|By Brett Weiss
Far too many mainstream articles on comic book heroes begin with a smash-bang-boom smattering of onomatopoeia - "wham!", "pow!", "biff!", and the like - but in the case of the Batman television series from the 1960s, which famously displayed such words during fight scenes, it is entirely appropriate.
So, let’s let ’er rip: "Crash!" "Ooooff!" "Zok!" "Sploosh!" "Sock!" "Zap!" "Bam!" "Pop!" to celebrate the television show’s 45th anniversary this year.
Loved by some, reviled by others, the Batman TV show polarized audiences from the get-go with its comedic, purposely corny take on Batman and Robin. Most kids loved the program, but to this day many diehard comic book fans consider it to be nothing short of blasphemous, placing their formerly dark, formerly muscular hero in preposterous situations and having him blurt out such goofy dialogue as "Catwoman has returned to besmirch the name of our fair metropolis" and "The Riddler contrives his plots like artichokes. You have to strip off spiny leaves to reach the heart."
Baby boomer and pop culture expert Rick Kelsey, who remembers when the show originally aired in prime time, has little patience for the campy, tongue-in-cheek antics of the TV Batman.
"The ’real’ Batman did NOT go around addressing people as ’Citizen,’" Kelsey says. "Batman did NOT stop in pursuit of a criminal, wander over to a man getting out of his automobile, suggest to the man that he take the time to lock his car and hand him a bumper sticker encouraging people to lock their cars. The Batman in the comic books was nothing like that, but you could find the TV Batman doing stupid and idiotic things like that in every episode."
Kelsey especially begrudges the negative influence the program had on super-heroes in general.
"I resent what the television series wrought," Kelsey says. "In the wake of the TV show, Hollywood had an attitude of making fun of the source material when doing a movie version of a comic book or a cartoon show. It has finally changed for the most part as we can see by the recent and successful movie versions of comic book heroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Superman, and, thankfully, more faithful and realistic versions of Batman. But for the longest time, comic books were things to be made fun of by filmmakers."
It’s true that the Batman TV show poked fun at super-heroes. And it’s equally true that the campy program helped stigmatize the already-frowned-upon comic book medium as little more than juvenile junk food. Iit wasn’t until Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel in 1986 and Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989 that the Caped Crusader regained his dignity in the eyes of general public.
However, comic book fans who can view the show without regard for its source material (or at least without getting offended by its irreverence toward said source material) will find much to enjoy. The program is especially entertaining for those who took the show seriously as children, but now view it through nostalgia-glazed eyes as a titillating testament to the creative craziness of the psychedelic sixties (the brilliant color schemes and tilted camera angles of the villains’ lairs alone are worth the price of admission).
One such Batman fan is writer/producer Ron Magid, who, in James Van Hise’s Batmania (1989, Pioneer Books), refers to the show’s "high camp" and "ludicrous puns" as part of its charm. Further, Magid compliments the show on its "marvelously broad performances, superb sets, witty dialogue, brilliant camera work, and elaborate fight scenes."
Produced by William Dozier, Batman debuted as a mid-season replacement on ABC in 1966 and ran through 1968 for a total of two and a half seasons and 120 episodes. The show started off strong, but was eventually canceled due to low ratings. Lorenzo Semple Jr., who would go on to pen the feature films Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983), was lead writer. Another prominent Batman writer was Stanley Ralph Ross, who would later lend his TV-writing talents to The New Adventures of Wonder Woman.
During most of its time on the air, two half-hour episodes of the Batman program were shown per week, with a movie serial-style cliffhanger connecting the two installments. This format served the show well, helping create anticipatory excitement, especially among younger fans.
Adam West, appearing soft, unathletic, and unimposing in gray tights and small bat ears, played Batman, while Burt Ward masqueraded as the elfin, yet eager Robin. West delivered his lines smoothly, haltingly, and melodramatically, with an undercurrent of mock-earnestness that was a perfect fit for the campy dialogue. Ward complemented West nicely with his boyish enthusiasm, and with his infamously frequent, exclamatorily jubilant phrasing of "Holy insert inane word(s) here Batman!"
They say a super-hero is only as good as his enemies, and Batman has a terrific rogue’s gallery. A majority of Batman’s most famous adversaries made the transformation from the printed DC Comics page to the small screen, including: the Joker, played with relish by Caesar Romero; the Riddler, portrayed with maniacal acuity by Frank Gorshin; the Penguin, hammed up nicely by Burgess Meredith; and Catwoman, played by a super sexy Julie Newmar, who was purrrrfect for the part. (John Astin assumed the role of the Riddler once while Eartha Kitt took over as Catwoman in the third season).
During its relatively brief run, Batman was seen as hip, postmodern, must-see TV by the Hollywood elite, prompting numerous celebrity guest appearances and cameos, including (but not limited to) Vincent Price (Egghead), Otto Preminger (Mr. Freeze), Art Carney (the Archer), Liberace (Chandell), Milton Berle (Louie the Lilac), Joan Collins (Siren), and Zsa Zsa Gabor (Minerva). In short, it was considered cool to watch Batman and even cooler to be seen on Batman.
One of the more noteworthy celebrity appearances on Batman was the duo of Van Williams and Bruce Lee, who portrayed the Green Hornet and Kato (respectively) in the two-part story, A Piece of the Action and Batman’s Satisfaction, which revolved around a stamp counterfeiting ring. Williams and Lee were brought over from The Green Hornet television series, which was also produced by William Dozier. Unlike Batman, The Green Hornet was played as a straight drama.
The star-studded Batman TV series kicked off the first wave of "Batmania," resulting in a barrage of Bat-merchandise, including coloring books, model kits, drinking glasses, board games, toothbrushes, lunch boxes, paperback books, records, bubblegum cards, toy vehicles, wrist radios, and much more. These items have, of course, gone up significantly in value since the time of their release, thanks in part to Batman’s continued popularity in comics (including Batman Incorporated and Batman: The Dark Knight), film (including Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), and television (including The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold).
Some of the more collectable Batman items from the late 1960s include: a helicopter from Irwin Plastic Toy Inc. ($110); a Kohner push puppet ($250); a three-piece figure set from Ideal Toy Corp. ($150); a helmet and cape from Ideal ($250); a hand puppet from Ideal ($150); an Aladdin metal lunch box ($185); an Aurora Batmobile model ($85); and far too many other trinkets, doodads, and gewgaws to mention. Prices are based on used items in good condition; mint-in-package versions often go for hundreds of dollars more.