Same Bat-Series, New Bat-Features by Jerry Whitworth
Following a deal cut between Warner Bros and Fox over the Batman television series of the 1960s starring Adam West and Burt Ward (giving WB access to Fox’s original content in the franchise), fans knew it was only a matter of time before the series, long absent from home media, would finally find its way to DVD (albeit with a healthy dose of hesitation). A recent surprise announcement from comedian and late night television host Conan O’Brien on Twitter would provide fans the news they’ve waited nearly five decades to finally hear: Batman is coming home. Simply stating the series would come to DVD sometime in 2014, the three seasons of the famous show is said to have saved the Batman franchise at DC Comics (which had lagged in sales following the nationwide assault on the comic book industry in the 1950s, Batman kept alive through the efforts of Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino starting in 1964). Following the premier of Batman, not only would sales of Batman’s books thrive, the character became a cultural phenomenon in the United States (and in some ways across the planet) as DC Comics put the character front and center in titles like Justice League of America, World’s Finest Comics, and The Brave and the Bold (beginning to edge Superman out of his long held limelight at the company). The television series featured big name actors like Vincent Price, Milton Berle, Joan Collins, Cesar Romero, and Burgess Meredith (Clint Eastwood was considered to appear as Two-Face until the character was viewed too gruesome for the show’s audience). As with many DVD releases, perhaps as exciting for the series to be made available for home consumption is the desire for what special features will be included in the collection (especially for such a long awaited series). Lets take a look at some of the special features we may expect to see included with the set.
The origins of Batman himself are hotly contested. By the official record, Batman was the brain child of cartoonist Bob Kane. However, ask virtually any big comic book fan and they’re likely to relate the contributions of ghost writer Bill Finger as taking some ideas of Kane’s Bird-Man concept and molding them into what would become Bat-Man (add Jerry Robinson to the mix with creating characters like the Joker and butler Alfred and the controversy deepens even further). A similar, but less convoluted, story surrounded the birth of the Batman series. Executive producer William Dozier had for years related the story of the show’s genesis as having read some Batman comics on a flight and thinking the concept merited a television treatment. Of course, today, we know instead the assignment was handed to Dozier after ABC executive Yale Udoff saw the Batman and Robin film serial at the Playboy Club in Chicago and thought it could be the basis of a show. As a special feature, the true story behind the emergence of Batman should be told, bringing together some of the comic industry’s most noted historians as they tell how a chance screening of the disappointing Batman serial planted the seed for one of the biggest breakthroughs of comics into the mainstream media. Though Dozier may have not had the idea to make the series, it should be noted he was the one to establish the camp angle and he brought in Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to head up the treatment for TV. And, of course, it could cover how a Nestle Quik commercial put Adam West on the show’s radar as the star and how Burt Ward’s real estate salesman father introduced him to producer Saul David who got Ward an agent (who got him the audition for Batman).
Rarely seen, screen tests were made of the frontrunners for the roles of Batman and Robin for the television series. Burt Ward’s audition established a martial arts background demonstrating judo throws and falls as well as board breaking chops. Ward went on to screen test with Adam West before it was decided to pair the actors for the series. However, West and Ward were not the only actors in the running. Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell were also close to landing the part and filmed screen tests to give executives options for casting. Waggoner would later be cast as Steve Trevor on the Wonder Woman TV series. These tests would undoubtedly be interesting extras for the DVD set. Another interesting bit would be including “Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?”, a brief pilot produced by William Dozier to try and sell a series based on Wonder Woman in 1967.
Revealed in subsequent biographies, interviews, and the 2003 made-for-TV film Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt, it seems as though the story behind the scenes of the Batman series was significantly more juicy than anything in the show itself. Adam West, the veteran actor, and Burt Ward, the newcomer, were both suddenly struck with a degree of success few in their field will ever experience as international icons. West reveled in finally hitting it big, becoming a sex symbol adored by women that thoroughly chewed his lines (increasing his screen time) and became too close for comfort for some of his female costars. Ward felt under appreciated as he was consistently endangered in doing many of his own stunts and believed West was actively trying to push him out of scenes to keep the spotlight on himself (leading Ward to advocate for more screen time to key series writer Stanley Ralph Ross). Complicating matters more still, Yvonne Craig’s introduction as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in the third season (where episodes were limited to half hour stories) created a new strain as screen time had to be made for her character and West’s attitude butted heads with Craig’s feminist views. Add in bits like Burgess Meredith quitting smoking only to play the Penguin who was a chronic smoker, Cesar Romero refusing to shave his mustache for the role of the Joker, and Victor Buono of King Tut fame as being openly gay (but not overtly advertising the fact) with bisexual leanings and there’s enough material for several featurettes.
The subject of fanzines, documentaries, and books, Batmania (lifted from Beatlemania) was the term affixed to the craze that arose out of the Batman TV series. It’s difficult in this age to describe the effect Batman had on the nation and across the globe. The so-called Batusi, a dance move used by Batman, was being used in dance clubs everywhere. Batman merchandise of all kinds sold out almost as soon as they were put on shelves. The show’s stars were given thousands of dollars for public appearances. Batman would even inspire a hairstyle among women who wore their hair similar to his cowl’s design. Children, teenagers, and adults were engrossed in the Batman series. A special feature could easily cover the phenomenon with at the very least a collector showing just some of the hundreds of Bat-products to be produced to capitalize on the show’s success.
ADAM WEST ON THE ROAD
As mentioned, series stars Adam West and Burt Ward made thousands of dollars traveling America making public appearances (the Batmobile also a popular traveling attraction). While Ward certainly made the rounds, during the heyday of the Batman show, West seemed to be everywhere. Stadiums, rodeos, fairs, circuses, and on and on, West would don his Batman costume (promoting the show, he was allowed to borrow the suit) and become the character. In addition, he made numerous television appearances. He appeared on The Milton Berle Show (1966) as part of a gag with Berle playing different villains on Batman and The Green Hornet at the same time (the sketch including Van Williams and Bruce Lee). West made numerous appearances as Batman on the ABC variety series The Hollywood Palace (1966) with hosts like Bing Crosby and Milton Berle (in one sketch, Berle playing the part of Superman and Martha Raye as Wonder Woman) as well as hosting an episode himself opening the show as the caped crusader. West and Ward would also appear as themselves on The Merv Griffin Show (1966). In 1967, ABC would capitalize on the Batman phenomenon by having the character with Robin introduce and host its Fall schedule preview investigating a show taken out of the line-up. In the end, it’s shown to be a ruse by Milton Berle to promote his Friday night comedy show. Likely only ever reproduced in part on Action Heroes of Movies & T.V.: A Campy Compilation (1989), the special could be a prime choice to be added as a special feature. Including some of these television appearances and perhaps a featurette on West’s travels could make for fantastic extras.
As much a star as Adam West and Burt Ward, the Batmobile designed and fabricated in part by Dean Jeffries under contract to George Barris has been the focus of several studies by fans of the show and car enthusiasts. Of course, Barris and Jeffries would move on to craft the Black Beauty for The Green Hornet and Jeffries designed and fabricated the Monkeemobile for The Monkees. Previously in the comics, the Batmobile was a rather unremarkable vehicle with plain cars with some decorations and modifications added but the Barris redesign set a new standard for the iconic piece of machinery that thrives today. A featurette on the two men, their contributions to television super vehicles and the impact of their Batmobile would make for a welcome addition as a special feature.
BATGIRL PREVIEW and PSA
Just as Adam West and Burt Ward test screened for executives, when showrunners decided to introduce Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl to the third season of Batman, a preview was produced to sell the idea to ABC higher-ups. In what has been often mistitled as a pilot, the never aired preview featured Batman and Robin being captured by the Killer Moth and being rescued by Batgirl. This preview must have done well as ABC approved the change and ordered the third season. Following the cancellation of Batman, Yvonne Craig would again don her Batgirl costume joined by Burt Ward and William Dozier for a public service announcement in 1972 on equal pay for women (West, distancing himself from the Batman character at the time, replaced by Dick Gautier, famous for playing Hymie the Robot on Get Smart). Both of these pieces would be fantastic Easter eggs.
Following the end of Batman, many of the show’s actors had trouble finding work afterword. Burt Ward largely retired from the business (save some handful of portrayals as Robin) as Adam West returned to the public appearance circuit, making considerably less and often finding humiliation this time around in donning the costume. In 1983, some members of the show reunited for a special episode of Family Feud. Adam West, Burt Ward, Yvonne Craig, Lee Meriwether, and Vincent Price represented the cast of Batman as they competed against the cast of Lost in Space. A great advent, however, would be the announcement of the feature film Batman slated for release in 1989. There was renewed interest in the old television series, bringing West and Ward together for a segment on Entertainment Tonight in 1987. However, significantly grander was in 1988 with full on reunion specials on the shows The Wil Shriner Show and The Late Show with Ross Shafer. For the former, West, Ward, Yvonne Craig, Julie Newmar, and writer Stanley Ralph Ross were brought back together. The latter reunited West, Ward, Craig, Newmar, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Eartha Kitt, and Alan Napier (sadly, Napier passed shortly afterward). In 1989, CBS This Morning would follow suit hosting West, Newmar, Romero, and Burgess Meredith. With renewed interest in the Batman television series, Fox reran the series with new promos and bumpers starring West, Ward, Craig, Newmar, and Van Williams (originally for a marathon of the series’ best episodes). Obviously, any of these rare pieces of footage would be welcome additions.
While among comic fans, the Batman series could bring up many different feelings from joy to hatred, there’s no denying the impact the show had on the character and comic book industry. What would be interesting is to see the threads of the series picked up over the years, such as Adam West and Burt Ward revisiting their roles be it voice acting for Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman (a sequel to The Adventures of Batman and animated shorts on Sesame Street) or donning the costume of the characters in Legends of the Superheroes (alongside Frank Gorshin). West, though, would continue to carry the torch in the years that followed, voicing Batman in the two Super Powers seasons of Superfriends, the Gray Ghost in Batman: The Animated Series, Caped Crusader in Animaniacs, and Thomas Wayne in the often-’60s series inspired Batman: The Brave and the Bold (Julie Newmar playing the voice of wife Martha). Of course, there’s also the Batman ’66 series currently produced by DC Comics based on the old TV series. However, what should also be of note is how the show changed the comics, such as the newfound prominence of the Riddler, Mister Zero’s change to Mister Freeze, and the introduction of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. Coverage of the ongoing legacy of Batman would make for an intriguing featurette.
Of course, when you talk about DVD releases, you have to talk about audio commentaries. The issue afflicting Batman, however, is the unfortunate reality many of the series’ actors, producers, directors, and writers have since passed away. Obviously, Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, and Yvonne Craig should be much sought after additions for audio commentary for the set. There are a handful of other actors, like John Astin, Joan Collins, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eli Wallach, Van Williams, and Barbara Rush, still with us who are hopefully considered for commentary. And, of course, along the way it should be considered interviewing them for features while they’re there (not to mention speaking to Lyle Waggoner and Richard Gautier for their brief contributions to the Batman mythos). A personal treat for a martial arts fan like myself would be commentary from Van Williams and Linda Lee Cadwell (widow of Bruce Lee) for the two-part Green Hornet crossover (touching on the controversy involving a rumored disagreement between Burt Ward and Bruce Lee over their fight at the second episode’s finale Ward later stated was a joke by Lee a must).