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Batman's Adam West:
Man In Tights

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Adam West and Lee Meriwether at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016, Los Angeles.
The Man Who Brought Batman To Life Talks Embracing The Role That Made Him A Household Name At The TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 And What Is What Like To Put On The Tights As An Actor

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By Tom Johnson
Special for Modern Times Magazine

May 2, 2016 — At every TCM Classic Film Festival, organizers schedule several nightly movie screenings in the capacious space around the outdoor pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel which is ground zero for much of the Festival’s activities.

And this Festival is no different. Thursday night, silent film fans were treated to a poolside screening of The Freshman (1925) starring spectacled comic, Harold Lloyd. And last night it was Batman, the feature-length movie from 1966 that sprung from the campy TV series starring Adam West as the titular cowled crime fighter.

Best yet, West who is now 87, was in attendance along with former Miss America from 1955, Lee Meriwether (80) who played Catwoman in the movie and who later starred in Barnaby Jones on TV with Buddy Ebsen.

“There were about 100 gorgeous women at the audition for Catwoman,” said Meriwether, “so I just did various cat things, rubbed my knees and thighs like a cat and even licked my hand. Then I started to growl. A day or two later my agent called, told me I got the part and to get to wardrobe.”

Batman marked the first full-length theatrical adaptation of the DC Comics character and decades before more chiseled actors like Ben Affleck and George Clooney portrayed Gotham City’s favorite son as full of brooding gravitas, West played the caped crusader strictly for laughs as a straight-laced nerd with more body flab than a Midwestern tourist at an all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet.

“I had no nipples,” West said. “I didn’t exactly hit the gym to play the role. I did hit a guy named Jim, though. I was in a bar one night in Montana and a guy said I looked funny in my cape.”

The ensuing years have not caused West to second-guess his satiric approach to the character one iota. As proof, he made his grand entrance to the pool area gyrating (I kid you not) in a way that conjured up images of “The Batusi” from the TV series.

“I loved (pilot writer) Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s take on it, the fact that they wanted to do a satire – an homage to the earlier Batman comics,” West said. “I grew up on a farm and as a kid, I had found a stash of Batman comics in a barn, so I was familiar with the character and even played him in the backyard with my younger brother. I had a blue bath towel.”

Before Batman, West had played detectives and bad guys and then went to Europe to appear in Spaghetti Westerns. “One day I was riding my big old stud of a gray horse across this plain in Spain and we approached this cave and suddenly, bats began to fly out. I wondered if it was a harbinger of what’s to come. And indeed it was. That’s a true story.”

The Batmanmovie was originally planned as the series’ pilot but when ABC moved up the airdate, it was put on hold and filmed after the first season.

West said that he knew the series had broken out when he went to the store to buy a six-pack of beer in preparation for watching the debut of the series on TV. “I heard all the cashiers yelling ‘Get us out of here. I wanna watch Batman. Batman’s on tonight!’ Suddenly I became aware that possibly my life had changed.”

With instant success in the role came typecasting that West wasn’t ever fully able to surmount (at least not until his continuing voiceover role as “Mayor Adam West” on TV’s long-running animated hit The Family Guy). “I got tired of the character … even tonight I’m tired of it,” he said, tongue wedged in cheek. “I’m the luckiest actor in the world to run around, wear a costume and create a character that people love. And I made up my mind after two or three years of being turned down for leading man parts, that I, too, would love Batman.”

According to West, the early scene where he’s attacked by a shark while hanging off a ladder from the Batcopter set the tone for what would follow the rest of the film. The shark was noticeably rubber and when West as Batman started hitting the shark to get it to release his leg, the repeated “thunks” were hilarious.

“I told them to leave those sound effects in,” he said. “It sounded like a rubber shark and then when it hit the water it exploded.”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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