An Interview with Burt Ward by Mark Edlitz
Even though the character of Robin is now over 70 years old, Burt Ward, who portrayed the junior half of the Dynamic Duo in the very popular Sixties television series Batman, remains most fans favorite embodiment of the character.
In anticipation of his appearance this weekend, from April 29th through May 1st, at Wizard World Anaheim Comic Con, Burt Ward spoke to Slice of SciFi about playing the Boy Wonder.
What were your initial thoughts about playing a superhero?
I was a young actor going to UCLA, studying acting on the side. When I tried out for the part, I didn’t even know what show I was trying out for. It was one of those quick things, “Get over to Twentieth Century Fox right away and go see this person.” When I arrived, I was handed some lines to read which [only identified] the characters as “Bruce” and “Dick”. I later found out that names stood for Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
After I did the screen test the producers said, “We have one more thing for you to do. Go over to that trailer. We have a wardrobe man who is going to help you get changed.” I said, “Help me get changed? I know how to take off my clothes.” “No, no you don’t understand. We have some special clothes for you to wear.”??I put on this gosh-awful clothing. Let me tell you, man was not built for tights. I still didn’t know what I was trying out for. With the cape and the mask, I thought, “Is this some kind of period piece?” I didn’t know until later [what the part was] because as a kid I read Superman comics. I didn’t read Batman and Robin.
When they told you, you’d be playing a superhero, what did you think?
I wondered how the show would turn out. It seemed very creative. I remember watching the first show, which was on January 12 of 1966 at 7pm. I’ll never forget; it was spectacular. They added the Pows, Zaps and Splasts and I thought, “Gee, this is a really terrific show.”??The difference between Batman and other shows at the time is that we were the very first television show in history that actually “put on” our viewers. The young kids saw us as [actual] superheroes and they took it very seriously. The adults enjoyed the nostalgia for the comic books. But it was the teenagers and the college kids who used to fight for seats in the dorm rooms on Tuesdays and Thursdays and watched us put on our tights to put on the world. [The show was aired twice weekly for its first two seasons, resulting in the production of a total of 120 episodes.] I used to say that we were the only heroes who wore our underwear on the outside of our clothes!
How did you feel when you first put on the costume? Were you worried about how you’d be perceived?
I wasn’t. I was so uncomfortable I was wondering how I could possibly do everything that the script called for while wearing this contraption. It wasn’t just the tights itched me to death, squeezed in all the wrong places and pulled all the hair on my legs. It was the cape, which was double thick bridal satin. It must have weighed five pounds. Let me tell you, having that on and having it pull my head back, I would get a neck ache in about five minutes. And there was a vest made out of wool. The sharp edges of the wool would poke through my green T-shirt and would constantly rub against my skin and cause my skin to itch. Surviving in that costume was everything.
How did you approach the part?
There were eleven hundred young guys who tried out for the part. Winning the part was very difficult. The odds were not in my favor. But after I was cast, the producers told me why I was offered the role. This is exactly what they said back in 1965. They said, “You know Burt, we’ve interviewed eleven hundred young actors and screen tested dozens of them but the reason we’re selecting you for the part is because in our minds, you, personally Burt are what we would imagine Robin to be like. So, we don’t want you to do take on any unusual characterizations. Because what you are is what we believe Robin would be. So, keep in mind just two things. Be yourself. Be enthusiastic. That’s all we want. Because, in our eyes, you are the real Robin.”
It’s interesting that you say that because fans want no separation between the actor and the superheroes they embody.
I agree. I agree. I was a martial artist and studied karate for years, which at the time wasn’t [a martial art] that most fans knew anything about. I did my own fight scenes.
I must tell you that that Adam West and myself had stunt men. But they had a policy on Batman. Whenever there was something dangerous (which seemed to be in every episode) they always said, “Use Burt.” So, I was always getting hurt. Because my stuntman was off having coffee with Adam West!
I’ll never forget that the very first shot on the very first day in the Batmobile, I’m dressed in my costume, we come barreling out of the Batcave, I noticed that Adam wasn’t driving. I said, “Why are you driving? Why are you in the costume?” He said, “I am a stuntman. I’m a specialist in racing cars.” I said, “Oh. Why am I here? Don’t I have a stunt man?” “You have one. He’s over there having coffee with Adam West.” I said, “What’s going on here? If it’s so dangerous that Adam needs a stuntman why don’t you have a stuntman for me?” And the answer came back, “Because your stuntman doesn’t look like you.” For three and a half years, in prime time, I had a wonderful stunt man but I did all the stunts because he didn’t look like me!
Did you agree with the producers that you were in many ways like Robin?
I grew up out here in Los Angeles in Beverly Hills. I went to Beverly High and UCLA. Maybe I was a sheltered kid. I never smoked. Never took drugs or drank alcohol. It wasn’t for religious reasons. I just always was into being healthy.
I loved the Superman comic books. I never envisioned myself to be Superman growing up but because I was a kid [I possibly considered] being Superboy. Even at three years of age, I have photos of me [pretending to be a superhero] with a clothespin holding a bath towel around my neck while riding a bicycle.
I related to the overall style of the show because I used to dream about that when I was a kid. I really believe that dreams and thoughts are things that if you think really hard enough about them you can actually bring it into your life.
You put it out there and it comes back.
Exactly. We are all electrical. I believe our bodies are electrical and that our thoughts are almost like radio waves that you can send out and that you can receive them as well.
Does that relate to you getting cast as Robin?
I have to believe… the reason I got the part is that in their eyes [omit is because] I represented the character and what he’d really be like if he were alive. But the reason I represented him is that as a kid growing up I constantly thought about it. I was a bit of a loner. I used to come back home from school and then while I was kicking a ball against the wall for hours, I’d daydream about this. I really believe this shapes our lives and brings things to us.
Fans like to think that there’s an element of kismet when an actor is cast as a superhero — that the actor was somehow fated to play the character. I believe that if there is such a thing that it would apply in my case. If you look at my screen test, which you can see online, you can see the dedication that I had… even in the screen test. I was so into it, that for me, it was real.
[Burt Ward’s original audition reel can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqxydN_qCT4 ]
Who do you think is the character’s true identity – Dick Grayson or Robin?
I think they are the same. But they are in different costumes. One is restraining the exuberance and the other one is not restraining the exuberance.
I found this to be amazing and I must tell you. As Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne, we’d go into Commissioner Gordon’s office to talk about a charity event. We’d leave and come back as Batman and Robin. It didn’t make sense to me that Commissioner Gordon wouldn’t figure out their secret identities. I’d say to the producer, “We were just in the scene a few minutes ago. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are the same height as Batman and Robin. They’d have to figure out we are the same people.”
I believed that way for years until I started to make personal appearances. I would go out and sign autographs in my costume and people would go nuts. They’d fight over getting my paper-drinking cup. Just crazy stuff. But after my appearance and I changed back into my own clothes, I could walk among the same people who were going nuts and they didn’t even notice me!
The costume has a power of its own.
It’s not just the costume. It’s the costume which was an amazing visual combined with a very intense characterization. As I speak to you now, I am speaking you more like Dick Grayson would speak. But as Robin when I’d say things like, “Holy Strawberries Batman. Are we in a jam!” The character became more intense.
When you did these appearances you were in character?
That’s right. And it’s limiting. Because if someone says, “How do you like playing Robin?” I can’t answer that. I have to give them the answer as Robin. One thing Adam and I always did was that we always protected the character. At our appearances, we never took off the mask. We never talked liked our real selves. We were the characters. That was to protect the sense of reality of the characters for kids.
Sometimes we’d take kids for ride about the parking lot in the Batmobile. It changed their whole life.
So beyond the series, the movie, the TV specials in the Seventies and the cartoon which you voiced, you have also played Robin hundreds of times in personal appearances?
Thousands of times. Of the more than seven thousand appearances probably half of those were in character.
Do you still have your original costume?
I had a costume from the show. But I also made a costume because our costumes were constantly being torn apart. I made a costume for personal appearances, which was a duplicate of the original, which I wore for certain specials – like Legends of the Superheroes [the two TV specials in the Seventies]. I also had costumes from the original series. We had six at all times. And we were constantly going through them because while filming fight scenes the costumes would snag on this or tear on that.
What do you think motivates Robin? What drives him?
It’s the same thing that drives me now. Nothing’s changed.
In fact, I’m doing a pilot for a series about a guy who has never stopped trying to save the world. Today, [building on] the characterization I did as Robin, I’m involved in a wonderful charitable dog rescue. My wife and I operate the largest giant breed dog rescue in the world called Gentle Giants out here in Norco, California. We double the life span of dogs.
I don’t want to dwell on it but anything I’ve applied myself to, I’ve done in an extremely intense way.
Some actors who played superheroes grow tired of the association with the part. Do you ever relate to that?
For them, it might have just been an acting job. For me it was an alternate reality.
Tell me about that.
I was obviously aware while we were filming [that we were pretending]. But at the same time I was able to let myself go and just be there and really do that stuff at the moment I was filming.
When people close their eyes and think of Superman or James Bond there are a number of actors they can think of, when people think of Robin, it’s you. While there were other actors who played Robin before and after you, you still personify the character.
I think you’re right. The same with Adam as Batman. There are wonderful actors who played Batman in these recent films. But they are not Batman. They are playing Batman.
What’s your relationship like with Adam?
Even today, Adam and I are good friends. I mean really good friends. He has his wife and his kids. I have my wife and my kids. But we have always remained really good friends. The same chemistry that we had while doing our lines [in the show] is the same chemistry we have in our everyday communication with each other.
What is the best part about playing a superhero?
You can simulate doing things you couldn’t do in real life. Fight heinous villains without drawing real blood. You get to live in a bigger world than the one we really have. You escape into a place that is not your normal mundane, difficult everyday world.
And the worst?
I don’t think there was any downside. Except for getting hurt and winding up in the emergency room. But every time I meet someone and I see their eyes light up I get a really warm feeling inside because you made someone happy and that made a moment in their life a little better than the moment before.
Have you ever wanted to distance yourself from the association?
I’ve done about thirty other movies and various projects for television but I’ve never been one of those people who wanted to shed the image. There are some actors who when someone comes up to them and calls them by their character’s name they say, “Oh, don’t call me that.” I have people call me Robin but I don’t correct them and say, “No, no, no. I’m Burt Ward.”
When was the last time you wore the outfit?
Very private moments with my wife.
It’s interesting that you say “very private moments” with your wife because superheroes do have sex appeal.
Absolutely. There is no question of that. And Adam and I, at a time when we were both single, had the wildest craziest time you could possibly imagine. No question about that. That was a different world than today. It was the Sixties…the time of the Flower Girl and Free Love.
Did you use Robin and the costume to meet women?
When I had my costume the woman I was with would often want to try it on. And that could get really kinky.
What’s it like to step back into the outfit as you do from time to time?
Well thank goodness it’s expandable.
But even if I think about wearing it I start to sweat. Because I remember what it was like to be in it five days a week and on weekends while making appearances. Usually 3 two-hour appearances a day or 2 four-hour appearances on Saturday and Sundays. All over the United States and Canada. It was quite an experience.
The overall thing of this is what you come away with is I had fun with it. So many people saw and met us. I calculated I have signed seven million autographs since 1965. I just feel like Adam and I made a real contribution to the entertainment industry. Fans come up to us today and say we stayed out of trouble because you were always talking about doing things the right way.
What did you wish you knew then when you were first starting this new adventure?
If it works it’s explosive. It happens quickly and all at once. It’s very hard to maintain steering the ship properly. In terms of what you do and how you do things. If you become really successful, you’re hit from so many different sides. “Do this. Be here. Be there. Put out this product. Do this. Do that. Talk about this.” It’s a whirlwind.
How would you like to be remembered as Robin?
That I portrayed the character with a total sincerity and dedication. That in real life I never denigrated the character that kids looked up to…or at least I tried not to.
How has playing the character changed you?
In my particular case, it’s made me more like the character. Rather than the character more like me. For my wife and I to work seven days a week, year round caring for fifty dogs that live at my house and saving fifteen hundred dogs a year and spending hundred of thousands a year on operations and flying in dogs from Taiwan and other places…it’s made me more charitable as a human being. Certainly more sensitive to life and how precious life is.
How can people find out more about Gentle Giants?
I hope that dog owners go to my website GentleGiantsRescue.com. You can visit my website and see how we have been able to accomplish that. We have rescued fourteen thousand dogs in the last 17 years. Everyday we feed them about 600 pounds of our Gentle Giants Dog food. With our feeding and care techniques we have on average doubled their life span.
Why do you think we care about superheroes?
Because they fulfill our daydreams. They live bigger lives than we can actually live. You daydream about what you can’t really do but would like to do. People love to daydream and love to fantasize. We were the ultimate fantasy.
Is it responsible for Batman (an adult) to take a child (Robin) with him as they fight crime?
There is always risk. But both characters who were in tiptop condition and knew what they were doing, which minimized the risk. But I think that’s probably being too literal.
There is always speculation that Batman and Robin were gay lovers. What do you say to that?
I think “What’s so strange about two guys living together, running around and wearing tights?”
The last question is…. who would win in a fight: Your Robin or Chris O’Donnell’s Robin?
I know in a real fight I would win because I doubt Chris is a martial artist. Chris O’Donnell is a wonderful actor. But in terms of characters, you have to understand that our target market was a different market than theirs. Their target audience was teenage kids – which is why the Batman movies were so violent and why Batman kills as many people as the villains. But we were family entertainment. We were for kids and adults as well. It was a different approach.
The answer to the question is I think my Robin would win.
In addition to his appearance from April 29th through May 1st at Anaheim Comic Con, Burt Ward can be seen at Philadelphia Comic Con, June 17-19 and Mid-Ohio Comic Con, Oct. 22-23. Advanced tickets and more information can be found at WizardWorld.com
Mark Edlitz © 2011