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“The first time… I ever saw half… your face…” R.I.P Adam West.

June 11, 2017

batman

Actually I don’t remember the first time I saw either half or all of Adam West’s face, because Adam West’s was one of a dwindling band of famous faces that I cannot remember ever not knowing.

He was Batman.  You may have heard.  Made in the 60s and repeated throughout the 70s, Batman was a show I never had to wait too long to see an episode of.

Adam West’s antagonists were many.  Not just Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether, but countless others.  The range of Hollywood talent that was excavated in order to provide bizarrely specialised villainy for Gotham City was breathtaking. George Sanders, Otto Preminger, Eli Wallach, Anne Baxter, Ethel Merman, Vincent Price, Milton Berle, Joan Collins, and Tallulah Bankhead all donned extraordinary garb and were given licence to chew Gotham’s scenery with some of the diabolically camp excess ever sanctioned by any director on stage or screen.

My personal favourite was Victor Buono as King Tut – in “reality”, a bewildered professor of archaeology who suffers a recurrent delusion that he is a 3000 year old pharaoh and who periodically threatens the city with Egyptian-themed apocalypse.  After every adventure, he would be blipped on the head, restored to penitent sanity, and ask politely if he needed to be escorted back to that special hospital.

Yet this wealth of talent dashed itself upon Adam West.  Hollywood threw everything at him, and yet he stood his ground.  You could not help staring at him (whether or not you saw half of Batman’s face or all of Bruce Wayne’s).  It was his hilarious and perfect seriousness that made him so hilarious and so compelling.  It wasn’t that his Batman never smiled – it was that his rare smiles were so deliberate and mannered.  I saw him cry once, and that tear was an isolated thing of slow wonder worthy of paragraphs of description from the pen of Laurence Sterne.  Every thing Adam West did was deliberate.

Adam West knew that if the show is not to be taken seriously, then Batman must be played with uttermost seriousness.  He was also a man of mystery, who was wearing a mask as much when playing Bruce Wayne as when he played the caped crusader.  Maybe 1960s Batman had a painful back story, but unlike Michael Keaton or Christian Bale – we were never going to hear about it.  Incidentally, the fact that nobody in Gotham City figures out that there’s only one person in the county that could possibly afford to construct all of Batman’s toys, is a reminder that “Gotham” is a name famous in fokelore for its denizens’ real or feigned idiocy.

Gotham City itself was New York.  There was little effort to disguise this obviousness. At once point Commissioner Gordon referred to “Mayor Linseed” and at another point the Batmobile crosses the “West River” to get to “New Guernsey”.  But this 1960s New York was also a fantasy kingdom, a place of “COLOR” at a time when to be “IN COLOR” was a circumstance worth capitalising.

So strange and magical and uncorpsable Adam West has passed.  The talent of spouting ludicrous dialogue while wearing a silly costume and keeping your face uncreased with involuntary mirth is a rare and specialised one.  He was serious so that we could be silly.  And his infuriating po-faced high-mindedness had a kind of irritating fascination for all those wonderful wonderful villains.

Perhaps that was why none of them ever shot him through the head with a gun when they had him tied up, instead of leaving him unattended at the mercy of Heath-Robinson style killing machines replete with egg timers and conveyor belts.  (The principle of “Occam’s Razor” was unknown in 1960s Gotham.)  Perhaps all those villains knew that only an anchored presence like Adam West’s Batman made any sense of their own absurdity.

He was… some kind of… a man!

 

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