Monday, June 12, 2017

Farewell, Adam West

This weekend saw the passing of Adam West, famed actor known for his starring role on the cult TV series Lookwell.

(Okay, I know very few people know Adam West from Lookwell. I just wanted to give him ONE obituary that didn't start the way he knew it always would: "Holy Tragedy Batman! TV's Caped Crusader hangs up his cape for the final time!")

I summed up my history with Adam West's Batman just a few months ago in this Film School Rejects review of the recent animated movie BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS:

My first encounter with the 1966 Adam West Batman TV series came at the age of either six or seven. A local low-power station was running twice-nightly reruns and as my family did not have cable, I recall the frustration of having to orient the rabbit ears just so in an effort to reduce the “snow” obscuring the weakly-transmitted picture.

It occurs to me that a good chunk of that paragraph is completely unrelatable to anyone under the age of 25. And this was just two years or so before the Tim Burton Batman came onto the scene.

As a first-grader, the “camp” of the show completely flew over my head. A kid accepts Batman for what he is, so there’s nothing ridiculous about a man running around in tights with an underage boy sidekick. When a villain threatened to turn them into snow cones, or trapped them with a giant man-eating clam, a 7 year-old’s reaction is not “What were the writers smoking when they came up with this?” but rather “Oh man, how are Batman and Robin going to escape this serious peril!”

The genius of the ’66 Batman is that the creators knew they were always aiming for two audiences – the youths who saw it as an adventure series, and the adults, who understood the deliberate humor that turned this semi-faithful adaptation of Batman into a parody. It’s an incredibly difficult needle to thread – the kids shouldn’t be able to perceive any mocking of their cherished characters, while the adults need to be able to tell the show isn’t accidentally “so bad it’s good.”

Virtually every adult I've had a conversation with about BATMAN '66 - whether they saw it first-run or discovered it in reruns. Loved it as a young kid, embarrassed by it as a teen and pre-teen, rediscovered it sometime in our twenties and found it hilarious. The first part of that cycle is pretty common for most shows we watched at the ages of 5-9. Have you ever tried to rewatch Transformers? That shit does NOT hold up.

But West's BATMAN does, and that's because it was always smart enough to play on two levels. Both the adventure seeking preteen and the savvy adult were being catered to. The series wasn't a hit with older viewers because it was "so bad it's good." It was legitimately funny, and it's not easy to write something that straddles two different worlds without collapsing on itself. And while the writing is a huge part of the equation, it's merely the tightrope. The actor is the one who has to walk it.

Adam West was brilliant at being in on the joke while playing it like he was oblivious to the same. In the pilot, he visits a restaurant. The Maitre'd offers to seat him, but he declines saying "I'll just take a seat at the bar. I shouldn't wish to attract attention." In a cape and cowl. Right. West plays the line dead series, with zero awareness on Batman's part that he's being absurd.

Alas, West's perfect characterization was mistaken for bad acting and he spent much of the next two decades trying to escape typecasting. It seems he needed to wait for his audience to grow up, so that the kids who were thrilled by his Batman could become the TV showrunners and writers who were eager to work with their Batman. When West's renaissance came, it was at the hands of Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and The Simpsons's Conan O'Brien.

Just last year I was remarking how wonderful it was that Adam lived long enough to see BATMAN '66 reach its fiftieth anniversary, just one year after the series finally was released for the first time on beautifully restored bluray. (I have the set - it's stunning and you should make every effort to view these colorful and gorgeous episodes.) Complicated rights issues had blocked an official release of the show for decades, but I'm certain that an aggravating issue was that the show's humor and silliness made it a red-headed step-child in the "grim and gritty era."

Even at the time I discovered the show, it didn't reflect the Batman I was reading in the comics. This was the era of The Killing Joke and A Lonely Place of Dying, a dark tale of how losing one Robin sends Batman over the edge, and how a young man named Tim Drake tries to get the original Robin, Dick Grayson, to save Batman from himself by becoming Robin again - a task made more complicated by the strained relationship between Bruce and Dick. There was no room for camp and silliness in these stories, and BATMAN '66 became something to reject if you wanted to be taken seriously as a comic reader.

BATMAN '66 cast a long shadow at a time when comics as an art form in general and Batman specifically struggled to be taken seriously. When I was growing up, readers resented that this over-the-top relic made them look immature for liking Batman. But as time moved on and other, more serious interpretations from Tim Burton, Bruce Timm and Christopher Nolan showcased the full depth of the character, West's Batman was less of a threat. It was acceptable to enjoy it on its own merits again and not burden it with representing 75+ years of mythology.

The blurays coincided with a marketing effort that gave BATMAN '66 a second life in comic books, action figures, and merchandising. The animated BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS soon followed and another animated film, featuring West, Burt Ward and William Shatner as Two-Face is set for release later this year.

I'm glad Adam West lived to see his Batman's resurgence, and I'm glad his late career gave him so many opportunities beyond Batman. He left this world at the age of 88 and no one can say he didn't live a full life. His work made a lot of people happy and he continued to delight fans on the convention circuit for years. By all accounts he was a kind and gracious man, witty and fun until the end.

We should all be so lucky to have a life like Adam West's. Tonight, this is how I think I'll choose to remember him.

So long, old chum.

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