Adam West barely recognizes Gotham City these days. “Batman is so dark now,” the 80-year-old actor said with a carefree chuckle. “The new films, they are grim, Gothic, full of explosions, mayhem. It’s the way of things, I suppose, the whole world seems darker.”
Well, the world was also heaving with angst back when West wore the cape for 26 months of prime-time silliness that began in January 1966. The native of Walla Walla, Wash., became an icon of camp with his masked-man deadpan and, for much of America, his version was the enduring definition of the caped crusader for decades.
That’s changed after the cemetery cabaret of Tim Burton’s Bat-movies and the ferocious revenge films of Christopher Nolan, whose “The Dark Knight” hit the billion-dollar mark at the box office a few weeks ago. Batman now seems closer kin to Dracula and Dirty Harry than he does Dick Tracy, but that don’t tell that West who is still dancing the Batusi and enjoying his busy role as an elder statesman of farce.
“I look at [it] this way: They’ve got the ‘Dark Knight,’ and I was the bright knight,” he said with the breathy, oddball diction that still keeps him in demand as a voice actor in animation. “Or maybe I was even … the neon knight.”
West has an upcoming appearance on “30 Rock,” and there’s also his ongoing voice work on “Family Guy,” on which he plays Mayor Adam West; that namesake role, along with his portrayal of himself (albeit, a cat-obsessed version of himself) on the loopy Nickelodeon series “The Fairly Oddparents” has given him entire new generations of fans who have never seen the odd “Batman” series except maybe in snatches on YouTube. There’s also his voice roles in “Chicken Little,” “Meet the Robinsons” and animated Batman shows on which he played the mayor of Gotham, not its infamous mystery man.
“I’m like Madonna, I keep reinventing myself,” said West, who splits his time between Palm Springs and Sun Valley, Idaho. “I get called ‘Mayor West’ a lot in airports. I’ve been very fortunate to have a fan base that keeps growing and the work gets such a warm response and humor from people.”
This week, West is back in a familiar comedy vehicle — literally. The new film “Super Capers,” yet another superhero parody (it follows “Hancock,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” “Zoom,” “Sky High,” “Superhero Movie,” etc.), opened Friday and while its showing in just 80 theaters nationwide, it’s a memorable gig for West because it puts him back in the driver’s seat of his most famous ride.
“It’s a very bright comedy adventure. In it I’m a cab driver whose gotten a hold of the Batmobile and converted it to a taxi cab –- with air conditioning,” West said. “I meet up with a young guy who’s trying to be a super hero, played by an actor named Justin Whalin, who is quite good, and I’m able to drive him around on some of his misadventures.”
And how was it to sit in that grand old tail-finned time capsule? “It was great,” he said. “All those things that you do in a long career come back pretty easily once you get your hands on the wheel.”
The film’s cast reads like a game of celebrity Mad Libs (Doug Jones from “Hellboy,” June Lockhart from “Lassie,” Tom Sizemore from the courthouse), but after years of comic book conventions and car shows West is more pleasant than proud. “It’s a family film which means you can take anyone from a 2-year-old to your great-granny to it and they probably would all enjoy it,” he said. “I’m happy to be part of that.”
Like William Shatner of “Star Trek,” West spent a considerable amount of his career feeling smothered by his short-lived but unforgettably eccentric TV role from the 1960s: “I remember the struggle that I had,” West said. “I mean, I did the Music Center in L.A., I did the Mark Taper Forum, I did regional theater, anything I could to keep working. I think it’s an actor’s obligation, if possible, to keep working, playing the instrument. But, yes, there were a lot of doors closed for a long time.”
As the years passed, West (again, like Shatner) eventually decided the better tactic was to celebrate and spoof the old reruns instead of fighting them. Still, there’s a tinge of jealousy in West’s voice when he talks about the actors today who can play Batman, Wolverine or Iron Man and simply move on the next non-hero role without the sort of treacherous typecasting that faced West, Clayton Moore, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve.
“I’ve never felt the envy … well, I don’t know. Maybe I have a little,” West said. “I look at it and I think, ‘Well, it’s a lot simpler now to do other things. And why is that? Well, I think they’re in big movies on big screens and they’re in roles written for the actor to have moments outside of that superhero thing. I fought for that a little bit and they gave me a little more Bruce Wayne, but still he was a comedic Bruce Wayne. … it was still theater of the absurd.”
The absurd is going quite well now for West. On an upcoming “Family Guy,” he and Rob Lowe will appear during a live-action scene edited into the ribald Seth MacFarlane animated series. (“It is,” West said, “hysterical.”) On “30 Rock,” West will deliver a daft introduction to star Alec Baldwin but he didn’t want to give away too much. In a way, he said, “30 Rock” actually reminds him of “Batman” with its rapid-fire gags, winking style and celebrity guest stars.
All subjects come back to “Batman” and with these West is in a legacy maintenance mode. He has a new DVD venture called “Adam West Naked,” which has him recounting anecdotes about all 120 episodes of “Batman.” As the title suggests, the behind-the-scenes tales are often sexed-up anecdotes about a 1960s tomcat who sometimes comes off like Austin Powers with a cape.
“It wasn’t easy, I had a lot to take care of,” the actor said. “With three Catwomans, that’s 27 lives total. That’s not easy. Who was my favorite? Well, I wouldn’t be honorable. … I think I’d better not say. Julie Newmar was first, Lee Meriwether was Catwoman in the feature, Eartha Kitt as the black Catwoman. They were all splendid in their own way. We tried to put a lot of sexual tension in there between Catwoman and Batman and in costume, it was almost absurdly delightful. In one episode I said, ‘You give me strange stirrings in my utility belt, Catwoman.’ The guys loved that.”
The Neon Knight says he has no plans to slow down despite that fact that 55 years have passed since he made his television debut in “The Philco Television Playhouse” with aspirations for a career that did not involve tights.
“The reaction has been so positive and good for me that I love it now,” West said of his enduring pop-culture image. “How could I not? I would hate to be a bitter, aging actor. I’ve been so fortunate to have this opportunity to bring Batman alive on the screen. There’s a lot of talent, money and expertise with the new films. They’re beautifully crafted, but there’s something about our Batman that still strikes a chord. And as for me, I’m too young and pretty to retire, as somebody once said.”
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Top photo: Adam West in the Batmobile on the set of “Super Capers,” courtesy of RG Entertainment. Second photo: West from “Batman” from Los Angeles Times archives. Third photo: West with “Batman” costar Burt Ward, from the Times archives. Fourth photo: West with “Super Capers” writer and director Ray Griggs, courtesy of RG Entertainment. Fifth photo: West with Justin Whalin in “Super Capers.” Bottom: Angelina Jolie photo by Martin Schoeller/For The Times