Adam West, who has died aged 88, was one of those actors who had to strive to “live down” not a failure but his greatest success. West, who was synonymous with the role of Batman in the vastly popular, campy TV series of 1966-68, could never escape his alter ego. Although he appeared in scores of films and television series throughout his long career, most reviewers, whatever the role, insisted on referring to him as “TV’s Batman”. However, it is fair to say that West, realising that he owed his fame to the Caped Crusader, was not averse to making oblique allusions to the character in some of his films, and often resorted to self-mockery.
The tall, well-built West, with good looks and a resonant baritone voice, was perfect casting for the upright all-American millionaire Bruce Wayne, who lives with his ward Dick Grayson in Wayne Manor. They secretly double as the masked Batman and Robin when called on the Batphone by Commissioner Gordon to catch a villain loose in Gotham City. The hugely successful Batman: The Movie (1966), brought together four outrageous villains – the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) – to try to outwit the daring man and boy in tights.
“Come on, Robin, to the Bat Cave! There’s not a moment to lose!” was Batman’s call to action in every tongue-in-cheek episode. While almost everybody around him hammed it up, West remained stony-faced in the most improbable comic-book situations, earnestly delivering such absurd lines as “I’ve just perfected an Electronic Hair Bat-Analyzer which may hold the key to this baffling quest”; “I’d rather die than beg for such a small favour as my life”; and, reading from the penal code, “It is the duty of every good citizen of Gotham City to report meeting a man from Mars in a public park”.
He was born William West Anderson in Walla Walla, Washington, where he went to school and university, graduating with a degree in literature. During his last year of college, he married Billie Lou Yeager. After spending two years in the army, he moved with his wife to Hawaii, where he starred in a children’s show. In 1956, West got a divorce and married a Tahitian woman, Nga Frisbie Dawson, with whom he had a son and daughter, though that marriage also ended, in 1962.
In 1959, with a few small TV parts behind him, he went to Hollywood, having changed his name to Adam West. On television, he was employed in supporting roles as a strong, stolid type in horse operas such as Tenderfoot, Lawman, Colt .45, Bonanza (in which he played one of his few baddies) and Tales of Wells Fargo, eventually landing a recurring role as Detective Sergeant Steve Nelson in The Detectives (1961-62), comparatively animated in contrast to a wooden Robert Taylor as his superior.
Apart from further appearances in TV westerns, West had a few pallid roles on the big screen: a sympathetic cavalry officer in Geronimo (1962), an astronaut in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), playing straight man to the Three Stooges in the unfunny and ungrammatical The Outlaws is Coming (1965), and starring as a tough Texas ranger in the formulaic spaghetti western The Relentless Four (1965). One curiosity was Alexander the Great, a projected historical TV series, with William Shatner in the title role and West as his right-hand man Cleander. A pilot episode was made in 1964, but only aired four years later when Shatner and West had become known as Captain Kirk and Batman respectively.
In 1966, after seven years as a jobbing actor, West was given the break he had dreamed of, though it turned out to be a curse in disguise. When he was given the role of Batman, West would join the ranks of actors thought to be one-trick ponies: Shatner (Captain Kirk), Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), George Reeves (Superman) and Burt Ward (Robin). “Typecasting is an enormous challenge,” West remarked. “I think I had one of the biggest with Batman, because it was a costume character and part of American pop culture. People said I couldn’t do certain things because Batman wouldn’t. It was tough for a while.”
After the Batman series ended in 1968, West continued to have a fan base in spite of the low quality of the films in which he appeared. In The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969), instead of the Joker, West takes on the Red Menace as an ex-CIA man investigating communist influence of the mafia, and as a Nazi army captain, with a shaky German accent, he faces Yugoslavian resistance fighter Rod Taylor in Hell River (1974) – and they were among his better movies.
As if to counteract his clean-cut image, West was drawn to playing sleazy characters like the film producer in The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980), in which he appears briefly in drag. Other schlocky B films he made were Young Lady Chatterley II (1985), Zombie Nightmare (1987), Night of the Kickfighters (1988), An American Vampire Story (1997) – in a Hawaiian shirt as the Big Kahuna, vampire killer – and Joyride (1997), as a man who pimps his daughter.
Meanwhile, on television, West was much in demand, mainly for voiceover work in animation series, predictably dubbing Batman/Bruce Wayne in The New Adventures of Batman (1977), and again in SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show (1984) and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (1985). He lampooned himself in The Simpsons (2002), trying to convince Bart and Lisa that he once played Batman. “I guess you’re only familiar with the new Batman movies. I didn’t need moulded plastic to improve my physique.” Privately, West called himself “the Bright Knight” in contrast to the Dark Knight. Above all, he voiced the crazy Mayor Adam West in 83 episodes of Family Guy (2000-14), without one reference to Batman.
When West was asked how he thought his career would have developed without Batman, he replied: “I never even think about that. How many actors get the chance to create a signature role? Not many. Somebody that each generation loves. That’s a wonderful thing.” One of West’s most prized possessions was a drawing of Batman by the character’s creator, the comic book artist Bob Kane, with the inscription “To my buddy, Adam, who breathed life into my pen and ink creation”.
West is survived by his third wife, Marcelle Tagand Lear, whom he married in 1972, four children and two stepchildren.