Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Are You Ready to Head West?

As a comic book fan and a fan of men in tights in general, I loved watching reruns of Batman as a kid. I didn't always understand why the characters weren't exactly like the ones I knew in the current books (Why was Catwoman dressed like that? Why did Batman's costume not resemble the sleek, more threatening one I knew? Why did the Joker have a mustache covered over with white makeup? Who in the hell is Aunt Harriet??), but I enjoyed watching it nonetheless. Little did I know the career trauma that the series inflicted on its star. To me, he was just a handsome, heroic man. But more on that later. For now, we'll start at the beginning and then head West...

On September 19th, 1928, William West Anderson was born in Seattle, Washington. His parents, Otto (a farmer) and Audrey (a former singer) Anderson, later had a second boy, John, and then moved to Walla Walla, Washington where her went to high school for two years, followed by two more at a private school back in Seattle (Lakeside School.) From there, he attended Whitman College where he graduated with a major in Literature and a minor in Psychology.

While still finishing up college in 1950, he married for the first time to a girl named Billie Lou Yeager. He began working in radio, popped up on a couple of episodes of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse (as Will West), served a stint in the armed forces, thanks to the draft, and then traveled with his wife around Europe. They wound up living in Hawaii where, eventually, he began working as a tour guide and then alongside an old school chum on a local children's TV show called The Kini Popo Show. In time, he grew to become the star of the show, which also featured a chimp.

His marriage ended in 1956, but the following year he remarried to a Tahitian named Ngahra Frisbie Dawson. With her, he would have two children, Jonelle and Hunter, before moving back to the mainland and pursuing an acting career in Hollywood in 1958. While still in Hawaii, he'd landed a couple of unbilled bit roles in low-budget films shot there such as Voodoo Island (1957) with Boris Karloff. Once in the U.S. again, he was able to secure a Warner Brothers contract and was swiftly put through his paces on their battery of TV shows like Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Sugarfoot and Colt .45.

Having used the name Will West (West being his mother's maiden name) in his earliest days before the camera, he now decided to take the first name of Adam for no other reason than he liked how “Adam West” sounded. He landed his first credited big screen role, albeit a small one, when he joined the cast of The Young Philadelphians in 1959. He played a wealthy mama's boy who, confronted with the idea of consummating his marriage during his honeymoon, tears out of the room and fatally crashes his car. He was out of the movie quickly, but it was good experience in a high-profile hit.

Tons of TV work followed, including Bonanza, Perry Mason, Laramie, The Rifleman and Hawaiian Eye. For the final season (1961 – 1962) of Robert Taylor's series The Detectives, West joined the regular cast. He's shown here with, from left to right, yummy li'l Mark Goddard, Tige Andrews (who would late go on to costar on The Mod Squad as the youth's police contact) and Taylor. As the series came to a close, so did West's five-year marriage to Ngahra.

In 1962, West was back on the big screen in support of Chuck Connors as Geronimo. West played a cavalryman sympathetic to the American Indian cause. In the next couple of years, West would balance frequent TV appearances (on Perry Mason, Laramie and even Petticoat Junction, as seen here) with supporting parts in movies. He played a doctor, but not the one of the title in 1963's Tammy and the Doctor and was buried down in the cast list of the Jackie Gleason/Steve McQueen military comedy Soldier in the Rain (also 1963.)

In 1964, he joined Paul Mantee for the cult classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars, an outer space retelling/re-imagining of the Daniel Dafoe classic. His character was the spacecraft's commander, but unfortunately he was out of the movie before too long. In his brief scenes, he does at least present that classic 1960s look of strong, tan features and clean-cut hair. He also had to work with a chimpanzee, which was likely not very difficult since his old Hawaiian gig The Kino Popo Show had featured one as a costar. By the way, in The Underworld this movie is remembered more for a seminude bath that Mantee takes on the planet's surface after he's crash-landed on the surface.
He filmed a TV pilot called Alexander the Great with none other than William Shatner in the title role, but it came to nothing. (It was, however, unearthed and run as a TV-movie in the wake of Shatner's success on Star Trek.) West continued to mix minor movies with TV work, guest starring on Bewitched, The Outer Limits and The Virginian while also working alongside The Three Stooges in their final big-screen outing, the western spoof The Outlaws is Coming (1965.) He played a newspaperman, eventually deputized, who gets caught up in their antics. West thoroughly enjoyed working with the trio of comedic numbskulls, though the picture didn't do anything to bolster his own career.
That same year, he made two more movies, neither of which had any substantial success at the box office. There was The Relentless Four, a spaghetti western rife with bad dubbing (in the U.S. Release, anyway) and the campy Mara of the Wilderness. Wilderness featured Lori Saunders (billed here as Linda and soon to be known as one of the daughters on Petticoat Junction) as a young girl raised in the wilderness by wolves. The wolves, apparently, also taught her how to use hairspray and how to apply false eyelashes...
West was working as an actor, but hardly making serious inroads. His film options were bleak and his TV work, while solid and effective, wasn't amounting to anything considerable either. All that was about to change, however, as he found himself in the running for the starring role in an upcoming TV show. The show was based on a legendary comic book character and there was some amount of debate as to how to present it. For a while, Ty Hardin and Mike Henry were considered (should the series head in a straightforward direction), but there was also the idea of making the program spoofy and deliberately campy. In this case, Lyle Waggoner (as shown above right) was being considered.

After starring in a Nestle Quik TV commercial as a deftly straight-faced character (“Captain Quik”) who narrowly escaped calamity all around him, West was spotted by the TV show's producer and placed on the fast track to winning the lead. He did a screen test (as did Waggoner) and emerged as the man who was chosen to play millionaire Bruce Wayne and Wayne's alter-ego, the famous hero Batman!

Batman was an immediate sensation, coming to the airwaves in 1966 when most viewers had by then made the switch to color television sets. Featuring rock 'em, sock 'em colors, invigorating music, intentionally cartoonish plot lines and a set of actors who were in on the joke, it made both kids and adults happy.
Adding to the fun was a collection of guest-stars, many of them very well-known actors and actresses, who essayed various villainous evildoers. Some of these included Vincent Price, Roddy McDowall, Shelley Winters, Otto Preminger, Tallulah Bankhead and even Ethel Merman. A few performers made indelible impressions though continued appearances on the show such as Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Cesar Romero as The Joker, Frank Goshin as The Riddler and Julie Newmar as Catwoman.

Additionally, celebrities would sometimes pop-up in a recurring gag that had West and Ward climbing up the side of a skyscraper with their batropes, only to be confronted by someone hanging out a window. See here (during a dress rehearsal) Sammy Davis Jr greeting the heroes as they scale the building. This effect was done by having the guest star lie on his or her back as the leads pretending to be climbing, but were actually crouching and walking normally, the camera turned on its side. (See below for what the scene looked like in reality.)
West was able to put forth his handsome face (dressed nattily in classic evening and sportswear) as Bruce Wayne, but then transform into the title hero with one slide down the batpole.
Playing into the duality of his new role, West was depicted in the tabloid press as both an active playboy...
...as well as a devoted father.
As I mentioned earlier, the comic book Batman later underwent a metamorphosis into a sleeker figure with pointier ears on his cowl and a more dramatic cape, but this series was based on the old Bob Kane visuals in which the character was a bit boxier and had stumpy bat ears.
After Batman's cancellation, a movement began to darken the comic books storylines and distance the title from the cheesier aspects of the television show.  Witness this cover with a stripped to the waist (and hair-chested) Batman!

The costume on the series really didn't do West many favors in terms of showing off his physique. The high waistline and the fabrics used to make it almost caused him to look a tad squatty or even paunchy by today's standards, but in truth he was in very fine shape, having been a runner, a skier and even a water polo player while in college. He certainly looks fine below in this skimpy swimsuit.
West had a trusted sidekick in Burt Ward as Dick Grayson, who himself transformed into Robin the Boy Wonder. (If you look closely at this shot, you'll see that George Clooney was not the first Batman to show nipples on his costume.  LOL  Apparently, the Batcave was chilly on this day.) As in the comics, West had taken on Ward as his ward (no pun intended!) after the lad's aerialist parents were killed. The characters in the comic books had come under scrutiny over the years for the potential homosexuality present in their relationship and living arrangement (in the comics, they sometimes even slept in the same bed, as shown below!)
To counteract the fact that these two men were co-habitating and potentially throw off any such speculation, the producers included a female character, an aunt played by Madge Blake, to the show. This character had been introduced in the comics a little over a year before the series went into production to assuage the above-mentioned implications. (As if it was somehow less lavender to have a dithering old lady hanging around the two handsome studs?!) There was also the resourceful and responsible butler, played by Alan Napier, the harried police commissioner Neil Hamilton and a bumbling chief, Stafford Repp.

The series aired twice a week, with the first half hour setting up the criminals and their crime and containing a cliffhanger ending. The second episode would resolve the cliffhanger and clean up the story. Both airings proved heavily popular.

The third season, a new character was added in Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig. The female crime-fighter was considered a potential spin-off character, though that plan never came to fruition. She joined West and Ward that third season when a dip in ratings led to the series being presented only once a week instead of twice. The wildly popular show had eventually begun to suffer somewhat from oversaturation, a fact not helped when a feature film version was released in 1966 as well.

During the run of the series, West was a bachelor, but Ward was a relative newlywed. As the show picked up steam, the men became sought after prizes in the Tinseltown sexuality sweepstakes and they both began indulging in their every whim with female fans, guest starlets and anyone else who felt like taking their batpoles for a spin. Ward's marriage soon fell apart (though he soon married again, briefly, and did so four times in all) amidst all the goings on.
There was always a bit of a to-do about Ward's costume and how much trouble he had to go through to keep his package under wraps. (Something he fixated on in his autobiography years later.) I haven't seen the show a lot lately, but I must say I was never able to see very much going on, though in this one particular publicity photo (which has our heroes trussed up in order to make it look like they're been rocketed away), I can definitely see more than usual.

During this time period, Adam West pursued a bit of a singing career, too, though it only got so far. He released a campy novelty single (the cover art of which relied on his notoriety as Batman in order to sell it), but also appeared as a vocalist on two installments of the glittery television variety series The Hollywood Palace in 1966 and 1967. He was, unfortunately, no Jack Jones...

While Batman remained a hit, it was an expensive show to produce and ratings had slipped somewhat. ABC finally decided to pull the plug on it after three seasons. The producers tried to shop it around to the other networks, but there were no takers. Then NBC decided they might like to have a crack at it for a fourth season, but in the meantime all of the detailed, expansive and expensive sets had been bulldozed and torn apart to make way for another project! Thus, there would be no further exploits of this particular Batman.

The year was 1968 and West, who'd shot to superstardom as a campy, parodic TV series lead, was now attempting to resume his career as an actor. His first gig came as a guest star on The Big Valley, playing against type as a deranged ex-Civil War major who is tormented by memories of his prostitute mother and who proposes to Linda Evans. Her mother on the show, Barbara Stanwyck, is alarmed by this, sensing that there is something quite wrong with this seemingly genial man with a secret.

Next, he took on the lead of a spy thriller called The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969.) He was bound and determined to break away from the goofy, hooty persona that Batman had built, so he portrayed a hard soldier of fortune involved in syndicate dealings and the Chinese underworld. Other stars in it included Nancy Kwan, Robert Alda and David Brian, though it was a cheap, ineptly handled movie that flopped at the box office.
He married for the third time in 1970 to Marcelle Lear, a young lady who had once been the wife of John Lear, an executive with the famed Lear jets. They had two children together (and blended her own two into a newly formed family.) They remain married to this day. West continued to see his two children from the marriage to Ngahra, though things would eventually hit a rough spot with one of those children.

West had plenty of trouble being taken seriously as an actor and, in fact, wasn't being considered at all for the sort of roles he wished to play. His Batman credentials wouldn't allow him to even get his foot in the door for a reading and on the occasions that he did get close, somehow the subject would come up amongst the powers that be and he'd be out. (His costar Ward, who had little experience to begin with, had it even worse and scarcely acted again to speak of for well over a decade.)

Oddly enough, he was presented with a rare chance to make a big change in the direction of his career, but he turned the opportunity down. Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli was, in light of Sean Connery's decision to exit the role of James Bond, considering re-envisioning the film franchise and making the British super spy over into an American! He offered West the part, which West (rightly feeling that the idea was a huge mistake) declined. As it was, Connery did come back for the next picture (Diamonds Are Forever in 1971), though he ultimately departed again, handing over the reins to Roger Moore.
Solace of a sort came in 1971 when he was cast as Elizabeth Ashley's subservient husband in the film The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, though it was hardly a very demanding part. His TV work during this period included Love, American Style, Alias Smith and Jones and Rod Serling's Night Gallery, in which he took on the role of Mr. Hyde (of Jekyll & Hyde fame) in a very brief sketch.
These were thin times indeed for West as he struggled to find footing in the movie and TV firmament. A guest spot on Mannix and another on Emergency!, a supporting role in the Sammy Davis Jr/Christopher Lee TV-movie Poor Devil (1973) and a Yugoslavian-made action movie with Rod Taylor called Tactical Guerilla (1974) helped make ends meet in this rocky period. In 1975, he starred in the low-budget movie The Specialist, all about West trying to halt the exploitation of a lake's resources. The cheap movie got more mileage out of costar Ahna Capri's luscious looks than of anything West was able to contribute to it.
As the 1970s headed towards a close, West seemed to see the writing on the wall and began to re-embrace the character that had simultaneously made him famous while also slamming a virtual lid on anything beyond it. He lent his voice to an animated version of the character in 1977's The New Adventures of Batman and, in 1979, starred (along with old pals Burt Ward, Frank Gorshin and others) in a couple of live-action TV specials as Batman, Legends of the Superheroes and its follow-up, a roast featuring most of the same performers. He also provided Batman's voice in the animated Saturday morning show Tarzan and the Super 7 in 1978.

As the '80s dawned, he started to work with more regularity, though the projects were hardly prestigious. There was The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980), which had him playing a lecherous Tinseltown producer (shown at left) and One Dark Night (1982) all about some girls spending the night in a mausoleum in order to be initiated into a sisterhood. He also made the requisite visits to The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, naturally.

In 1984, he took over the voice of Batman on Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. Prior to this (since as far back as 1968, in fact), a bit actor with countless credits under his belt named Olan Soule had been doing Batman's voice in cartoon shows including most episodes of The Super Friends. He had, in fact, appeared in an episode of West's live-action Batman as a newscaster in 1966! Soule stayed with the show, but doing other voices.

In 1986, West made another stab at series TV with the sitcom The Last Precinct. Envisioned as a sort of Police Academy-style rip-off, it was given a primo launching spot right after that year's Super Bowl. In it, he played the police captain who was joined by a young sergeant (Jonathan Perpich), an older veteran (Keenan Wynn), Ernie Hudson, Wings Hauser and, in a bit of a shocker, Randi Brooks playing a transsexual cop! The show limped along before being cancelled after only eight episodes were produced.

As time went by, West began to realize that he had no real chance of escaping the camp and kitsch elements of his persona that playing Batman (in the way that he had done so, versus later performers who inherited the part such as Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Christian Bale) had lent him. Thus, he started to accept offbeat roles in unusual films that capitalized on these aspects of his presence. 1988 brought the sci-fi comedy Doin' Time on Planet Earth while in 1991 he filmed a series pilot called Lookwell, all about a former TV cop who winds up solving crimes in real life. The series wasn't picked up, but the pilot (written by Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel) went on to become something of a cult favorite.

The wheels came off for part of West's family in 1994 when his daughter Jonelle, a married mother of two, was arrested in a huge blow-up with her husband's parents. West's own mother had been an alcoholic and he struggled with alcoholism for a time in the '70s himself. Now, his daughter had also become one and in the midst of all this turmoil, he found himself caring for his two young grandsons who were being caught in the crossfire of a The Jerry Springer Show-like debacle.
In 1995, yet another series try came with The Clinic, costarring Deborah Shelton and a host of others, as seen here. The wacky show never got off the ground and was swiftly cancelled though, like many of West's projects, there is a bit of a cult following for it.

West continued to lend his distinctive voice to shows like Rugrats, The Critic and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Occasional stunt casting had him playing either himself (as on Hope & Gloria, Pauly and Murphy Brown) or on sci-fi shows that could make an in-joke out of it such as Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He also played himself in the pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous in 1999.

In 2000, West began working with his voice on what would bring him as new generation of fans. He started the recurring role of Mayor Adam West, a surreal version of himself, on the smash animated sitcom Family Guy. Here, West's bizarre image was right at home on the zany series and he was handed hilariously “off” exchanges of dialogue like the following:

Mayor Adam West: Want some corn? Brian Griffin: Sure. [Brian reaches into the bag, but withdraws when his paw becomes sticky with a viscous substance] Brian Griffin: What kind of corn is this?
Mayor Adam West: Creamed corn, I brought it from home. I don't like the corn they have here, it's too crunchy. -- and -- Peter Griffin: Well how about you just give me your pen? Mayor Adam West: You mean this cheap little pen we have millions of back at the office? Peter Griffin: Yeah. Mayor Adam West: No! (Perhaps you have to hear these with the visuals... Ha!)

He also made a series of voice appearances on the animated show The Fairly OddParents as a version of himself, but as a version who plays a bumbling variation of Batman called Catman. He worked on the series half a dozen times between 2003 and 2008. Now eighty-four, he can relax and revel in the comfortable cult status that he belongs to (and always will.)
Adam West's career did not head into the direction he had originally hoped it would, but in time he came to appreciate the fact that the one, type-casting, career-strangling role that made him a household name also gave him lasting status as a TV and superhero icon. His work as Batman put him in that rare society of fan favorites such as George Reeves (of The Adventures of Superman), Lou Ferrigno (of The Incredible Hulk), Lynda Carter (as Wonder Woman) and others who are forever identified with having embodied a treasured superhero in live-action form. It creates a form of immortality that not all actors achieve.

4 comments:

dcolp said...

That drawing of Batman and Robin looks like they are in twin beds. There appears to be two separate headboards. However, that was not obvious until I took a closer look at the picture. But one might ask why they would share a bedroom in a mansion.

joel65913 said...

Interesting recap of his career. I was never a big Batman follower although I adored Julie Newmar's Catwoman, all the other actresses that played her have just been pretenders!, and Burt Ward was very cute but the POW & ZAP aspects of the show left me cold.

I hadn't realized his career lasted so long although I have seen him pop up in different old movies from time to time he was always out of them in what always seemed like minutes.

On a side note, did anyone ever age as badly as Robert Taylor? The cast picture of him is bad but he usually looked worse near the end of his career. Almost unbelievably beautiful when he was young he looked like Count Dracula by the time he died what with the natural widow's peak of his hair, his ill considered insistence on keeping it pitch black and the damage that heavy smoking and drinking caused to his overall appearance. From what I've read he was a rather unpleasant character so maybe it was just his general venality coming to the surface.

Poseidon3 said...

If those are twin beds, they are damned close together! Who could walk between them with that four inches of space?! And are they showering together or do they have separate bathrooms?! LOL

Joel, I think that Taylor deliberately tried to sabotage his "pretty boy" looks because the press was relentless in drawing attention to it during his early career. He was so bent on appearing "manly" and weathering his features, lowering his voice, etc... to appear more masculine and tough that by the time he really was a bit more mature, it was just sad how craggy and crusty he'd become.

Ken Anderson said...

I had no idea that West had such a long career in the post-Batman years either. I saw him in some obscure film once and I just thought he was such a terrible actor. I've always felt the put-on portentousness of the "Batman" series was a godsend for his particular acting style (his limited range played to the show's advantage). In later years he (like Brooke Shields and Candice Bergen) seemed to blossom in spoofing his own meager talents, and in doing so kind of displayed a versatility I wouldn't have given him credit for. By the way, that "Love American Style" episode he appears in is my all-time favorite of the entire series. Thanks for another info-packed post!