Interview: Adam West (2011)

What’s the difference between being typecast and becoming a pop culture icon? For Adam West, it all comes down to a knowing wink to the audience. In 1966 he went from bit-part actor in TV shows and spaghetti westerns to getting a dream role: To bring a four-color version of DC’s Batman to TV. It’s hard to overestimate the show’s impact on pop culture and on West. The producers cranked out 120 episodes and one 90 minute film of knockabout dayglo fun in under three years, creating catchphrases that resonate with people who have never seen the show and boxing West into a niche as campy, hammy actor. It’s been almost 46 years since the Batman film got its world premier, and it seems that West has finally made peace with the role that defined his career. Now the circle is complete: Instead of him being associated with Batman, Batman stands in his shadow as he has become the ultimate post-modern film star.  “The movie has withstood the test of time,” he said, “And so have I.”


Richard Whittaker: Between the film, the original series, and cameos in cartoons, Batman has been part of your life for four decades. How did you get the part?

Adam West: I’d been in Europe doing some films (including The Relentless Four) after doing a series (The Detectives) here with the late Robert Taylor for NBC. Before I left, I did a series of commercials for Nestlé in which I did sort of a James Bond spoof. I found out late that the producers at Fox and ABC had seen those commercials, and evidently I impressed them in so far as they thought, “Hey, this is the turkey to play Batman.” I think they liked my sense of humor. You might too, if you get to know me.

RW: You worked with an extraordinary cast including Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero, who had a major career prior to the show as a screen heart throb. Add Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar and Lee Meriweather in as your succession of Catwomen, and that’s quite an ensemble.

AW: I was very fortunate. The trick is always to make it look easy, which is difficult unless you have really good people who know what they’re doing and are able to give you something. Then you must always be unselfish and give them something. So it’s an interplay, like a good tennis match.

RW: You made 120 episodes plus the film in a little under three years. That’s quite a work rate.

AW: We were lucky if we got seven days per episode. One time, we got ten days, but other than that it was five, six days. The movie we did in the thirty days during the hiatus period after the first series. I didn’t want to do it, because I really needed the rest, but when they mentioned the money, I said, “Of course.” I’ve got the Mitchum attitude: You bring in what you can, you do the best work that you can, you try to bring the something fresh and serve the writer, but then you say, “Send the damn cheque.” You can’t do anything else once you’ve done that, because it’s all in someone else’s hands.

RW: What was life like on the set?

AW: It was usually an extremely friendly and humorous environment, and I tried to make it that way when I walked in – light and fun –so nobody would take it seriously, just perform seriously. Everyone understood what it was, and when I first read the pilot script by Lorenzo Semple Jr., I knew in talking to the others that we were all going to get married and have the same kind of approach, which is a blessing.

RW: Considering how dark the caped crusader can be, the show had a rich comedic vein.

AW: We had so much talent, and wonderful people with whom I worked. We didn’t have all those modern computer enhancements, the special effects and props they have today. We just slapped on makeup and funny costumes and did it. It took a lot of stretching of the imagination, but that’s what we were paid for, to bring something that was some kind of theater of the absurd that, at the same time, the kids could take realistically and extract all those lessons and morality and ethics from.

RW: Do you ever watch any of the old episodes?

AW: I’ll check into a hotel and I’ll turn on the TV and if it’s there, I’ll watch it and say, “Who is that young boy? Is that me, really? Am I that man running around like a fool in tights?” Once in a while I’ll find one on the Internet, or I’ll find a pilot that I did called Lookwell. It was written by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel, and of all the pilots I’ve done I think it’s the one I most regret not doing regularly.

RW: Like William Shatner and Captain Kirk, or Anthony Daniels and C-3PO, it really seems you’ve embraced the fact that you’ve become synonymous with your role as Batman.

AW: I made an agreement with Batman some time ago. There was a period when I couldn’t get anything I was being considered for because of him, and I did some really lousy films. But then I said, if these doors are all closed because of it, then I’d open them by using it. I also decided that I was the luckiest guy in the world – I finally came around to this – because I’d had the opportunity to create a character that became a classic in pop culture. How many actors have had a chance to do this? So I just decided to embrace it and go along with it and have fun with it, because that’s what people were doing. People were always so nice and warm and humorful with me, I just try to return it. It’s worked, and it’s become this enormous ball game in which I can watch myself and use the quirkier parts of my own personality. You can get away with anything, as long as people sense that you’re honest, you have a good sense of humour, and you appreciate their interest.

Did you hear about my new DVD, Adam West Naked, in which I reveal everything you wanted to know about 120 episodes? I sneak away into the basement, the attic, and other places where no-one can hear me, and I speak directly to you, the camera. It’s kind of fun because evidently Fox and Warner have not been able to get together about releasing DVDs of our series. People keep asking me, so I thought I’d go one better and do this thing myself.

RW: That’s put you in that rare situation as an actor of being able to play yourself: Quite literally in Family Guy, where you play Mayor Adam West.

AW: Seth (McFarlane, creator of Family Guy) had written a pilot for me a few years earlier. We got along extremely well and I think we share the same comic sensibilities. When it occurred to them to have the mayor, they just called my agent, and he told me about it and I said, “Seth? Of course I’ll do it. I love the guy and I know what he does, and for me it could be enormously funny.”

RW: From Batman to Family Guy and all the projects in between, your humor has always had that surrealist edge.

AW: You caught me.

RW: Where does that come from?

AW: I have no idea, except for a few contributory things. For example, my dad was a very sarcastic guy but very funny, and my mom was a concert pianist and in her own way was a very colorful character, and I think both of my sons have the same thing. It’s very important to think funny. It’s very helpful because if you think funny and you have timing, then usually it’s OK.

RW: Another actor who takes those kind of comedy risks is Nicolas Cage, who does an homage to you in Kick-Ass.

AW: Nic Cage is a huge fan of mine, and I am of him. We were on The Today Show together recently, and he admitted that he emulated me in part. He tried to get my Batmaneze timing down and I thought it was kind of fun.

RW: Something a lot of people may not know about you is that you’re also a keen painter.

AW: I’ve been painting for about 40 years, and it’s a whole different experience. You’re on your own, you don’t need anyone else, and what you do is out there to be judged. I took a breath and said, “What’s that in my hand? It’s a paint brush. Well, I’ll go paint the barn.” And then I thought, “No, I’m compelled to paint someone or something else,” and I did, and it became accepted in a way. I’ve done a series of paintings of the Batman villains, and they sell. I think they’re pretty interesting, and people like them. My painting isn’t trained, it’s pretty raw, it’s primitive and it’s a little savage, but there are those that find it fascinating – Maybe in a way that in a madhouse you may find someone’s doodlings fascinating.

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