Adam West, who portrayed the superhero Batman in a wildly popular television show in the 1960s and who seemed trapped in the character’s cape and tights for the rest of his career, died June 9 in Los Angeles. He was 88.
The cause was leukemia, his publicist, Molly Schoneveld, said in a statement.
Other actors, including Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Val Kilmer and Oscar winners George Clooney and Christian Bale, have taken on the role of the Caped Crusader, but no one was as closely identified with the character as West.
His dozens of other film and television credits, from westerns to police dramas, seemed to be forgotten, as popular culture remembered him solely for his role on a half-hour adventure comedy that lasted just three seasons, from 1966 to 1968.
“I decided early on to embrace the character,” West told the Guardian newspaper in 2014. “I mean how many actors are lucky enough to play a character that becomes iconic?”
It is hard to overestimate the popularity of “Batman” among young baby boomers in the late 1960s. It was a vivid blast of color and sound, as television emerged from its dour black-and-white beginnings.
The driving theme song by Neal Hefti opened the show, as the Dynamic Duo — first introduced in comic books in 1939 — came to life on the small screen. West played a dapper millionaire, Bruce Wayne, who adopted his alter ego as Batman whenever crime threatened Gotham City.
Through a secret passageway in “stately Wayne Manor,” West entered the Batcave and emerged in his mask and cape as Batman, speeding toward trouble in his turbo-powered Batmobile. His young sidekick Robin, played by Burt Ward, was in the passenger seat, forever pronouncing everything “holy,” as in “Holy hieroglyphics!” “Holy crucial moment!” of “Holy nick of time!”
During its first two seasons, “Batman” aired two nights a week, with 120 episodes produced during its three-year run on ABC-TV. At the end of each episode, viewers were invited to tune in again, “same Bat time, same Bat channel.”
Batman and Robin faced a brightly costumed array of nefarious masterminds, including the Joker (played by Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and the always-tempting Catwoman (played by Julie Newmar in the first two seasons, by Eartha Kitt in the third).
The villains often had the juiciest roles, as Batman and Robin played it straight, to the point of being punctilious about language in the face of peril.
“You can’t get away from Batman that easy!” Robin says to Catwoman in an episode from the first season.
“Easily,” Batman says.
Batman: “Good grammar is essential, Robin.”
Robin: “Thank you.”
Batman: “You’re welcome.”
When he picked up the telephone in the Batmobile, Batman answered formally: “Batman speaking.”
There was always something a little goofy about the show, with its masked heroes, stilted dialogue and staged fistfights, accompanied by comic-book lettering spelling out each blow: POW! SOCK! WHACK! ZLONK!
“Batman” was a comedy, but its central character didn’t seem to be in on the joke. He never cracked a smile, even as the Joker and the Riddler laughed maniacally in his face.
“I think one or two of the regulars in the cast thought I was a little conceited, in that I would tell them: ‘I want you please to make this moment, this scene, the best of your life, because this show will be lasting,’” West told The Washington Post in 2014. “I just wanted it to be great.”
West, who had a degree in English literature and studied under acclaimed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, seemed to be a Shakespearean actor who wandered into a slapstick routine. The result was kind of off-kilter rectitude.
“Where’d you get a live fish, Batman?” Robin asks.
“The true crime-fighter,” Batman explains, “always carries everything he needs in his utility belt, Robin.”
For a couple of years, West and the Batman franchise were as well known as James Bond, the Beatles or any other pop culture phenomenon of the time. West starred in a “Batman” feature film in 1966 — with Lee Meriwether as Catwoman — and Batman lunchboxes, toy cars and Halloween costumes were everywhere.
So was West, who acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man. He he once accompanied the voluptuous Sophia Loren to the Vatican.
“How can I put this?” he said in 2005. “When you go to the Sistine Chapel with Sophia Loren, it can be quite some time before your thoughts turn to the ceiling.”
Then, almost as quickly as “Batman” soared to fame, it was over. The show was canceled in March 1968, and for years West seemed personally and professionally lost.
He made appearances and public service announcements dressed as Batman, resenting the costume before accepting that would be his identity forever.
He took on frequent roles, often as a voice-over actor, playing himself or some version of the Batman character.
Beginning in 2000, with his tongue firmly in cheek, West played a corrupt mayor in the animated series “Family Guy” — a mayor named Adam West.
William West Anderson was born Sept. 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington. His father was a farmer, and his mother had theatrical ambitions.
He was a graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla and served in the Army as an announcer on armed forces television. He had a regular spot on a children’s TV show in Hawaii before moving to Hollywood.
By 1959, when he appeared opposite Paul Newman in the film drama “The Young Philadelphians,” he had taken the name Adam West. He appeared in many TV series, including a featured role in “The Detectives” in the early 1960s.
After portraying Batman, West said he turned down an offer to play James Bond. He published a memoir, “Back to the Batcave,” in 1994.
His marriages to Billie Lou Yeager and Ngahra Frisbie ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 46 years, the former Marcelle Lear; two children from his second marriage; and four children from his third marriage.
West received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012 and was the subject of a 2013 documentary.
The 120 episodes of “Batman” have been in near-continual reruns for decades, and the entire series was released in a high-definition Blu-ray format in 2014.
“Batman” remains a peculiar 1960s phenomenon, a seemingly frivolous show with dozens of memorable acting roles and quotable lines. And West was content to be the embodiment of Batman in the eyes of millions.
As 1960s nostalgia was transformed into a retro-nerd-hipster sort of cool, he became a popular attraction at comics conventions and made memorable appearances on “The Simpsons,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “30 Rock” and the “Funny or Die” comedy website.
“I thought … it would be the end of me, and it was for a bit,” West said of his signature role at the 2014 Comic-Con gathering in San Diego. “But then I realized that what we created in the show … we created this zany, lovable world.”