able to record one final round as the caped crusader before he passed. So, sometime next year we’ll all be treated to a posthumous Batman performance from the man who first brought the character to life over fifty years ago. It’ll be bittersweet, yet appropriate. After all, Adam West left such an indelible mark on pop culture that he will live on long after his death. He’ll give us all one more Batman gift and after that, he’ll be around as long the world loves Batman and later (or forever). Goodnight, sir. You will be missed, yet never forgotten.