Adam West Put the POW! in ‘Batman'

The actor, who died Friday at age 88, proved himself a superhero of campiness in the iconic 1960s merging of comedy and the comics.

Some actors don capes and tights to play Shakespeare. Adam West wore them to give a master class in camp.

The “Batman” actor, who died Friday at age 88, proved himself a superhero of the genre, lending levity to the Dark Knight in the iconic 1960s merging of comedy and the comics.  

Before “Batman” splashed onto TV screens with a “POW!” and a “BAM!” in 1966, superhero-ing largely was a serious business in comic book pages and in adaptations on the big screen (1940s movie serials) and small (the 1950s hit “Adventures of Superman).

But the team behind the “Batman” series turned Bob Kane’s brooding vigilante into a Pop Art-propelled buffoon at a time when long-held notions of flawless heroes were crumbling and young people were in full rebellion mode.

West emerged as the perfect foil: His baritone mock voice-of-authority parodied the pompous, long before Chevy Chase or “The Colbert Report.” West also became an early purveyor of the art of comedic irony, presaging David Letterman, “Saturday Night Live” and much of the current late night landscape.

Actors from Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck would later wear the cowl and put their own spin on DC Comic’s Caped Cruder.

But only Adam West’s deadpan Batman could pull off being silly and cool – whether surfing in his Bat-skivvies, crooning Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup” or boogieing at a disco, with moves John Travolta went on to steal for “Pulp Fiction.”

West was in on the joke, along with his Robin, Burt Ward, and a rotating cast of villains and cameo players that included the likes of Cesar Romero (The Joker), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin) and Sammy Davis, Jr., whom the Dynamic Duo met while climbing up the side of a building.

“Hey, you guys come and catch my act sometime – I dig yours,” Davis told them.  

Lots of folks dug the act, whose influence stretches far beyond the three seasons “Batman” aired on ABC.

The TV show might seem light years away from last quarter-century of special effects-filled superhero flicks. But “Batman” stoked a thirst to see human renderings of comic book stars. More importantly, the program made it okay to inject humor into the proceedings – something Stan Lee already practiced at rival Marvel Comics.

West parlayed his “Batman” stint into a half-century of public appearances that helped spur the Comic Con phenomena. While not thrilled over being typecast, he learned to embrace Batman, not even seeming to mind if the Batmobile sometimes was a bigger draw.

His fan base included Seth MacFarlane, who had him spout surreal nonsense (“There’s nothing like a good suit massage”) with a Bruce Wayne-like air as Mayor Adam West on “Family Guy.”

If it didn’t look like West carried too many tools in his utility belt, well, that didn’t matter.

He got millions tuning in during the show's original run and in syndication long after to watch at the “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.” When the Bat Signal summoned a hero who could make us laugh, Adam West answered the call.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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