FIVE QUESTIONS: LORENZO SEMPLE JR.
This Sunday, the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre paid tribute to Lorenzo Semple Jr., the screenwriter who hit pay dirt in 1966 with “Batman,” the campy ABC sensation that starred Adam West and Burt Ward as the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin. After Gotham City, Semple wrote the scripts for acclaimed fare such as “Pretty Poison,” “Papillion” and “The Parallax View.” In 1980 he returned to heroic camp with “Flash Gordon.”
This Wednesday, Semple will be interviewed by Larry Karaszewski (the co-writer of “Ed Wood“) onstage at the Aero, which will screen two Semple-written films, “Pretty Poison” and the rarely seen 1971 film “Marriage of a Young Stockbroker.” Hero Complex contributor Susan King caught up with Semple for five questions.
Susan King: You honed your craft some 60 years ago by writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s Weekly and then penned scripts for “Kraft Suspense Theatre” and “The Rat Patrol.” How did you end up doing something so campy as “Batman?”
Lorenzo Semple Jr.: I was a friend of [producer] Bill Dozier’s and we tried to sell various pilots, which never worked. ABC wanted a thing called “No. 1 Son,” which was suppose to be about Charlie Chan’s son set in San Francisco. I wrote a pilot, which was acceptable but it wasn’t great. But it was good enough and ABC liked it. Then Bill suddenly got a call that the powers that be decided they weren’t going to have any ethnic characters on television. [ABC] said, “We owe you one….” A couple of years later I was living in Spain working on a play. I got a cable from Bill to meet him in Madrid. I flew to Madrid to meet him at the Ritz and he pulled out of his pocket this copy of this comic book “Batman.” I said, it sounds terrific [for a TV series]. Let’s do it.
SK: Was it ABC’s idea to make it so campy?
LS: Again, I am embarrassed to blow my own horn so much. On this particular point, when he showed me the book I said, “Bill, I know how to do it. Go back to L.A.” We had no discussion and had no discussion with the network at all. I wrote the script and they loved it. We had to make one trip to New York to explain it to ABC. They liked it, but they were startled by it because it wasn’t like anything else. They shot it without a pilot and scheduled it without a pilot. It started off as a rocket and naturally it ran out of steam because it was like a one-trick pony.
SK: So why did they make the “Batman” film in 1966?
LS: Well, people were making movies out of series in those days. But they were usually just pasted-together episodes. It was never promoted very well by the people at Fox. People thought it was a couple of episodes of the show expanded so, so it never did well particularly at all.
SK: So after writing scripts for such acclaimed films as “Pretty Poison” and “Papillion,” how did you return to the silliness with “Flash Gordon” in 1980?
LS: That was a Dino De Laurentiis project. “Flash Gordon,” the comic strip, was a big hit in Italy. He always wanted to do that and he thought it would be very good. You would have to call it a cult movie — nobody bought tickets to see it. One of the reasons is flopped: “Star Wars” was a realistic movie in its own crazy way. It wasn’t done campy. People expected a different thing from sci-fi by that point. They expected something like “Star Wars.” “Flash Gordon” is basically just silly — in an inspired way.
SK: Are you still writing?
LS: No. I have a genuine talent for doing nothing.
– Susan King
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Photo: “Batman” photo from Los Angeles Times archives.