At precisely 7:30PM Eastern time on Wednesday, January 12, 1966, “Commissioner Gordon” (onetime Saturday matinee idol Neil Hamilton)—surrounded by uniformed Gotham City police and elected officials—carefully lifted the plexiglass cover off a glowing red telephone in his office. Looking around the room, he solemnly declared: “I don’t know who he is behind that mask of his. But I do know when we need him. And we need him…now!”
Of course the person on the other end of that call on the Batphone was actor Adam West, about to step into television history as star of the iconic 1960’s series Batman.
In many ways, West—who passed away Friday at age 88 following a brief battle with leukemia—was the embodiment of Commissioner Gordon’s description: he was the man America needed, and we needed him right then.
51 years before Donald Trump raised his right hand to be sworn in as our 45th President, America was—like the mythical Gotham City—under siege. Batman premiered about two years after the JFK assassination, and two years before the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. The nation was being torn asunder by riots over civil rights and the United States involvement in Vietnam.
As January 1966 neared, ABC—the newest and lowest-rated television network—had suffered through a disastrous Fall ’65 season…with flop after flop in its primetime lineup. Affiliates were grumbling and advertisers were bailing. In desperation, ABC marketing executives came up with the then unheard-of concept of a “Second Season”… two midseason replacements to be tossed against the wall to see if anything would stick.
The first was the eminently forgettable Blue Light, a prime time drama starring Robert Goulet (yes, that Robert Goulet!) as a secret agent fighting Nazis during World War II. But the second faced even more ridicule and doubt by ABC execs: it was to be producer William Dozier’s live-action rendition of Bob Kane’s 1939 comic book creation Batman.
Kane’s vision of millionaire Bruce Wayne was that of a dark, brooding crimefighter violently battling criminals as a way to avenge his parents’ death during an armed robbery. But while that formula worked to critical and financial success for future Batman actors Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, it was not what America needed in 1966. The Batman William Dozier wanted to produce—and which ABC chairman Leonard H. Goldenson personally approved—needed an actor described by associate producer Charles Fitzsimons as someone “who could play Alice in Wonderland as if it were Hamlet.”
Enter Adam West, a solid performer with bigscreen and television credentials including guest appearances on Perry Mason, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke and The Outer Limits. But West’s Batman was so over-the-top serious in his delivery, the series became an unqualified sensation as kids tuned in for the adventure but with their parents also watching for the campy fun as the fully-costumed Batman refused a prime table at a restaurant, telling the manager “No thank you, I’ll just stand at the bar. I shouldn’t wish to attract any attention.” The rest, as they say, is TV history.
With it’s bold, colorful production (at a time many TV series were still being presented in black & white)…its guest villains played by “A” list actors including Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Caesar Romero, and George Sanders…and the ‘cliffhanger’ endings leaving Batman & Robin about to be dropped into a vat of acid as the breathless announcer intoned, “Is this the end of the Dynamic Duo? Find out tomorrow, same Bat time, same Bat channel,” the show many ABC execs had ridiculed turned into an overnight, international sensation.
(During its first four weeks on the air, Batman averaged a 26.3 Neilsen rating. For the two weeks ending March 20, 1966, Batman averaged an astonishing 29.4 rating. A little perspective is in order: here in 2017, ABC couldn’t pull a 29.4 rating if it was offering a live broadcast of President Trump hitting Nancy Pelosi in the face with a Boston Cream pie.)
If the series had been darker and more violent—or if ABC had gone with its first choice, actor Lyle Waggoner—Batman might have suffered the fate of most ABC shows back in 1966. But on the strength of Adam West’s dead-serious delivery coupled with his sense of timing and his tongue-in-cheek humor, TV history was made. And ABC catapulted into the major network it would eventually become.
So news of his passing saddened many of us who—despite admiring the bigscreen Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan versions of the Dark Knight of Gotham City—will always have a soft spot in our hearts for Adam West, whose performance as the Caped Crusader still evokes fond memories of a more innocent time in pre-9/11 America when television did not resort to foul language, graphic violence and ham-handed “politically correct” agendas disguised as entertainment.
(Tom Tradup is Vice President of News & Talk Programming at the Dallas-based Salem Radio Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)