The debut of the “dynamic duo” on TV

Author Chuck Brutz with some familiar faces from the Batman television show

Author Chuck Brutz with some familiar faces from the Batman television show

It’s been 50 years since Adam West’s Batman first sought to solve the Riddler’s perplexing enigmas, to deflect the Joker’s dastardly pranks, to defeat the Penguin’s army, or to fend off Catwoman’s catastrophic whip.

Batman, which aired for three hit seasons on the ABC network, featured West in the title role, Burt Ward as his loyal teenaged sidekick, Robin, and – later – Yvonne Craig as Batman. This heroic trio kept Gotham safe from multiple deadly foes. For an in-depth look behind the scenes of the popular show, let’s travel back in time to 1964.

At the time, the Caped Crusader, originally created by Bob Kane, was enjoying a successful run in the comics, and first debuted in Detective Comics in 1939. In 1940, Batman got his own comic book, Batman Issue #1. Robin also appeared in Batman Issue #1 as well as two villains who would become icons of the Batman universe, the Joker and Catwoman.

Times turned critical for our hero by 1964. Batman comics weren’t selling as successfully as they had in years past, and there were murmurs that DC Comics, the publisher, was thinking of canceling the franchise.

Around the same time, ABC network was facing troubles as well, coming in last in third place in n age where only three networks existed: ABC, NBC, and CBS. ABC was searching something new and fresh to help elevate their

ABC approached television veteran William Dozier. After reading a series of the Batman comics, Dozier came up with an idea to make the series appealing to both children and adults.

“[I decided] to overdo it. And, if you overdid it, I thought it would be funny to adults, and yet it would be stimulating to kids – the daring duo – but you had to appeal on both levels or you didn’t have a chance,” Dozier stated in a 1989 interview.

Dozier found his Batman in Adam West, who he first noticed in a commercial for Nestle’s Quik chocolate milk mix. In the commercial, West played the James Bondesque Captain Q, a hero out to foil the dastardly deeds of a faceless villain set on both world domination and stealing the world’s supply of Nestle’s Quik.

Dozier was most impressed by how he took comedic material and played it straight, tongue in cheek, in the commercial, and thought West’s style of delivery would be ideal for Batman.

Batman made its television debut on January 12, 1966, with West and Ward (Robin) in the leading roles. The show aired twice a week on Wednesday and Thursday nights. As a salute to the Saturday matinee movie serials of the 1940s, each Wednesday’s episode would conclude with that week’s guest villain capturing Batman and Robin, leaving them in a seemingly inescapable death trap. The Dynamic Duo would escape during Thursday’s episode, usually thanks to some trust gadget in Batman’s utility belt, and our heroes would go on to foil that week’s villain.

Batman’s first two part episode was penned by legendary screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and featured Pittsburgh’s own Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. The show was a huge ratings’ success, and Gorshin was nominated for an Emmy.

Batman soon become the “in” show for celebrities to guest star as villains. Along with Gorshin, Burgess Meredith – who held the record for most guest appearances – played the Penguin, Julie Newmar starred as Catwoman, Vincent Price as Egghead, Victor Buono as King Tut, Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze, Joan Collins as The Siren, Roddy McDowell as Bookworm, David Wayne as Mad Hatter and, last but not least, Cesar Romero played the Joker.

When he was cast in the role of the Joker, Romero, who had a well established reputation as a Latin lover and silver screen heartthrob, stipulated he wouldn’t shave his mustache for the part. Make up artists covered it with white to try to conceal it.

Rumor has it at one point Frank Sinatra lobbied for the role of the Joker.

Some Batman comics villains were deliberately kept off screen, such as Two Face, who producers thought might be too frightening for the show’s younger viewers. Though the character was popular in the comics and in animated versions of Batman, he was never portrayed in live action until 1995’s Batman Forever, when Tommy Lee Jones took on the role. Later, Aaron Eckhart would portray Two Face in 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Had the producers of the Batman television show elected to portray the character, it’s been said the part would have gone to a then young Clint Eastwood.

In the show’s seconds, the ratings began to decline. When the show returned for a third season in the fall of 1967, changes had been made. The show’s budget had been cut and it no longer aired twice a week, meaning no more cliffhanger endings.

Producers thought a new character might help boost ratings and brought in Yvonne Cragi as Batgirl, transforming the Dynamic Duo into the Tremendous Trio. Still, ratings continued to dip and ABC canceled the show in spring of 1968. Though Adam West stated in his autobiography Back to the Batcave the show almost got picked up by NBC for a fourth season, by the time the network expressed interest, the sets had been demolished and it would have been too expensive to rebuild them.

The show has remained popular in re-runs for the past 50 years, and finally was released on DVD in 2014. Additionally, Adam West has charmed a new generation of fans thanks to his portrayal of kooky Mayor West on Fox’s hit animated series Family Guy.

Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges