This is the eighth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
After the untimely cancellation of “The Adventures of Superman” due to the tragic and mysterious death of its star, it would be a few years before another prominent superhero came to television. By 1966, the world was a different place than it had been in 1959. The reality-based and noir-like feel of the old serials and the Superman television series had given way to the bright and colorful adventures of Batman and Robin.
Starring Adam West and Burt Ward, the Batman television series was the brainchild of producer William Dozier, who had previously produced the 1948 film “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Dozier was given the project by 20th Century Fox, having never read a comic book in his entire life. After reading some current issues of Batman for research, Dozier concluded that the material was so ridiculous that the only way to do it was to almost parody the source material. Originally, the series was meant to be a much more straightforward adaptation.
West and Ward beat out Lyle Waggoner – who would go on to be known as a cast member on “The Carol Burnett Show” and eventually as Steve Trevor on the 1977 “Wonder Woman” television series – and Peter Deyell for the roles of Batman and Robin respectively. The series also featured an ensemble of some of contemporary Hollywood’s biggest stars as the show’s colorful and theatrical villains. Playing a villain on “Batman” quickly became something of a Hollywood status symbol.
“Batman” was important to the genre because it was the first superhero adaptation to really use the villains from the comic books, and to really make them an important part of what the show was. Batman wasn’t just chasing some original mob boss and fighting hired thugs, he was chasing down the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin. The series also played heavily on the romantic relationship between Batman and Catwoman – albeit mostly through innuendo and double entendre – which has become an important dynamic to the mythos.
The first two seasons followed a strict format. Each episode – which was written and produced as an hour long single episode – was split in half and aired as two-parters with a cliffhanger ending at the end of the first half. The only notable exceptions to this format were two three-part story arcs in the second season.
The third season broke with the two-parter format in favor of more self-contained single episodes, with a couple of two- and three-parters scattered throughout. The third season also introduced a new crimefighter into the mix in Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl. Batgirl was introduced to the studio with a short pilot for the character in which she fights Killer Moth. This mirrors Batgirl’s introduction in the comics, where Killer Moth was also the villain. This never-aired pilot is the only time Killer Moth was ever featured in the series.
The third season also saw Julie Newmar’s Catwoman being replaced by Eartha Kitt, due to Newmar being away filming the movie “MacKenna’s Gold” with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif. This film is often mis-cited as the reason Newmar was replaced with Lee Meriwether for the feature film version of the series, but Newmar simply told Cinefantistique magazine that she missed the film because she was busy with “other commitments.”
Despite the initial popularity of the series, which spawned the first “Batmania” craze, ratings had begun to dwindle severely by the end of the show’s third season and the series was not renewed for a fourth on CBS. NBC had expressed interest in picking the series up, but the sets had already been struck and the cost to rebuild everything was prohibitive.
Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig would reprise their roles of Robin and Batgirl for an equal pay public service announcement. This time they were joined by Dick Gautier – best known for playing HYMEE the robot on “Get Smart” – as Batman, since Adam West had declined to appear in the spot. Adam West would return to the role, along with Burt Ward as Robin, in “The New Adventures of Batman” animated series as well as the Hannah-Barbera production “Legends of the Super-Heroes.”
West and Ward would reunite once again in 2003 for the made-for-TV movie “Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt,” which was loosely based on West’s own autobiography “Back to the Batcave.” In July 2013 the series was revived as a comic book called “Batman ’66.” There are also plans to produce a feature-length animated film, which will star West and Ward and is slated for release in 2016.
Gabilliet, Jean-Paul (2010). Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen (translators). University Press of Mississippi. p. 59.ISBN 978-1-60473-267-2.
“Batgirl and the Batman Phenomenon”. http://www.tvobscurities.com. June 11, 2003
Garcia, Bob, “Batman: Catwoman,” Cinefantastique, Vol. 26, #6/Vol. 7, #1 (double issue), February 1994, p. 19 (interview with Julie Newmar).
Holmes, Adam, “Batman ’66 is Getting a Feature Film, Get the Deatils,” http://www.cinemablend.com. March 2015.