January 12, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the show that begat one of the most remarkable crazes in the history of television- 1966’s Batman.
How the show came to be is an interesting tale in its own right. A high-ranking ABC executive suggested that the network adapt a comic book hero into a television show for the early programming slot, when children are most likely to be watching T.V. ABC’s first choice was Superman, but those rights where tied by the Broadway musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman which closed after 129 performances. Next they tried Dick Tracy, but the character’s creator, Chester Gould was already negotiating with NBC. Thus ABC settled on their third choice, Batman.
After ABC acquired the rights from DC Comics, William Dozier was approached about bringing Batman to life. Dozier, who had worked for Paramount, RKO and Columbia Pictures before becoming an independent producer, had never read a Batman comic book until his flight to New York to talk to network officials about the proposed show.
In going through the comic books Dozier felt they were “crazy.” “I had this just this simple idea of overdoing it,” said Dozier, “of making it so square and so serious that adults would find it amusing. I knew kids would go for the derring-do, the adventure, but the trick would be to find adults who would either watch it with their kids or, to hell with the kids, and watch it anyway.”
The timing of all of this was interesting and perhaps fateful. In 1964, faced with slumping sales, DC considered killing off Batman. Then Julius Schwartz, who all but single handedly ushered in the “silver age” of DC with his re-interpretations of the classic characters Flash, Atom, Green Lantern and Justice League, came to the rescue and introduced the “new-look” Batman, featuring new Bat-Gadgets. He also made the stories more detective oriented and added some science-fiction elements. He also put Bat-logo on a yellow oval too. It was the rebooted-Batman that Dozier was introduced to.
The next step was to cast the show. Lyle Waggoner, who later played Steve Trevor in the 1970s Wonder Woman series was tried out for the dual role of Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader, but he was passed over in favor of Adam West, then a rising young television and movie actor. West had come to the producer’s attention from his serious/campy performance in a Nestle Quick commercial.
For Dick Grayson/ Robin, 19 year old newcomer Bert John Gervis, Jr. was cast. Before the show aired he changed his name to the simpler and easier to pronounce Burt Ward (Ward was his mother’s maiden name.) Supposedly he was hired because he looked and sounded like a 15 year old boy.
The rest of the regular cast consisted of Hollywood veterans. Alan Napier (Alfred) had been acting on stage and screen for 43 years and had been a character actor for Universal Studios. Batman would be the only time he ever played a butler. Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) traced his career to the beginning of Hollywood, having worked for D.W. Griffith. Stafford Rep played Chief O’Hara, a character created for the show with Madge Blake as Dick Grayson’s clueless Aunt Harriett Cooper, whose presence was to reassure viewers that Bruce and Dick were not in a homosexual relationship. Contrary to popular belief, Aunt Harriett orignated in Detective Comics #328, June 1964, and not the T.V. show.
Not credited, but a vital part of every episode was Dozier as the show’s narrator, who took on the assignment when he could not find any anyone he liked for the job. This proved to be a fortunate decision for Dozier, who had to join the Screen Actor’s Guild, which gave him the best insurance he had ever had, leading to career as a voice-over actor in order to keep his benefits.
The show’s theme song was composed by Neal Hefti, who would win a Grammy for the iconic tune, with legendary composer/songwriter Nelson Eddie scoring the show. The tune has since been recorded by numerous acts including The Who. Singer/songwriter Prince once told Oprah Winfrey that it was the first song he learned how to play when he was seven.
The original plan was for 20th-Century-Fox, which produced the series in conjunction with Dozier’s Greenway Productions, to release a full length theatrical film written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (whom Dozier considered “the most bizarre thinker I knew”). The film would serve as the show’s “pilot” and would introduce the audience not only to the series regulars but also what would become known as “the big four villains”: The Joker, played by former matinee idol Cesar Romero, best known for playing the western hero The Cisco Kid; The Penguin, played by veteran television and film actor Burgess Meredith, a two-time Oscar nominee who would play the Italian Stallion’s manager Mickey Goldmill in Rocky. For the Riddler, Frank Gorshin, a popular stand-up comic, who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show the night the Beatles made their U.S. debut was selected. (A rumor still persists to this day that Frank Sinatra was upset over being passed over for the part.) Tony winning actress Julie Newmar brought a playfulness and sexual tension to the role of Catwoman and remains one of the most popular villains in the history of the show.
Besides raising fan awareness and interest in the upcoming series, the film helped to subsidize the cost of many of the sets and props that would be used in the show. The sets, built on the same stage as the gate scene from King Kong, reportedly cost $800,000 (or about $5.8 million today). The film would also introduce the Batcycle, the Batcopter, the Batboat, and, of course, the Batmobile.
The Batmobile was built and designed by George Barris. Originally, it was a 1955 Lincoln Futura prototype car built in Italy at a cost of $250,000 (or about $2 million today) that had been rusting in a lot for years. Barris bought it from Ford for one dollar. He then spent three weeks and $30,000 to make it into the car that still tops polls as the greatest automobile in television history. Though it looked cool, it was neither easy nor fun to drive. It could not go over forty miles an hour and its handling was poor. Barris, wisely kept ownership of the car and leased it to the show. In 2012 he sold it for $4.2 million.
Smaller props, also became noteworthy and are still a part of the American psyche, such as the Bat-Poles, the red Bat-Phone and the bust of Shakespeare, that contain the control panel that opened the way to the Bat-Poles. (A similar bust can be seen in Bruce Wayne’s study in the current show Gotham). The Batman Utility Belt contained almost every Bat-Gadget one can image from the famed Batarang to the often used Bat-Gas.
However, the plans for doing the movie before the show were scrapped when the fall 1965 schedule proved to be a disaster for ABC and they needed new programming fast. Despite the show getting poor scores from test audiences, the movie was put on hold and the show debuted on January 12, 1966. The first episode Hi Diddle Riddle featuring Gorshin as the “Special Guest Villain” was the highest debuting show in the history of ABC. The follow-up episode, Smack in the Middle which aired the next night marked the only time someone (Jill St. John) died on the show.
A pattern was then set for most of the first two seasons. Two half-hour episodes were shown on consecutive Wednesday and Thursday nights. The first night would set up the problem and end in a cliff-hanger, just like in the comic books, with Batman and Robin facing almost certain doom. The second night would have the Dynamic Duo escape and capture the bad guys. A highlight of every episode would be a fight where brightly colored balloons with words like “Bloop,” “Plop!” and “Zowie!” would appear every time a punch landed. While Robin would throw out a long list of what would be 352 clichés starting with the word “holy.” All the while West delivered some of the most surreal lines ever put in a script with perfect deadpan delivery.
Ten episodes would be adaptations of stories that had appeared in the comic books, however, only Bob Kane, then the sole credited creator of Batman, received any screen credit.
Other Bat-villains who made their way from the comic book to the show included The Mad Hatter played by David Wayne and Mr. Freeze (originally called Mr. Zero in the comics) first played by George Sanders and then later played by legendary film director Otto Preminger. (Two-Face was not used on the show out of concern that the character’s appearance would scare children.) In addition, a number of villains were created for the show, most notably King Tut, played by an over-the-top Victor Bruno and Egghead played by Vincent Price.
Soon Batmania swept the nation. In a recent article for the Hollywood Reporter West wrote, “In the ’60s, there would be the three Bs: [James] Bond, Batman and The Beatles.”
Not, unlike The Simpsons, Batman was a T.V. show that everyone wanted to do. The show had A-list guest villains like Shelly Winters, Talluaha Blackhead (in what would be the Oscar winning actress’ final performance) Roddy McDowell, Cliff Robertson and Liberace (whose appearance was the most watched episode). Perhaps the most unlikely guest star was President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who played a crooked lawyer named Lucky Pierre. Supposedly, Natalie Wood and Cary Grant wanted to be on the show but the producers could not come up with the right roles for them.
According to Newmar, the villains were only paid $1250 (a little over $9000 today), which was almost three times the $350 a week Ward made the first season. Meredith claimed that “the main impetus” to do the show “was that it was fashionable.” Bruno told Johnny Carson, “Batman allowed me to do what actors are taught never to do, overact.”
Then there were also the cameos when Batman and Robin would be climbing a wall and someone would poke their head out of a window and talk to the Dynamic Duo for a minute. Notable stars who did this include Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Clark, Jerry Lewis and Don Ho.
In addition, pop singer Leslie Gore (It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To) played Catwoman’s sidekick and would-be Robin seducer Pussycat in one episode. In another episode Catwoman stole the voices of the British singing duo Chad and Jeremey (A World Without Love). Meanwhile Paul Revere and the Raiders (Cherokee People) played themselves as a band hired by Penguin to help the criminal win the Gotham City mayor’s race.
Soon Batman and/or his logo was appearing everywhere from cleaning products, food items, apparel, housewares, and, of course, toys, making it the most merchandised television show since Disney’s Adventures of Davy Crockett a decade earlier, and foreshadowing the merchandising that would later accompany Star Wars and The Simpsons. By April 1966, 4.8 million mask and cape sets had been sold. A new dance, called the Batusi became the rage. Today items associated with the television show are among the most sought-after Batman collectables.
For DC Comics it was a much needed shot-in-the-arm, and a daily/Sunday newspaper comic strip tied in to the show was nationally syndicated. But when the editors decided to make the comic book more like the T.V. show, comic book sales went flat.
The show received three Emmy nominations in 1966 including Outstanding Comedy Series. Gorshin was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy, with the third nomination being for sound editing.
Batman’s success was not lost on the two other networks. In the fall of 1966 NBC debuted Tarzan, a one hour action/adventure series based on Edgar Rice Burroughs character with Ron Ely in the title role. Unlike Batman, Tarzan was a serious show that would run for two seasons.
In addition, NBC came up with its own superhero spoof Captain Nice created by Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry and starring William Daniels (the voice of Kitt in Knight Rider) in the title role which debuted in January 1967. At the same time CBS offered Mr. Terrific, no relation to the DC character of the same name, starring Stephen Strimpell. Both shows were cancelled after half a season. On the other hand, the George Reeves Superman series enjoyed a renewed popularity in syndication thanks to Batman.
Batman even influenced Saturday morning cartoons. The CBS Saturday morning line-up in the fall of 1966 was dominated by super heroes, some created for the network by Hanna-Barrera Studios (most notably Space Ghost) and a new Superman cartoon series. The next year all three network’s Saturday mornings were filled with super heroes. ABC had Marvel’s Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. CBS would add Aquaman and members of the Justice League to join Superman for an hour, while NBC gave us one of the worst ideas ever for a super hero:Super President. That’s right, the President of the United States turns into a super powered crime fighter. In the fall of 1968, CBS would get the rights to do a Batman cartoon show as well.
The success of Batman led to a spin-off in the fall of 1966, The Green Hornet based on a popular radio show. However, it failed to catch on with the public, despite a memorable crossover on the Batman show and was cancelled after only season. Today it is best remembered as the show that introduced the world to Bruce Lee, who played the Hornet’s sidekick Kato.
Production resumed on Batman: The Movie with Lee Merriweather, Miss America of 1955 and a rising young starlet playing Catwoman as Newmar was not available. It was released in the summer of 1966 and though the film received positive reviews, and has become a cult classic (thanks in part to the immortal lines “Somedays you just can’t get rid of a bomb” and “Hand me down the shark repellent Bat-Spray.”), it did only moderate box office business. By the fall of 1966, Batman the T.V. show was having problems of its own as ratings for the second season slid. In his memoir Back to the Bat Cave West says part of the problem was that the scripts for season two were rushed and consequently, no one had time to think and plan out the season. To help ratings, three part episodes were introduced and villain team-ups were featured, but the ratings continued to slide.
Part of the problem was the limitations placed on the writers on what could and could not be shown. There could be no guns, no blood, and no violence, other than the weekly fist fight. One writer quoted in John and Gordon Javna’s 1982 book 60s! said “This makes plotting more difficult. There isn’t much for the villains to do except steal things.”
By the start of season three in the fall of 1967, the show was in trouble. Originally the producers had planned a second spin-off based on the character Batgirl, aka Barbra Gordon, the Police Commissioner’s daughter, who had been introduced in Detective Comics #359, The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl January 1967. But with declining ratings, the plans were altered to add the character to the show in order to attract female viewers. It was also the only time DC created a character to be used in the show. Yvonne Craig, a former ballet dancer, was cast for the part. Her ability to high kick would prove to be an asset for the fight scenes. (There were even stricter limitations on Batgirl in the fight scenes than there were for Batman and Robin) Another asset was that Craig, like Batgirl, was a motorcyclist.
Trying to fit Batgirl into the series would be one of many behind the scenes problems facing the show. ABC cut the series from two nights a week to one, putting extra burdens on the writers who had to come up with thirty instead of sixty minute storylines, though eventually they would return to two and three-part episodes. Further hampering the writing was that no more than thirteen characters could be shown per episode. For some strange reason West, Ward and Craig were seen as playing two characters each, which meant after the crime fighters and their alter-egos, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Chief O’Hara and that week’s guest villain, you only had three characters left. To help this problem, the character of Aunt Harriet was phased out. (In real life Madge Blake’s health was declining. She died in 1969).
Other budget cuts showed on the screen as the villain hangouts were often nothing more than a black felt curtain with props in front of it instead of full sets. In one episode, the fight scene had to be done in the dark because the episode was over budget.
Some of the favorite Bat-villains were gone. Gorshin became so popular that he did not have time to do the show, and was unsuccessfully replace with John Astin (The original Gomez Adams). Julie Newmar left to film a movie and was replaced by singer Eartha Kitt, the only black woman to play a Bat-villain to date. While she gave a great performance in the role, Kitt’s more evil, menacing approach to the character was not as well received as Newmar’s playfulness. Other new Bat-villains were introduced, most notably Television legend Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac, a lavender clad 1930s style gangster and the Siren played by Joan Collins.
The writing was clearly the biggest problem. According to Alan Napier, by the third season the writers had run out of ideas and characters. Many of the worst episodes of the show’s run were done in its final season. Most notably Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club a remarkably unfunny spoof of the women’s liberation movement that is now cringe-inducing to watch. The 120th and final episode Minerva, Mayhem and Millionaires featuring Zsa Zsa Gabor aired on March 14, 1968.
After ABC announced the show’s cancellation, NBC expressed an interest in picking it up, but ABC had already bulldozed the set and thus ended all hope for season four.
However this did not mark the end of West’s and Ward’s involvement with the characters. They continued to do PSA and television commercials as the dynamic duo and reprised their role as voice actors for numerous cartoon series and for two live action specials. West himself tried for years to have a live-action reunion film. Today, both actors have written books about their experiences with the show and appeared as themselves in a docudrama about the making of the series. In 2015 they reprised their roles on an episode of Robot Chicken and they are still popular on the convention circuit. They will play Batman and Robin, with Julie Newmar as Catwoman, one last time for a direct-to-DVD animated film based on the show scheduled to be released in 2016.
The show remains popular in syndication; currently airing across the country on Saturday nights on the ME-TV cable network and has recently aired on the IFC channel as well. In 2014, after years of legal complications, the entire series was digitally restored and put on DVD.
Die cast and plastic models of the show’s Batmobile have never gone out of production and Mattel Toys continues to make cars and action figures based on the show. DC Comics had a comic book series called Batman 1966 based on the show. No other program from that era, save perhaps the original Star Trek, produces more memorabilia today.
Though some Batman fans denounce the show’s light tone as being completely opposite of what the comic book character was and is, West has defended it saying on PBS that he played “the Bright Knight.” If one examines the Batman comic books of the 1960s, one will find that the show, while campy, did a remarkably faithful job of transitioning Batman and his villains from page to small screen, especially considering the limitations of budget, make-up and technology of that era. In many ways the show is a bit of a historic artifact, a reflection of the time when pop art was all the rage.
Michael Uslan, producer of the recent Dark Knight trilogy perhaps said it best in his introduction to 2013’s anthology, Batman-The T.V. Stories:
“It is said that the one true version of a super hero each of us has is the one we were exposed to when we were about twelve years old. Thus, everyone has his or her personal true version of Batman…Today, it’s good to have different versions of Batman in the media and in comic books so that the character can always remain accessible to younger audience, cultivating the next generations of Batman movie buffs and graphic novel enthusiasts. “
And if nothing else, it still funny, silly and goofy too watch. More importantly, for many people since 1966 and for future young Bat-fans, it is a safe innocent way to introduce young people to the character and the comic books. (Admit it. Many of you reading this probably fall in this group.) So until next Bat-Time, Happy Golden Bat-Anniversary Batman!
Author’s Note-Unless otherwise noted, all quotes used in this article are from Joel Eisner’s 1986 book “The Official Batman Batbook.”
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine