An icon, a caped crusader, and a hilarious mayor, Adam West may not have been the most successful actor of all time, but his contributions to film and television culture are unquestionable, with a career spanning over 60 years. Today we mourn the loss of West, who was 88 years old, after a short battle with leukemia and look back on his legacy on the big and small screen.
William West Anderson, who would come to be known as Adam West, was born in Walla Walla, Washington in 1928 to a farming father and an opera singing mother who gave up her Hollywood dreams to help grow her family. West always had the acting bug, expressing interest in theater at an early age, and move with his mother to Seattle after his parents were divorced. He would go on to graduate with a bachelors degree in psychology from Whitman College and was later drafted into the army where his iconic voice first took hold as an announcer for American Forces Network television.
After serving in the armed forces West pursued a television career in Hawaii, earning his first role on the “El Kini Popo Show” and later becoming the star of that very program. He garnered his first film role in “Voodoo Island” in 1957 and in 1959 officially moved his family to Hollywood where he adopted his stage name, Adam West. Throughout the late 50s West would appear in numerous shows and films including “77 Sunset Strip”, “Lawman”, “Sugarfoot”, Maverick”, “Bourbon Street Beat”, “Ghost of the China Sea”, “The Young Philadelphians”, and “The FBI Story”. This success continued into the 60s with seven movie roles from 1960 to 1965 and appearances on ten different television programs including “The Rifleman” (pictured above) and “Bewitched” during that same time span.
It was in 1966 that Adam West would earn his most iconic role and one that made him a household name for generations to come, the Batman. After a career of commercials and smaller gigs West was discovered by Producer William Dozier after appearing as a spy-like character in a Nestlé Quik ad. He was awarded the role of billionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman and starred in the first theatrical adaptation of the caped crusader, “Batman: The Movie”, which was a precursor to the ABC television show that ran from 1966 to 1968 and to this day is still a cult classic series and film. It was during this stint that West established his campy, dry, and humorous persona, mixing a professional approach with over-the-top acting that would come to define his career and, for better or worst, forced him into a position of being typecast for similar roles in year to come.
One cool notable fact is that West was actually offered the position of James Bond in 1970, turning it down, as he believed the spy was better off being portrayed by a British actor. This would prove to be somewhat of a mistake for West as his career would come to a relative standstill with him being pigeonholed into the same campy roles he portrayed in “Batman”. His attempts to buck that stereotype proved fruitless on several occasions, leading West to take a step back for the first half of the 70s and focus on making public appearances in his Batman persona. He did continue to be a part of numerous Hollywood films from 1970 through 1985, however none of these proved to be the step in the right direction West needed to overpower his Batman reputation.
West often reprised the Batman title in films and television shows, appearing in “The New Adventures of Batman”, “Legends of the Superheroes”, and other programs and was considered for the part of Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s father, in the second Hollywood production of a Batman film by Tim Burton in 1989. West would also make guest appearances on “Batman: The Animated Series” and “The Batman”, each animated outings of the caped crusader although West didn’t play the Batman himself. In the 1990s West found a new way to keep himself relevant, by taking his typecasting and using it to his advantage, making light of himself and the stereotypes attached to him with guest roles in numerous television programs. He appeared as himself in the film “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and appeared on “NewsRadio”, “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” and “The Drew Carey Show” using his own persona and acting history and reputation to add a bit of cameo flare to each appearance. The 90s also included some smaller acting roles and more television show appearances on “The Simpsons”, “Tales of the Crypt”, “The Animaniacs”, and other programs of the time.
The 2000s proved to be a bit of a resurgence for West as he fully embraced his self-referential approach to his acting career. One major appearance included playing himself and a parody of his Batman persona, Catman, in “The Fairly Oddparents” introducing him to a new generation of viewers likely unfamiliar with the Batman legacy he accumulated in the 60s. he continued that trend with an appearance as a young Mermaid Man, a parody of another DC comics hero Aquaman, in an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants”. He complimented this with more adult oriented animated entertainment, portraying his 60s Batman character in “Robot Chicken” and taking on probably his most iconic role outside of “Batman” as Mayor Adam West in “Family Guy”, a parody on himself with a goofy approach to his mayoral duties and a seemingly dimwitted perspective on reality. He also became heavily involved in numerous “Scooby-Doo” productions in 2015 and had voice roles in two Disney animated features, “Chicken Little” and “Meet the Robinsons” prior to 2010.
In his final year Adam West continued to appear in numerous guest roles, including the 200th episode of “The Big Bang Theory” which often features guests from superhero and comic culture. In 2016 he reprised his most famous role as “Batman” in the animated film “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”, which takes place within the same universe and embraced a similar style as the 1960s television show. The film did have a limited theatrical run and it would be the final time Adam West would be on the big screen. This year, in 2017, he appeared on the British comedy panel game “Through the Keyhole” and served as the narrator for the short-lived television series “Powerless”, based once again on DC properties. It was his final foray into television before his passing save for his recurring role on “Family Guy” which, as of this writeup, had yet to be addressed.
Adam West may have had a career predominantly built off of a single role, but that one role as “Batman” made him a legend of screen and television. His dry, but effective, humor and his ability to use his own typecasting as a springboard to continue his acting career and legacy into the 90s and beyond speak not only to his ability and awareness as an actor, but also to how loyal his fan base had become in the wake of his big screen foray as Batman. While many of the new generation will remember him as a bumbling mayor on “Family Guy” and a parody of himself in many shows, Adam West will forever be the Batman in the eyes of many. To a great hero and a iconic legend, we say God speed Mr. West and thank you for the laughs and the adventures.