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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Happier Batman?

Remembering TV’s Caped Crusader

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  “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...” No, I’m not referring to the legendary “Lone Ranger” radio show of the 1940s and early ’50s, I’m talking about the twice-weekly “Batman” series on late-afternoon and primetime television in the late 1960s. It was high camp played to perfection—stunningly creative and outrageously funny.

  The hilarious simplicity of TV’s Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin) and a gaggle of veteran supporting thespians, trumps the foreboding vision and craven villains in Hollywood’s big star “Batman” films of the last few decades.

  Where else but the storied ABC TV series would an actor named Ward (Dick Grayson/Robin), be cast as the ward of Wayne Manor’s laid-back West (Bruce Wayne/Batman)? And where else could you wait with baited breath to hear West breathlessly exclaim “To the bat poles…”

  Those who grew up on TV’s Batman and Robin considered the way-out shenanigans pure nirvana. These video comic book heroes who so colorfully fought crime and arch-criminals in GothamCity were larger than life and stranger than fiction.

  Masked, clean-cut West and Ward acted their parts as if they’d invented them. Watching them work—overplaying to the hilt with words and gestures—was akin to seeing Bob Kane’s comic book classic come to life before your very eyes.

  Executive script consultant Lorenzo Semple Jr. expertly turned this painted page creation into the all-time king of TV kookiness. And millions planned their time so as not to miss a single zany episode. “Batman” was like a long-running good joke—with punch lines that simply never stopped.

  Perhaps best of all, TV’s “Batman,” which ran from January 1966 through March 1968, was squeaky clean and appealed to kids and adults alike. Where else could a grown-up relive his youth in such fun-filled fashion?

  The vintage “Batman” was tailor-made for the home screen. Its admittedly sophomoric, albeit cleverly conceived slapstick, offered clear-cut good vs. evil, hero vs. villain and cops vs. crooks. The protagonists hung-out in the Batcave beneath stately Wayne Manor and were on the leading edge of technology, with futuristic communications, lasers and the sleek, jet-fast Batmobile.

  From the catchy Neal Hefti theme music to the drone of the narrator, to the “Thwack!,” “Kaplow!,” “Splat!,” “Bonk!” cartoon graphics in helter-skelter fight sequences as well as Robin’s “Holy, this” or “Holy that, Batman”—it was the most to say the least.

  What else but TV’s “Batman” would tilt the screen to remind viewers of the mind-set of the tuxedo-clad Penguin (flawlessly played by Burgess Meredith) squawking his way to madcap mischief? Who else but Jervis Tesch, a.k.a. the Mad Hatter (David Wayne) could mesmerize the Dynamic Duo with his top hat? How else could the admirable seekers of truth and justice be frozen in their tracks except through the wiles of the wily Mr. Freeze (George Sanders)?

  These were just some of the accomplished actors hamming it up as super-villain arch-criminals. Others included Victor Buono as King Tut; Frank Gorshin as The Riddler; Joan Collins as The Siren; Rudy Vallee as Lord Ffogg; Cesar Romero as The Joker and Julie Newmar as sexy, masked Catwoman. Later, in a casting masterstroke, Eartha Kitt appeared as a black Catwoman.

  This was as cagey a collection of diabolical cuckoos, with various and sundry henchmen, as ever rounded up. Adding to the hilarity, the latter often wore striped convict shirts and burglar masks and, in one of countless sight gags, carried bags of loot marked “Swag.”

  For pure comic relief, Romero—the original TV Joker with painted face and hyena-like howl—defined the role for true believers. When this storied Latin Lover of old Hollywood played a joke and escaped, millions laughed. We knew he’d get his comeuppance in the end.

  Delightful supporting roles from Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton), Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp), Alfred the butler (Alan Napier), and Aunt Harriett (Madge Blake) served to add spice to these tasty, escapist TV delicacies. All of this worked wondrously on the small screen, but may have been too small and too compact to translate to Hollywood’s big screen.

  Ironically, the first of the “Batman” movies was 1966’s quickly made attempt to take advantage of the raging popularity of the TV series. Starring most of the video cast, it was disappointing in comparison. “Batman,” it seemed, belonged on TV. And I'll bet many feel it still does.

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