Saturday, September 1, 2018

Revisiting the 1966 'Batman': What have I learned?

Batman was everywhere in 1966, including the cover of Mad.

A favorite from the cathode ray tube era.
This Saturday night, the nostalgia-based cable channel Me-TV airs its weekly hour-long Batman block for the last time. The network likes to turn over its schedule every now and again, and they've already cycled through the entire 120-episode run of the series. I suppose if I really need my Bat-fix from now on, I could just break down and buy that boxed set of the complete series.

But Me-TV's weekly airings of the 1966-68 Batman were a great way to watch the episodes at a reasonable pace. With a show as stylized and intense as this, two episodes a week are about all I could handle. Any more would be like trying to eat my own body weight in cotton candy. Besides, since the show was airing across the country, it was an opportunity to comment on each episode via Twitter in real time and commune with other Bat-fans. I'll miss that.

I wasn't alive when Batman originally aired, but I definitely saw the reruns on Channel 20, an independent UHF station in the Flint, Michigan area. Channel 20 was one of my main sources of entertainment and enlightenment during my formative years. It's where I saw The Abbott & Costello Show, The Three Stooges, The Adventures of Superman, and Lost In Space. (Coincidentally, Lost in Space will be occupying Batman's old time slot on Me-TV.)

While I had definitely seen episodes of Batman since then—I vaguely remember the show airing on FX or some other, similar basic cable network—I hadn't revisited the series in any kind of systematic way since my early childhood. But now, thanks to Me-TV, I've seen all the episodes a few times over. And here are my thoughts as an adult.

1. Batman is a Zen master. Robin is a hothead.

Peter Deyell and Lyle Waggoner.
Think just anyone could slip into some tights and be the World's Greatest Detective? Think again, citizen.

Batman would have been a very different series if producer William Dozier had gone with the other finalists for the roles of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Respectively, Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell screen tested for these parts. The contrast between this Dynamic Duo and the familiar team of Adam West and Burt Ward is stark. Waggoner's take on the Caped Crusader is stolid, humorless, and utterly lacking in self-awareness. Isn't that how West played him, too? Well, yeah, but West brought a whole level of stylized humor to the part that Waggoner's interpretation totally lacked.

In the 1999 documentary Hollywood Screen Tests, Dozier's assistant Charles B. Fitzsimmons puts it best: "Adam and Burt were, in our opinion, absolutely perfect. Lyle could have performed it. Peter could have performed it. But it would not have been what it became with Adam."

Outside of Batman, Adam West was at home in purely comedic roles, like the delusional title character on the Conan O'Brien-scripted Lookwell or as the daffy, childlike mayor of Quahog on Family Guy. And then there was his classic appearance in the "Mr. Plow" episode of The Simpsons. His version of Bruce Wayne/Batman is one of the great pop culture creations of the 1960s, a man so totally caught up in his dream of protecting Gotham while dressed up as a bat that he doesn't realize it's ridiculous. Adam West seems to exist almost in a dream state on Batman, detached from reality even when he's supposedly relaxing at stately Wayne Manor. The actor all but croons his dialogue, and his dramatic... pauses, flowery phrasing, and over-pronounced diction might even put William Shatner to shame.

Robin, meanwhile, is often thought of as a wide-eyed, squeaky-voiced innocent, constantly in slack-jawed amazement at the events unfolding around him. ("Holy _____!" is his famous catchphrase.) And that was exactly how Peter Deyell played the part. But that's not how Burt Ward plays it. His Robin is a snarling pit bull whom Batman has to keep on a (figurative) leash. And, yes, I realize the animal metaphors are getting scrambled here. The point is, when Robin threatens to fly off the handle, it's Batman who has to keep him in check. Notice how often Burt Ward punches the inside of his palm when his character is upset. His growly voice is even deeper than Batman's!

Adam West's Batman is a true Zen master, almost eerily calm and reserved. Whereas Robin tends to act on instinct, Batman is contemplative and cool, often thinking three steps ahead of the week's villain. One of my favorite aspects of this version of the character is that he's a true believer in rehabilitation. He honestly believes his enemies can mend their ways, and he wants to see them become productive citizens. Unfortunately, he doesn't get much support from the higher-ups, as we'll soon see.

2. Yes, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara are useless. But so is every official in Gotham, which is why the city needs Batman so badly.

A pair of do-nothings.
It's a well-known trope of the '60s Batman series that Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara are two past-their-prime do-nothings who spend most of their time shooting the breeze in Gordon's office. Meanwhile, the thousands of uniformed Gotham City policemen largely stay offstage. Whenever there's even the merest inkling of trouble, Commissioner Gordon is quick to call Batman on that fancy red phone he keeps under a glass dome like a freshly prepared pheasant.

But Gordon and O'Hara aren't the only screen doors on the submarine that is Gotham. Warden Crichton, who heads the Gotham City Penitentiary, is a weak, namby-pamby bumbler who has no idea how to keep the likes of Joker or Penguin under control. Prison escapes are incredibly common and incredibly brazen. Joker dips out during a baseball game in the rec yard. Shame's accomplices breach the walls of the penitentiary with an honest-to-goodness tank.

It would seem that, in the Batman '66 universe, the entire government consists of spineless bureaucrats who bow to the merest pressure. Take Mayor Linseed, for example. In "Nora Clavicle and the Ladies' Crime Club," he actually fires Commissioner Gordon at the behest of his wife, when the latter threatens to stop cooking and cleaning for him. That's it. That's all it takes. No mind control. No hostages. Just a tiny amount of nagging. If Mayor Linseed had been able to withstand that, an entire episode's worth of trouble could have been avoided.

Oh, and by the way...

3. Gotham is totally New York.

Mayor Linseed and Mayor Lindsay.
Not much to say here. While Marvel's characters tend to live in real-life places like Los Angeles, DC's characters often hail from made-up locales like Metropolis. And Metropolis, we all know, is DC's stand-in for New York City. But what does that make Gotham? Chicago? Christopher Nolan must have thought so, since he filmed The Dark Knight there. (He actually shot the Joker's bank robbery in an abandoned post office right across from the building where I was working at the time.) In Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Gotham and Metropolis seem to be right next to each other on the map. Go figure.

But if Batman '66 is to be believed, Gotham is definitely New York City. Which makes sense, since "Gotham" is supposedly a nickname for New York. On this show, Gotham is governed by the weak-willed, glad-handing Mayor Linseed. This character is clearly named after John Lindsay, who was mayor of New York from 1966 to 1973. Lindsay, in fact, is both younger and more handsome than Linseed. Usually, it goes the other way in popular culture. And whatever state Gotham is in, its governor is named Stonefellow, a nod to Nelson Rockefeller, the real governor of New York State from 1959 to 1973.

That's all the evidence I need. Gotham is New York. I guess Metropolis must be Pittsburgh or something.

4. In this version, Batman is largely the protector of Gotham's wealthy elite.

A rich guy protecting other rich guys?
The Batman franchise has gone through many, many incarnations since 1939, some more serious, some less so. But one theme has remained remarkably consistent. If the rich people in Gotham are going to have some kind of fancy-schmancy fundraiser or pretentious art opening or whatever, one of the city's supercriminals is going to show up and cause chaos, partly for material gain and partly for the satisfaction of doing it. That happens again and again on Batman '66.

But maybe that kind of thing happens too often on the show. It seems like this Batman spends all his time at jewelry stores, furriers, high-end galleries, ritzy restaurants, and musty mansions. The villains on this show are forever trying to snag expensive trinkets like diamonds or rare books, and Batman is right there to punch them in the jaw. Sure, he'll come to the aid of the rank-and-file of Gotham, too, but that's usually only when a villain is attempting some city-wide scheme like poisoning the water supply. (What is it with bad guys and water supplies?) For the most part, Batman is like an unpaid, extremely violent security guard for Gotham's wealthy elite.

There's a classic scenario that I associate with the Batman mythos. Picture this. An average citizen of Gotham, perhaps an older, gray-haired lady, is walking along one of the city's lonely back streets at night, just trying to get home. Suddenly, this citizen is accosted by a snarling thief wielding a knife. It looks like the old lady is about to get robbed at the very least. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a bat-shaped shadow appears from overhead. It's Batman! Our hero wastes no time, first disarming the thief and then knocking him out with a well-placed right hook to the jaw.

Stuff like that almost never happens on the 1966 Batman, and I have to wonder why. This version of the character is a little too uptown for his own good.

5. There's never been a hotter TV couple than Batman and Catwoman (or, more specifically, Adam West and Julie Newmar).

The ideal Mrs. Batman: Catwoman.
Long before such "will they or won't they" couples as Sam and Diane on Cheers or Dave and Maddie on Moonlighting, there was Bruce and Selina on Batman.

To my mind, there has never been a more intriguing romantic pairing than Batman and Catwoman on the 1966 Batman. The chemistry between Adam West and Julie Newmar is undeniable. It helps that no one has ever looked as good in the skin-tight Catwoman costume as Newmar. I could rhapsodize about the way she wears her belt! (In short, very low on her hips.)

Newmar's Catwoman is a flirty, clearly well-educated society girl who seemingly commits elaborate crimes just to get Batman's attention and alleviate her own boredom. She's clearly smart enough to make money in any number of legitimate ways. And it would be easy enough to sink her cat claws into some wealthy nitwit and drain his bank account. But she doesn't want any wealthy nitwit, not even Bruce Wayne. She wants Batman.

He wants her, too, but only if she can mend her ways and become a law-abiding citizen. That's the thing keeping them apart: their very natures. She could no more become a rule-following square than he could become a cat-burgling crook. Neither one can change, and so at the end of a caper, they have to part ways. It's almost tragic. He's a Montague; she's a Capulet.

One of my favorite running gags on the show, by the way, is Catwoman's complete and utter contempt for Robin. It's series canon that Robin is somehow too young to appreciate the opposite sex, so he doesn't understand why Catwoman holds such appeal for Batman. Catwoman, for her part, is bored and irritated by the Boy Wonder, whom she sees as an irksome impediment to her plans. I don't think she'd ever actually kill Batman, but she'd gladly push Robin off the side of a building without a second thought.

6. Alfred is incredibly underpaid and just all around awesome.

Give this man a raise!
Alfred Pennyworth, butler to millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, is a major part of just about any version of the Batman saga, and the 1966 series is no exception. In fact, this may be the most integral Alfred yet! This dapper, well-spoken majordomo (played beautifully by Universal contract player Alan Napier) raised Bruce Wayne single-handedly after the little rich boy's parents were killed, and now he manages the sprawling Wayne Manor without apparent help. I've never seen any other servants on Batman; maybe they're restricted to certain parts of the house, a la Beauty and the Beast.

Alfred knows all about Bruce's secret life as Batman, and he's perfectly at home in the Batcave (which he apparently accesses by elevator). And he doesn't just know about it; he actively participates in the crime-fighting enterprise. I mean, he's not literally out there punching bad guys every week, but he'll run risky errands for his boss all over town, sometimes getting himself kidnapped for his troubles. If the need arises, he'll even don the Bat-suit himself and impersonate the Caped Crusader, especially when it's necessary for Batman and Bruce Wayne to be in the same place at the same time.

That's a huge part of what makes Alfred so vital to the operation. He's instrumental in maintaining the Batman/Bruce Wayne illusion. Our hero's life is so complicated, so full of duplicity, that Alfred may be the only other person on earth who can keep it all straight. He's never fazed, this guy. "I'm sorry. Master Wayne is indisposed at the moment." "I'm afraid you just missed Batman, Commissioner Gordon." He even manages to tolerate Aunt Harriet and keep her from snooping around in Bruce Wayne's library. Whatever this guy's making, it's not enough.

One more great aspect of Alfred's character on this series is his relationship with Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. So let's discuss her next, shall we?

7. Batgirl was a great addition to the series, and you doubters can just shut your filthy mouths right now.

Batgirl: Oh, she's a worthy addition all right!
Like the third season of the original Star Trek, Season 3 of Batman takes a lot of heat from fans. and not without reason. ABC had obviously cut the budget by then, so there were fewer elaborate death traps for the Dynamic Duo and fewer full-scale Bat-fights. The writers, too, were grasping for ideas, so they wound up recycling plots from Seasons 1 and 2 or relying on increasingly far-fetched gimmicks. Even Adam West and Burt Ward seem a little checked-out during certain Season 3 episodes. Due to some contractual snag, Frank Gorshin's Riddler doesn't appear during this cycle of episodes. (John Astin briefly fills in for him.)

Nevertheless, I'll say the latter-day episodes are enjoyable, in sort of the same way that lesser-quality pizza is still pizza. The basic elements of the show—the Batmobile, the Neil Hefti theme song, the onscreen sound effects, the extremely arch dialogue, William Dozier's hyperbolic narration ("What's this?!")—are all still there. One of my favorite episodes, "Surf's Up! Joker's Under!," is from Season 3, and that one episode continues to inspire its own merchandise!

The best reason to watch Season 3, though, is definitely Batgirl. As played by former ballet dancer Yvonne Craig, she is a well-needed shot of adrenaline for the series. Whether as Batgirl or as mild-mannered librarian Barbara Gordon, daughter to the police commissioner, she's tough, sexy, and a total charmer, not to mention a fashion icon. She also gets her own cool theme song, co-written by Stan Freberg collaborator Billy May! What's not to like? I even enjoy her interactions with her pet bird, Charlie. Some might try to lump Batgirl in with such tacked-on TV characters as Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch or Scrappy-Doo from Scooby-Doo. Those people are misguided, to put it mildly.

One of my favorite aspects of the Batgirl character is that Alfred knows her secret identity and acts as her confidant and assistant. I could 100% see a Batgirl spinoff working, but I would have set the whole thing in England. Just come up with some reason for Barbara Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth to move to the UK, then have them be an Avengers-like duo, DC's answer to Emma Peel and John Steed. I'd have watched the hell out of that.

8. Sure, I have ideas for villains I'd like to have seen. Don't you?

My pick for Poison Ivy: Edy Williams.
Let's face it. When it comes to Batman baddies, there are the big four—Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman—and then there's everyone else. But even here there are strata. Echelons of respectability, if you will. Foes like Mr. Freeze, Clock King, and Mad Hatter were all imported directly from the pages of DC Comics. Others, like Egghead, King Tut, and Bookworm, were created especially for the TV show but were well-received enough by fans to be accepted into the Bat-canon, eventually making appearances in the comic books and getting their own action figures.

When I was a kid tuning into Batman on Channel 20, I was always hoping for one of the big four. (Little wonder that the 1966 Batman theatrical movie includes all of them.) But I learned to appreciate some of the others, too, especially Otto Preminger's fussy, ill-tempered Mr. Freeze. (Perhaps as a result of growing up in Michigan, I was always interested in coldness-based heroes and villains, including Captain Cold and Killer Frost.) During my Batman re-watch, I've become a fan of Roddy McDowall's persnickety, leather-suited Bookworm and Cliff Robertson's befuddled cowboy Shame.

But I can't help wondering why some classic Batman villains from the comics never made it to the small screen. The seductive Poison Ivy debuted in June 1966, just in time to be immortalized on the series, but it never happened. This would have been a perfect role for perennial man-eater extraordinaire Edy Williams. Edy actually appeared on Batman a few times, but never in this part. A pity.

And what about Two-Face, arguably the most famous of the Bat-foes never to make it on the series? Edward G. Robinson might have knocked this out of the park, and it's not unreasonable to think that he'd do it, because he did guest star as himself on Batman once. (He and Batman discussed art!) But if they couldn't get Edward G. Robinson, the obvious choice would have been George Raft, the tough guy actor famous for habitually flipping a coin. How did this never happen?

Scarecrow, too, might have made a decent Batman character. The producers clearly loved using colored smoke bombs on the show, so Scarecrow's "fear gas" would be a natural. And I think Ray Walston, then probably best known for My Favorite Martian, would have done very well with this part. Ra'as al Ghul debuted just a wee bit late (1971) for this show, but I can definitely see Robert Goulet in this part.

To me, though, the biggest missed opportunity in Batman history was that they never got Jackie Gleason to play a villain. He would have been great at it, wearing tacky plaid suits, smoking cigars, and barking orders at henchmen. Jackie's Honeymooners costar Art Carney was tragically miscast as the pseudo-Shakespearean baddie Archer in a Batman two-parter that doesn't really work at all, But Carney would have made a great dim-witted sidekick to a Gleason villain. I'd have had Gleason play some kind of billiards-themed bad guy, spoofing his image from The Hustler (1961). The Pool Shark or Gotham City Fats or something like that. It would have made for some great visuals. Imagine the Dynamic Duo strapped to a giant billiard ball, about to be knocked into the ocean by a pool cue the size of a battering ram. Fortunately, our heroes are able to escape at the last second while Gleason and Carney have one of their trademark arguments. ("Will you get on with it?!")

As you can see, I've put a lot of thought into the 1966 Batman series. Probably too much. It might be a good thing that Me-TV is changing its schedule.