Adam West (1928 - 2017)
By: Eric San Juan
1 year ago
Adam West, the actor best known for his performance as television’s Batman in the 1960s, died Friday, June 9, 2017, in Los Angeles, after a short battle with leukemia, according to multiple news sources. He was 88.
West, a rising star prior to landing the starring role of Batman, saw his life defined forevermore by those three campy years on television. Rather than fight the typecasting that often marked the latter 45 years of his career, however, West ultimately came to embrace it. In doing so, he became a beloved pop culture icon and helped usher in an age in which once-fringe “geek” pastimes have become mainstream.
Born William West Anderson on Sept. 19, 1928, to farmer parents in Walla Walla, Washington, West knew from an early age that he wanted to perform for a living. Performance ran in his blood: His mother, Audrey Speer, had been a concert pianist and opera singer, but set aside her dreams of stardom to care for her family.
West would not do the same. At 15, he moved to Seattle with Speer following his parents’ divorce, earned a bachelor’s in literature from Whitman College, and was drafted into the U.S. Army. There he worked as an announcer for American Forces Network television, his first real taste at showcasing the power of his baritone.
After his stint in the Army, he changed his name to Adam West and began to pursue acting. He soon secured a steady series of roles. Most of his work came in westerns; he appeared in both films and television shows portraying iconic characters like Doc Holliday and “Wild” Bill Hickcok.
West soon found other opportunities to showcase his talents. He appeared in the Paul Newman film "The Young Philadelphians," on "Perry Mason" and "The Outer Limits," and in 1964 nabbed a starring role in "Robinson Crusoe on Mars."
On Jan. 12, 1966, his life would take a left turn with the debut of the "Batman" television series. Campy, full of puns and humor, and featuring big Technicolor action, the show was a tremendous hit and was among the most widely watched programs of the era. Some culture critics have gone as far as to suggest that ‘60s pop culture was defined by the three B’s: the Beatles, James Bond, and Batman. The show aired twice a week to big ratings, spawning catchphrases still used today (“Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel,” “Holy BLANK, Batman!”), a movie spinoff, and loads of merchandise. Almost overnight, West was one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood.
West was an essential part of the show’s explosive success. "They wanted the character (to be) more Lone Ranger, but my sensibility told me that if I played it with a kind of twinkle, looser and in a more bizarre, funny way, that it might have some longevity,” West told USA Today in 2014. "Maybe I was right. It looks pretty good now."
West and the character he helped immortalize were seared into the public consciousness. Toys, models, games, and countless other items invaded homes everywhere. There was seemingly not a child anywhere who did not know him.
Batman’s time at the top wouldn’t last, however. A ratings drop and the inadvertent destruction of the show’s sets prompted its cancellation after its third season. Free of the cape and cowl, West was once again free to pursue “serious” acting.
Except Hollywood’s image of him had changed. Casting directors now saw him only as a camp actor. His role as a hard-edged tough guy in 1969’s "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" was an attempt to shake that perception, but it was to no avail. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s he had a series of roles in small, largely forgotten films, including such throwaway fare as "The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood" (1980). To pay the bills, he took guest appearances on TV wherever he could find them. He appeared on shows like "Bonanza," "Operation Petticoat," "Laverne & Shirley," "Bewitched," "Fantasy Island," "The Love Boat," and others.
Nothing changed for him. To the public, West would forevermore be Batman.
West did not always embrace his status as a pop culture icon. For a time, as he struggled to be taken seriously after the kitschy show had run its course, he regretted ever taking the role.
"Typecasting is really rampant in Hollywood, and because I played a costumed character and did it successfully, it was a real stigma," he told The Guardian in 2014. "I went out and did dinner theatre, regional theatre, any role that came along. I'd read a script and say, 'This is terrible,' but did it just to keep working. I resented it."
Over time, however, West came to embrace the quirky role that made him famous. He even came to revel in it, making countless appearances in which he seemed to be cheerfully poking fun at himself. The popular website TV Tropes even came to call the phenomenon of typecast actors engaging in self-parody “Adam Westing.”
Fandom played no small part in his change of heart, lifting him out of depression. He told Esquire in 2007: “Occasionally we have Batman conventions, like the Trekkies. People turn out by the thousand. Do you know how rewarding it is to receive the warmth of these people?”
At the same time, West enjoyed being able to step away from the spotlight in later life. “I no longer feel the need to walk on a red carpet,” he told the Independent in 2005. “I am a private person. I don't need a lot of company. And I find it really, really difficult to talk about myself." Rather than retire from public life somewhere he’d be recognized and adored, he moved to Idaho to live out his golden years.
West was among the first “nerd culture” icons to own his place in kitschy counterculture, and as such is one of the fathers of today’s mainstream pop culture. He made it okay to embrace the “geeky” things you love, and he grew connected to the very idea that we should accept even the most absurd aspects of who we are. In doing so, he helped changed the face of modern pop culture forever, encouraging millions of young people over several generations to be proud of their big, bold, colorful interests.
Movies, television and video games have never been the same since.
West leaves behind his wife, Marcelle Tagand Lear, and six children.
We invite you to share condolences for Adam West in our Guest Book.