Adam West: The People’s Batman

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 By Allen Callaci

Adam West belongs on that short list of things that it is impossible to imagine the universe being without: Mount Everest. Refrigeration. The Beatles. Freeways. Adam West.

You take your Christian Bales, George Clooneys, and Ben Afflecks. When it comes to Batman nobody wore the cowl better than Adam West. His Batman was goofy, out of shape and potbellied. A Batman without pretense. A Batman without abs. A Batman who had been relegated to appearing at car shows and shopping to help make ends meet in the 70s. Adam West was the People’s Batman.

James Lipton never asked him “What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?” on Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was never nominated for an Emmy. And he was never singled out by a president to be honored at the Kennedy Center for his contribution to American culture. The only awards show to ever recognize Adam West was the 2005 TV Land Awards where he took home the “favorite crime-stopper” award.

As a culture, we are reluctant to reward joy. We are suspect of it. We tend to instinctually devalue it. It is not the music makers and the dreamers of dreams that garner all the cultural kudos, it is the “Out of Africas” and the “Crash-es” who garner all the accolades and rewards on their way to becoming the answer to the local pub’s Tuesday night trivia challenge. “Weight” and “substance” are the scales on which “art” is weighed. Not joy. But it is joy that endears an artist to an audience.

Adam West was beloved by generations of Bat-fans for the unfiltered joy he brought to his comically deadpan take on the caped crusader. Sir Laurence Olivier could not have delivered lines like “I always imagined it would end differently, but yet less ignominiously. To drown in my own anniversary cake!” as pitch-perfectly as Adam West did. West’s straight-faced, unaffected monotone delivery of such absurd dialogue made them that much more ridiculous, comic and memorable. No sly winks or post-modern elbow nudges let viewers know they were in on the gag. West’s outward self-consciousness endeared him to so many. He allowed the audience to embrace the show however they wished.

Like many other Generation X-ers I did not catch the comic genius of the show on initial viewings. The cliffhanger questions as to whether West’s Batman would survive a mutant clam beast were not laughing matters to my toddler-self, they were matters of life and death. Sure, he had miraculously made his way out of Mr. Freeze’s human-sized snow-cone making machine last week but a mutant clam beast? Hard to say. Holy naiveté and suspension of disbelief!

Thanks to Adam West I discovered what it was I wanted to do with my life. At age four I found my greater purpose. I would become Batman. Thanks to a plastic, fire-retardant Ben Hogan Batman Halloween costume purchased at the local K-Mart my dream job was soon within my gloved reach.

My father, who passed a few decades ago, was a classically trained pianist so skilled he had the ability to instantly learn pretty much any song he heard on the piano. At age five the only song I wanted him to play the Batman theme ad nauseam. And he indulged me.
When he hit those familiar chords, I’d roll around the floor punching my two fists into the air picturing the words “Zap” Bam” Pow” floating above me as I loudly sang along. “Nanananana Batman, Batman, Batman.”

My sister texted me the afternoon Adam West passed: “We lost Adam West here but dad gets to see him now.”

And I picture my dad playing the Batman theme song as a cross-eyed Adam West draws his hands across the painted eyebrows of his cowl and dances the Batusi into eternity.