LOS ANGELES — Before Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck donned Batman’s cape in a stream of Hollywood blockbusters, there was Adam West.
West’s deadpan portrayal of the comic hero in a campy 1960’s TV series brought the Caped Crusader into the national consciousness with a “bang!” The Dark Knight had been a brooding presence on the pages of comic books since 1939 and on the big screen in 1940s-era movie serials.
West died Friday night after “a short but brave battle with leukemia,” his family said Saturday on a verified Facebook page. “Our dad always saw himself as The Bright Knight and aspired to make a positive impact on his fans’ lives,” his family said in the statement. “He was and always will be our hero.”
When West took on the tights, he stoked the stoicism for laughs: a superhero letting everyone know he was in on the joke.
“We were making overstated morality plays for children that adults could watch and enjoy,” West told the Los Angeles Times in a 2004 interview. “We played it terribly serious, and that’s half the fun of it.”
What wasn’t fun? The costume could be brutal.
“If you think the humid Chicago weather is hot, the temperature inside [the Batman costume] was like 140 degrees at all time,” West told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001. “And I had a guy in wardrobe who was assigned to follow me with a hair dryer between setups and dry any perspiration that popped out. Look, superheroes don’t sweat.”
The TV show also spawned a movie released in theaters; the campy nature of both can be seen in this clip from that movie:
West’s Batman, which he called his “Bright Knight,” protected Gotham City from Technicolor criminals such as the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman.
Viewers came to expect fight scenes where Batman and his trusted sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, played by Burt Ward, would battle and array of anonymous henchmen, dispatching them with comedic blows punctuated with onomatopoeia graphics that filled the screen: Bam! Whap! Pow! He would be associated with the role for the rest of his life.
“You get terribly typecast playing a character like that,” he told The Associated Press in a 2014 interview. “But in the overall, I’m delighted because my character became iconic and has opened a lot of doors in other ways, too.”
“Batman” was among the most popular TV shows in 1966, the year of its debut, and some of the era’s top actors signed on to play villains.
Burgess Meredith squawked as the Penguin. Eartha Kitt purred as Catwoman. And Cesar Romero cackled as the Joker. It was the start of a tradition that would continue when the characters re-emerged as Hollywood mainstays in 1989.
The show lasted just three seasons but has endured in reruns and video sales. After “Batman” went off the air in 1968, West continued to work in television, appearing in TV shows including “Laverne & Shirley,” “Fantasy Island” and “Murder, She Wrote” — in which he played the victim, a crooked boxing promoter.
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) June 10, 2017
But he said he had been turned down for some roles because of his time portraying millionaire, playboy Bruce Wayne and his spandex-wearing alter ego, Batman. It was a source of tension until he realized his work helped kick off the big-budget film franchise by showing the character was a hit with wide audiences.
“It is kind of a double-edged sword, but I made up my mind a long time ago to enjoy it,” West told The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, California, in a June 2006 interview. “Not many actors get the chance to create a signature character.”
He returned to the role in an episode of “The Simpsons” and in 2003’s “Return to the Batcave,” in which he reminisced with his former co-star Ward, reprising his role as Robin, while chasing villains who had stolen the Batmobile from a museum.
More recently, he did the voice of nutty Mayor Adam West on the long-running “Family Guy” series. In April 2012, West received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born William West Anderson in Walla Walla, Washington, he moved to Seattle at age 15 with his mother after his parents divorced. He graduated from Whitman College, a liberal arts school, in Walla Walla.
After serving in the Army, he went to Hollywood, changed his name to Adam West and began appearing on a number of shows, including “Bonanza,” ”Perry Mason” and “Bewitched.”
The Bright Knight. Rest in peace, Adam West. pic.twitter.com/VM7lN9MoXK
— 20th Century Fox (@20thcenturyfox) June 10, 2017
He was married three times and had six children. West had homes in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California, but he and his wife, Marcelle, spent most of their time at their ranch near Sun Valley, Idaho, where he remained in on the joke.
An online search of the Sun Valley directory for Adam West results in a prompt to “See Wayne, Bruce (Millionaire),” which results in “Please consult Crime Fighters in the Yellow Pages,” leading to “See Batman,” leading back to Adam West. None have phone numbers.
Ridler reported from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press writer Greg Moore in Phoenix contributed to this report.