This January, the news broke, via Twitter, that one of the longest superhero rights debacles had finally been untangled. The sixties Batman TV series was finally cleared to arrive to DVD and Blu-Ray, and it should be available to purchase some time later this year. (And likely to appear on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Streaming.) Conan O’Brien actually broke the news with an enthusiastic tweet. And if you’ve ever wondered why the show has never been released on home video, let alone on DVD or Blu-Ray already, it was due to a big rights dispute between Fox, who own the show, and Warner Brothers, who own the character.
For people of Conan’s generation, and for many of us who grew up watching this show in syndicated reruns, this is indeed great news. The 1966 show, as campy as it was, is one of those touchstones for a certain generation of geek. That includes director J.J. Abrams, who told Vanity Fair when he was a kid, “I was just out of my f*cking mind over Batman. I remember my first day of kindergarten and crying because I was so sad I was going to miss Batman.”
Yet when a lot of younger fans watch this Batman TV show today, they don’t get it at all, because a lot of people don’t watch things in the context of the culture in which it was created. Today’s young audiences are more familiar with Christopher Nolan's darker interpretation of the character, a serious tone that topped even the Burton take on Batman in the late 80s and early 90s. (Adam West reportedly likes to joke that he was “The Bright Knight” instead of the dark one.) The show, which only lasted on television for three years, was done with a much more campy approach, and the "serious" comics fans didn’t like it even then. But the Batman series was such a touchstone for so many of us growing up, and it was the gateway for many of us to become life-long bat-fans.
Its origins are stuff of legend as well. The series was in the works since the early sixties. It was first envisioned as a weekend show for kids, like the George Reeves Superman, and The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore. The story went that the serial version of Batman from the forties was being shown at the Playboy Club in Chicago, and an ABC executive who saw them at Hefner’s hideaway thought the character could make a good modern series.
This new edition of Batman had bright colors and set designs, and this was influenced by the pop art sensibilities of the sixties. As for the tone of the show, ABC was trying to go for something like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a cool spy series of the time. William Dozier, who produced Batman, also felt the only way to do the show was tongue-in-cheek. In addition to producing the show, Dozier narrated Batman as well, describing the perilous situations that the caped crusader and boy wonder were left in between episodes and reciting such classic lines as, “Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-Time, same Bat-channel!”
Like the serials of thirties and forties, the Batman show had cliffhangers, where you had to tune in the next night to see how he and Robin would get out of a jam. This was the first time a prime time TV show would air on two consecutive nights. Batman was supposed to be an hour, but ABC had two open slots on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so it would be divided into two half-hour segments.
Lorenzo Semple Jr. was one of the regular Batman writers, and he also wrote the show’s pilot episode. As Semple told me, when he was contacted about writing for the Batman series, “It occurred to me immediately, I never had the slightest doubt about how it should be done. We went over to New York and met with various people at ABC, assured them it was going to be a good series, and they shot it. There was none of this ‘development’ or network executives involved, it was just done. I don’t think a word was ever changed in it.”
Lyle Waggoner, who would later star on The Carol Burnett Show and Wonder Woman, almost got the caped crusader role. But Adam West, who had also starred on Maverick, Bonanza and the Outer Limits, ultimately won the Bat-gig, with newcomer Burt Ward playing his faithful sidekick Robin. West got the humor of Batman, and his dry, witty delivery really helped sell the tone of the show. “Adam was perfect for the part,” Semple explains. “In the pilot, there was a line where he’s supposed to say, ‘Robin, let’s bug that car.’ As he read the line, he said, ‘Robin, let’s (pause) bug that car. He told the director, ‘I’m a bat, bats eat insects. Every time I hear the word bug, it causes a little psychological hesitation!”
The first episode of Batman debuted on January 12, 1966, and it ran on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 to 8:00 P.M. ABC had been hyping the show for quite some time before it finally aired, and once it hit the airwaves, Batman was a big hit, and Bat-mania swept the country. Before Star Wars revolutionized movie merchandising, there was tons of Batman merch flooding the stores that made a whopping $75 million, an enormous take for the time.
The same year Batman became a hit on television, there was also a theatrical Batman movie where West and Ward would fight all the regular villains, except this time Lee Meriwether played Catwoman. It seemed odd that a Batman movie would be in theaters at the same time as the TV show, and West explained it was to try and raise awareness of the show overseas, but the program was such a hit, it didn’t need any additional publicity.
“Many didn’t know that the Batman movie was a totally original film,” Semple says. “At the time, other shows were putting episodes together and calling it a theatrical film. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. did that, they took four episodes and put them together into a movie.” This was also done with The Green Hornet, another crime fighter show produced by William Dozier that was essentially the same show as Batman. Semple wrote for The Green Hornet as well, which he said was “a big failure, but it did discover Bruce Lee.”
There’s several trademarks of the Batman show everyone remembers, like the cartoon action balloons (onomatopoeias) that popped up doing fight scenes (“Bam!” “Kapow!”), the immortal Batman theme, which was a top 40 hit and also won a Grammy, as well as the villains.
In addition to the regular villains like The Joker (played by Caesar Romero), The Penquin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (who was played by three separate actresses, Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, and Eartha Kitt), there were the guest villains, which were coveted roles, much like being a guest voice on The Simpsons. Some of the visiting bad guys on Batman included The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Michael Rennie (The Sandman), comedian Milton Berle (Louie the Lilac), Planet of the Apes alumni Roddy McDowall (The Bookworm), director Otto Preminger (Mr. Freeze), and Vincent Price (Egghead), among others.
Not to mention Robin’s “holies” like “Holy slipped disc!,” “Holy fourth amendment!,” and “Holy non-sequitors!” Semple says, “That was in the Tom Swift books, which I read as a kid. There was a character named Mr. Damon who’d say things like, ‘Bless my fire escape,’ whatever would fit in the plot. For the Riddler, I bought a riddle book, and I had more fun with the really stupid riddles. The inferences Batman drew from them were so preposterous. He’d say, ‘It can only mean one thing,’ which would absolutely be out of left field.”
And then there's the iconic Batmobile of the show, which was created by George Barris, the custom car builder who also created the Munsters coach, the Knight Rider KITT car, and many other classic vehicles for movies and television. Barris built the Batmobile from a 1955 Lincoln Futura car, and he transformed it into Batman’s fly ride in fifteen days on a budget of $15,000. (Last year, one of the original Batmobiles from the show sold for $4.62 million at auction.) As Barris recalls, “William Dozier called me and said, ‘I’m gonna do Batman, and I want a Batmobile.’ I looked at the script, I always looked at the script, I see the script has Bang! Pow! Wow! I said, ‘If you’re going to do that, I want to have the car do the same. Pow! I want to have rockets tubes growing out. Bang! I want to have oil squirters and chain slicers.’ So I made a car become a star of the show.”
Where Batman first came on like a house on fire, by the third season his popularity was dwindling, and it finally aired its last episode on March 14, 1968. (There were 120 episodes of Batman in all.) As to why the Batman phenomenon didn’t last longer, Semple speculates, “Probably because it was a one joke show, and probably because it was such a success, it burned itself out. Nobody knew what they had in those days. They didn’t think they had anything special.”
Eventually there would be a backlash against the show’s camp approach, and when the 1989 Tim Burton film came along, Warner Brothers made it very clear this was not your big brother’s Batman. Although it’s nowhere near as dark as Nolan's Batman, Burton’s vision was much more somber and serious, and it was intentionally as far away from the TV show as possible.
Semple took a lot of heat for Batman’s campy style. He also came under similar fire when he wrote the 1976 remake of King Kong, and the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, which is a beloved fan favorite today. Yep, the one with the Queen composed theme.
Many initially didn’t get the irony of the series, and as Semple told me, “It probably should have been better off with a laugh track strangely enough, because it is a comedy. The campy things were not popular with serious fans. Batman fans were outraged, and Flash Gordon was the same way. There was a movie magazine called Cinefantastique, and one issue had Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s hate mail! I was considered a serious trasher of great American themes. I wish I still had the issue!”
Yet as the years went by, and more incarnations of Batman came to pass, nostalgia for the TV show remained strong. Like a lot of pop culture phenomenons of the past, there’s still a lot of goodwill towards the show from generations of fans who grew up with it, and feel nostalgic for a simpler time in their lives. As West recently said at Comic-Con, “It was such a harmless show, and it was so much fun – absurd. I enjoy it so much more than any other series or movie I’ve done since.”
Where many television actors have cursed being typecast, West finally come to terms with his Batman past, and currently enjoys his place in the character’s history. As West told The Hollywood Reporter last year, “We were very fortunate in creating a show that appealed to the entire family spectrum, and I was fortunate to have done a character that was very rich already out there in pop culture. I just came along and embellished it in my way. To create a character that is so loved by people, there is no reason why I shouldn’t love it too.”
Batman’s certainly come a long way since the TV show, and it will be interesting to see how modern fans of the character who’ve never seen the ‘60’s version will react to it when it's made more available later this year. Like West, Semple looks back on his bat years fondly, telling me, “I really enjoyed Batman, it’s the best thing I’ve written by a long shot.”