Adam West was in on the joke, but he played Batman as if he didn’t know there was a joke. That was West’s genius.
West, who died Friday at 88 in Los Angeles after a struggle with leukemia, was initially frustrated by the way that his most famous role defined him; but in the end he embraced it. Born William West Anderson in Walla Walla, Washington—the sort of comic-bookish town name that showed up on suitcase stickers in Looney Tunes shorts—he built his resume in Eisenhower-era genre shows, including Perry Mason, The Outer Limits, Sugarfoot, Lawman and The Rifleman. He finally got his big break at 37 when ABC turned DC Comics’ defining superhero comic into a knowingly kitschy series.
Created by William Dozier and developed by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the show made West and his costars, including the once and future Robin, Burt Ward, into international celebrities. Batman sent up comic book traditions via pun-saturated dialogue, primary colored costumes, outrageous tools and machines, hammy bad guys, and colorful fight captions (“Biff!” “Zlonk!” “Kpow!”) that exploded across the screen, accompanied by atonal horn blasts that suggested the noise Duke Ellington’s brass section might make if the ceiling collapsed on it...
To everyone’s surprise (including ABC’s), the series became a hit. Its audience included comic book loving adults and children, urban aesthetes, and counterculture-minded teens and twentysomethings. The latter would normally have sneered at anything appearing on a medium that Newton Minow once dubbed “the vast wasteland.” They made an exception for Batman, because the series seemed to gently mock the same conventions that powered everything else on TV, as well as the self-image of a nation that hyped a black hats-vs.-white hats view of morality after living in a grey zone for two centuries.