Adam West was my first hero. As a child, I used to rush home from elementary school so that I could binge watch back-to-back syndicated episodes of Batman. Irrespective of what troubled me during the day, watching West’s Batman invariably transported me to my happy place.
Much has been said (and debated) about the campier aspects of the show. But as a ten-year-old, I was oblivious to much of the show’s wild and farcical humor. To me, Batman was a straightforward, exciting adventure series about a brave, uncynical and resilient superhero. West’s Batman was the “Bright Knight,” an unconflicted and eternally optimistic champion of justice, with an unwavering sense of right and wrong.
My experience is not unique. Due to the show’s immediate and ongoing popularity, — both during its original run in the Sixties and in ubiquitous reruns in subsequent decades — generations of children have grown up enthralled by West’s Batman.
As I grew older, my admiration for West deepened and, in part, inspired me to write How to Be a Superhero, a book about superheroes and the actors who play them. One of my goals was to examine the intersection between the performer and the character they played. I also wanted to investigate how playing a superhero shaped the actor’s offscreen life. for good or ill Because Adam West’s personal life and career were inextricably linked to his compelling performance as Batman, it was essential to speak to him.
In our interview (a portion of which is reprinted here), West was self-deprecating, funny and candid about his experience playing the Caped Crusader. Adam West was a superhero Founding Father who paved the way for all the caped crusaders who followed him.
Would you say your initial thoughts on playing Batman were a combination of reluctance and hope?
I’d say that’s a pretty accurate statement of the mix. But I felt that I might be able to do something fresh with the character. Something a little different. I refused to do what was normally expected [in playing a superhero].
Did you think of Bruce Wayne and Batman as two separate characters?
Can you talk a little bit about developing those two distinct personalities?
I’ll be frank, it’s difficult for me to talk about acting. But let me relate back to your first question. When I decide I want to do a part and I get curious and I start cooking with it, I just go in and do it. I don’t even think about it. Seriously. I developed the character as best as I could and I tried to bring something unique and fun to the part, and then I didn’t think about it.
In the beginning, I got a lot of criticism from people associated with the show. “Oh, he’s not as serious as he should be. He’s not as wooden as we thought he should be. We don’t want to see the twinkle behind the mask.”
In other words, they thought it would be better if my interpretation was more mundane. It occurred to me, creatively, that if something is mundane and ordinary that it might not be as interesting. It might not have a lasting impact.
Batman has to be a little bit bigger than life to instill fear in the villains.
Batman was bigger than life. No one runs around like that 24/7. He’d be locked up somewhere. In my case, I reasoned that if I played Batman with utter sincerity (in that he doesn’t think he is funny) and, occasionally, with a little wink to the audience, then I could be absurdly big with the character. Those characters became almost Shakespearean.
Did you have to justify why a man would put on the cape to fight crime?
You know, not really so much. I think much of my interpretation came from sense memory of playing Batman as a kid. And what happens instantaneously when you put on the cape and cowl. Because I was able to conjure that up with a little bit of thinking and cooking with it, it became an easy way for me to get into that absurd characterization. I’d put on the cowl and say to Burt, or myself “Come on, let’s go play Batman and Robin in my yard. Come on, it’s neat.” I knew that if I had the enthusiasm and a kind of a quirkiness that you had as a kid playing him, then it might work.
You’re saying that the costume does a lot of the work for you.
Oh my God, yes. Good observation. It certainly does. Especially if you use the cape and the cowl and move in a certain way, you can appear dynamic. Batman hardly ever stops moving. Bruce Wayne does. But not Batman. Batman is always moving in some manner, even if he is merely gesturing with his hand or swinging his cape around.
When kids play Batman, they are pretending to be you. But what’s interesting is that you were pretending to be them playing you. Did you allow yourself to feel powerful (as a kid would) in the costume?
You are very perceptive about this stuff.
That first day walking out of my dressing room and walking on the stage was tough. I thought, “Are they going to accept me in this silly costume as the real Batman?” I had to take a deep breath. I walked across the stage towards the crew and everyone turned and there’s wasn’t a sound. They just accepted me totally.
John Wesley Shipp who played The Flash on CBS in the early Nineties told me that he felt powerful in the costume and somewhat diminished out of it. Do you relate to that?
That was not my feeling. My feeling was probably more [in character than personal] that I felt diminished when I wore the costume — at least from Bruce Wayne’s point of view. Because as Bruce Wayne, I was faking something… It’s hard to explain….
No, I understand. It speaks to the question of who is the true identity: Batman or Bruce Wayne?
It became Batman. And not Bruce Wayne. Batman was part of all the true activity that counted and propelled the story — that is, unless you include the [1966 feature length] movie. In our movie, I had more of a chance to play Bruce Wayne.
Did you try different registers to develop the voice of Bruce Wayne?
I don’t think so. But I did develop different rhythms. But that came easily. Because he was desperately involved in what he was doing, Batman would have a different rhythm to his speech. It was easier for me to play absurd lines of dialogue when I said them with [a distinct] rhythm.
Do you know what I mean?
I do.[He chuckled.] Good. Because I don’t.
Some actors have told me that playing these heroes has rubbed off on them in some way. Did Batman make his way into your life and vice versa?
I think so a bit. But it evolved so slowly. And it took me years to “sober up.” I feel that is it unavoidable. At least in my case I’ve sensed and seen it. Batman was a show that was geared to entire families to enjoy on different levels. But you do have a responsibility that evolves over a few years when everyone you meet thanks you, and when the kids are starry-eyed and grateful as you said you were. It’s certainly gotten to me. And I’d hate to disappoint families.
You are expected to hold the mantle and be a spokesman for this character in some way. Is that exhausting?
Yes, it is. But it paid well. And it continues. Of course, I’m joking. But it is a bit of a responsibility. But there is something selfish about it too. I was being turned down for more adult fare in more interesting work. I felt that I better embrace the thing that I created. Otherwise, I would have never have become an icon.
In your autobiography, you said that you were “married to the cape.” In every marriage, in every relationship there are ups and downs. How did you make peace with the idea that your relationship with this character was going to be a very long one?
I think it was a very simple deduction. I think any intelligent person would come to the same conclusion. And that is if I am being turned down for other roles because of my association with Batman, then maybe what I should do is really embrace Batman. Pursue it and keep it alive. Which is what I’ve been trying to do for thirty years.
How has playing the part changed you?
It’s made me an extremely rich man. [Laughs] Personally, the rewards have come from the fans. Wherever I go I am met with such warmth and humor.
[Laughing] Are there really Batman condoms?
But there should be. Who would win in a fight; Your Batman or George Clooney’s?
I think it depends on the circumstances. It probably depends on the kind of battle. If it were to be a battle of charm, of course, Clooney would win.
I’d like to reiterate how grateful I am that you took the time to talk with me. I grew up on your show so this is a thrill for me.
Oh, no problem. You’re a man of quality. I can tell. You’ve been great.