Adam West, the ever-popular actor who was Batman for a generation of fans, spoke to Mark Edlitz and Slice of SciFi about his approach to playing the Caped Crusader. Mr. West will make a personal appearance at Wizard World’s Atlanta Comic Con on December 4th and 5th.
SoSF: My 10-year old self would not believe that my 39-year old self was talking with you. On a personal note, I wanted to thank you for playing Batman.
AW: It’s been my pleasure. [He pauses and adds playfully] Most of the time.
Would you say you’re initial thoughts on playing Batman were a combination of reluctance and hope?
I’d say that’s a pretty accurate statement of the mix. But I felt that I might be able to do something fresh with the character. Something a little different. I refused to do what was normally expected [in playing a superhero].
Did you think of Bruce Wayne and Batman as two separate characters?
Can you talk a little bit about developing those two distinct personalities?
I’ll be frank, it’s difficult for me to talk about acting. But let me relate back to your first question. When I decide I want to do a part and I get curious and I start cooking with it, I just go in and do it. I don’t even think about it. Seriously. I developed the character as best as I could and I tried to bring something unique and fun to the part, and then I didn’t think about it.
In the beginning I got a lot of criticism from people associated with the show. “Oh, he’s not as serious as he should be. He’s not as wooden as we thought he should be. We don’t want to see the twinkle behind the mask.”
In other words, they thought it would be better if my interpretation was more mundane. It occurred to me, creatively, that if something is mundane and ordinary that it might not be as interesting. It might not have a lasting impact.
Batman has to be a little bit bigger than life to instill fear in the villains.
Batman was bigger than life. No one runs around like that 24/7. He’d be locked up somewhere. In my case, I reasoned that if I played Batman with utter sincerity (in that he doesn’t think he is funny) and, occasionally, with a little wink to the audience, then I could be absurdly big with the character. Those characters became almost Shakespearian.
Did you have to justify why a man would put on the cape to fight crime?
You know, not really so much. I think much of my interpretation came from sense memory of playing Batman as a kid. And what happens instantaneously when you put on the cape and cowl. Because I was able to conjure that up with a little bit of thinking and cooking with it, it became an easy way for me to get into that absurd characterization. I’d put on the cowl and say to Burt, or myself “Come on, let’s go play Batman and Robin in my yard. Come on, it’s neat.” I knew that if I had the enthusiasm and a kind of a quirkiness that you had as a kid playing him, then it might work.
You’re saying that the costume does a lot of the work for you.
Oh my God, yes. Good observation. It certainly does. Especially if you use the cape and the cowl and move in a certain way, you can appear dynamic. Batman hardly ever stops moving. Bruce Wayne does. But not Batman. Batman is always moving in some manner, even if he is merely gesturing with his hand or swinging his cape around.
When kids play Batman, they are pretending to be you. But what’s interesting is that you were actually pretending to be them playing you. Did you allow yourself to feel powerful (as a kid would) in the costume?
You are very perceptive about this stuff.
That first day walking out of my dressing room and walking on the stage was tough. I thought, “Are they going to accept me in this silly costume as the real Batman?” I had to take a deep breath. I walked across the stage towards the crew and everyone turned and there’s wasn’t a sound. They just accepted me totally.
John Wesley Shipp who played The Flash on CBS told me that he felt powerful in the costume and somewhat diminished out of it. Do you relate to that?
That was not my feeling. My feeling was probably more [in character than personal] that I felt diminished when I wore the costume — at least from Bruce Wayne’s point of view. Because as Bruce Wayne, I was faking something… It’s hard to explain….
No, I understand. It speaks to the question of who is the true identity: Batman or Bruce Wayne?
It became Batman. And not Bruce Wayne. Batman was part of all the true activity that counted and propelled the story — that is, unless you include the [1966 feature length] movie. In our movie, I had more of a chance to play Bruce Wayne.
I understand that playing more scenes, as Bruce Wayne was your one big script note.
What did you learn about playing Bruce Wayne that you didn’t realize before?
That he was a great lover. Especially if he had a brandy snifter of milk to brace himself.
Your Bruce Wayne didn’t seem tortured by being a superhero. He seemed to enjoy it.
Yes. Good. If that came across, then good.
Did you try different registers to develop the voice of Bruce Wayne?
I don’t think so. But I did develop different rhythms. But that came easily. Because he was desperately involved in what he was doing, Batman would have a different rhythm to his speech. It was easier for me to play absurd lines of dialogue when I said them with [a distinct] rhythm. Do you know what I mean?
[He chuckled.] Good. Because I don’t.
Your approach is different from Yvonne Craig who told me that she used the same voice for Batgirl and Barbara Gordon.
That brings up something else too. Someone else playing Batman might have [rationalized that] Batman should turn his head away to avoid being recognized. That was not my Batman at all. My Batman thought that regardless of how his voice sounded he would never be recognized as Bruce Wayne. He thought that the costume was too clever. But of course [if this weren’t a fictional conceit], everyone would recognize him. That was part of the absurdity of the script that I loved.
They used to advertise “Sean Connery IS James Bond. “ And that’s because we, the audience, want to believe that the actor is the character.
Are you like Batman in anyway?
Well, at the moment, I’m trying to get these handcuffs on this guy.
I don’t think I am at all. Well, maybe in one way: we both think funny.
Some actors have told me that playing these heroes has rubbed off on them in some way. Did Batman make his way into your life and vice versa?
I think so a bit. But it evolved so slowly. And it took me years to “sober up.” I feel that is it unavoidable. At least in my case I’ve sensed and seen it. Batman was a show that was geared to entire families to enjoy on different levels. But you do have a responsibility that evolves over a few years when everyone you meet thanks you, and when the kids are really starry-eyed and grateful as you said you were. It’s certainly gotten to me. And I’d hate to disappoint families.
You are expected to hold the mantle and be a spokesman for this character in some way. Is that exhausting?
Yes it is. But it paid well. And it continues. Of course, I’m joking. But it is a bit of a responsibility. But there is something selfish about it too. I was being turned down for more adult fare in more interesting work. I felt that I better embrace the thing that I created. Otherwise, I would have never have become an icon.
It’s an overused word but you actually are an icon.
I did a little piece for Lopez [Tonight] with Jamie Foxx. I hadn’t met him before but this constantly happens. People jump out of their skin. They embrace me and start yelling. I guess that’s because what I did was entertaining and affecting.
Would you have had the same impact if you played a different superhero or was there something about Batman and you that made it gel?
Yes, because if I played another character like Zorro or Green Lantern I don’t think I’d have been that intrigued by the role or wanted to do it. But Batman has such a rich history. He’s an ordinary guy who has crazily embraced a cause and I found it fascinating. I found it very funny as well. He is so obsessed and crazy that, to me, it was hilarious. That was the tight wire. To make the kids believe it. To love the splash and adventure. And the risk. And for the adults to see the tongue-in-cheek, knowing that it was a satire.
In your autobiography you said that you were “married to the cape.” In every marriage, in every relationship there are ups and downs. How did you make peace with the idea that your relationship with this character was going to be a very long one?
I think it was a very simple deduction. I think any intelligent person would come to the same conclusion. And that is if I am being turned down for other roles because of my association with Batman, then maybe what I should do is really embrace Batman. Pursue it and keep it alive. Which is what I’ve been trying to do for thirty years.
When you step into the Bat-shoes for each new incarnation, such as for the two 1979 live action specials Legends of the Superheroes, does it immediately come back to you?
Yes, but in that case almost reluctantly. Because that show was terrible. When people don’t “get it,” it makes it very difficult. You want to work with peers. You want to work with colleagues, other performers, directors, and writers. Especially writers. I love writers. You want to work with people who get it.
We had some very good writers for the original show. They saw the craziness, the comedy. You know, just as he’s about to put her in the joint, Batman says to Catwoman, “You give me curious stirrings in my utility belt.” That’s funny stuff.
Speaking of Catwoman, Julie Newmar told me that she thought Catwoman had feelings for Batman and that she’s not just toying with him. What was your sense about their relationship?
Same thing. Same thing. We had to find a way to create a sexual tension. In the way that I tried to do it, Batman felt sorry for her — even though he was also mightily attracted to her.
At that time you also did appearances in the costume. What’s it like to do that without the structure and safety of a script?
It was okay. It was a lot of work. But it was okay. Because once you get into that costume you become that character again. You can speak with those rhythms and with the intent and be kind of funny.
Even today, because of the way that I did it people absolutely believe me and trust me. Whatever I do, wherever I go, whatever I say, I can get away with almost anything. Just between us. [Laughs]. Not that I do. [Mocks whispering] Wife just walked by.
When was the last time you put on the cape?
I think it was for a still shot in the centerpiece of a magazine.
Roughly how long ago was that?
Ten years ago. Maybe 15. Then, of course, I still have my Bat-jamies that I wear almost every evening.
How has playing the part changed you?
It’s made me an extremely rich man. [Laughs] Personally, the rewards have come from the fans. Wherever I go I am met with such warmth and humor.
What would you have liked to have done with the character that you didn’t get an opportunity to do?
My own series of movies.
What direction would you have taken with the character?
Multi-directional — in that I think Batman can be expressed in transitional form on so many levels. In time. In space. He can pop up in any time, in any place in any universe.
That would have been fun to see.
Let’s do it. But you see, they don’t think in those terms. They [the people who can greenlight movies] don’t think out of the box enough. They are too concerned with violence, with explosions and trying to uncover layers of the human psyche.
Would you be interested in playing Batman (or a superhero with Batman’s qualities) now, at your present age, and in exploring what that means?
There is a character called The Gray Ghost, which I voiced [for Batman: The Animated Series] for one or two episodes. What Warners should do is pick that up for an animated series. I would be the Gray Ghost and I could do that in movies. I think the Gray Ghost would make a hell of a film.
[Laughing] Are there really Batman condoms?
But there should be. Who would win in a fight; Your Batman or George Clooney’s?
I think it depends on the circumstances. It probably depends on the kind of battle. If it were to be a battle of charm, of course, Clooney would win.
I’d like to reiterate how grateful I am that you took the time to talk with me. I grew up on your show so this is a thrill for me.
Oh, no problem. You’re a man of quality. I can tell. You’ve been great.
Adam West’s next personal appearance will be at Wizard World’s convention on December 4th and 5th in Atlanta, where he will be joined by Burt Ward. Mr. West can also be seen in 2011 at Comic-Cons in January in New Orleans and in February in Miami.
Visit WizardWorld.com for additional information.