Our boomer flags were lowered to half staff this week with the passing of Adam West. He was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington, but for boomers, he was and always will be, Batman.
Anderson’s mother moved him to Seattle after divorcing his father when he was 14, but he went back to Walla Walla after high school to attend Whitman College. After graduating with a degree in literature, he worked a variety of jobs, including as a radio DJ, before doing post-graduate studies at Stanford University.
When he was drafted into the Army, he worked as an announcer for American Forces Network television and was part of a team tasked to create TV studios for the military, first in California, then in New Jersey.
After leaving the army in 1954, an old friend from Walla Walla, Carl Hebenstreit, suggested he move to Hawaii. There, Hebenstreit was hosting a local children’s TV series called The Kini Popo Show with a chimpanzee as his co-host. Anderson got his first acting job when he signed on as a sidekick, and later replaced Hebenstreit as the host. He had never studied acting.
The same year he worked in Hawaii, he appeared in a series of roles on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. His first movie role arrived in 1957’s Voodoo Island, though his role was uncredited. After moving to Los Angeles in 1959 he changed his name to Adam West and quickly landed a contract with Warner Bros. There, he appeared in his first credited film, The Young Philadelphians (1959,) along with Paul Newman, Barbara Rush, Brian Keith and Robert Vaughn. A series of Western roles followed, and a slew of television appearances that reads like a Who’s Who of popular boomer TV shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Laramie, Gunsmoke, Bewitched, Maverick, The Outer Limits, Petticoat Junction and The Virginian, to name a few.
As a spokesperson for Nestle’s Quik in 1965, he had more than 70 roles to his credit. Casting agents saw him in a commercial and he became Bruce Wayne/Batman on the Batman television series (1966-68). His campy, deadpan delivery as Batman was the perfect nonsense to appear in a cultural landscape that was increasingly chaotic. The Generation Gap was widening between early boomers and their parents’ generation as the Vietnam War escalated to produce the beginning of the protest movement.
Mister Boomer was a teenager when the series began. He enjoyed the pun-filled dialogue, big star appearances and the tongue-in-cheek nod to comic books with OOF! BLAM! and POW! spinning onto the screen during the inevitable fight sequences. It would be a decade later before Mister Boomer saw the show in color, at which time he saw that the brightness of the colorful sets were clearly designed with comic books in mind. His whole family enjoyed watching Batman, but it was his sister who would walk around the house singing, Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…Batman!
There may not be a boomer anywhere who didn’t enjoy some portion of what was clearly a ridiculous portrayal of the Dark Knight. Right from the start the show brought in big stars as villains; Burgess Meredith was the Penguin, Cesar Romero was the Joker, Frank Gorshin was the Riddler, Vincent Price was Egghead, and Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman. By the second season stars asked to be on the show. The list of stars looking to act alongside Adam West is long and impressive. (See Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da … Guest Star!)
After the show ended in 1968, West was typecast and could not find work. It was two years before he was able to land a role on TV’s The Big Valley. After that he picked up where he left off before becoming Batman, making more than 80 appearances on TV shows and in movies. Boomers recognized his later cartoon voiceover work in SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons and The Family Guy.
Adam West had an accomplished career in movies and television without his role as Batman, but would boomers everywhere remember his name and mourn his passing as they are now if he didn’t don those ill-fitting tights?
What roles do you remember Adam West in, boomers? Were you a fan of the Batman series?