In January of 1996, a mid-season replacement show debuted on ABC and became an unexpected hit. It was originally planned to be produced for the fall ’66 season but it was moved up to January. ABC’s Batman was part of its 1966 “second wave” programming, being one of 4 shows that debuted during the mid-season. (Along with The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, Blue Light and The Baron.) While the other three are mostly forgotten, Batman became the sensation of the season—airing twice each week, on Wednesday (the cliffhanger) and Thursday—and becoming a Top 5 rated show on the Neilson charts, as well as the highest rated new show of the season. The pilot episode “Hi Diddle Riddle”, featuring Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, aired on January 12th to high ratings.
As early as 1965, ABC wanted to make a show about a well-known, established hero, hoping it would run as long as the popular Adventures of Superman series with George Reeves had run. They polled viewers to determine which hero the public would like see starring in a weekly series. Among the candidates were the Phantom, the Green Hornet, Dick Tracy and the Shadow. The result was Batman wining by a landslide.
The original concept of the show was for it to be a moody action/drama. Mike Henry (who had played Tarzan in the movies) was the first choice for the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne. He left the project when it was moved up to January. The final two actors in contention for the lead were Lyle Waggoner (who would later go on to play Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman) and Adam West, who had been spotted by producer William Dozier while doing a James Bond parody in a commercial for Hershey’s chocolate. Two pilots were filmed, one with each actor. The Waggoner version was done in a serious, somber manner, while the West version added an element of satire and campiness. West played alongside Burt Ward as Dick Greyson/Robin. (Waggoner’s Robin was Peter Deyell). ABC and Dozier chose to go with the more humorous version, and so West and Ward got the roles that would define them for their lifetimes.
Batman was such a success during its first season, that it became the “It” show for celebrities to appear on. Everyone who was anyone wanted to guest star on Batman because that was the cool thing to do in 1966. Established movie stars like Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Cliff Robertson, Art Carney, Van Johnson, Vincent Price, Eli Wallach, Roddy McDowell, Joan Collins, Anne Baxter, Victor Buono, David Wayne and many others all eagerly appeared on the program. Many other big names wanted to appear but never managed to fit it into their scheduled, including Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood.
What made Batman so unique at the time, and what keeps it so beloved today, was the campy satire, which parodied everything from the super hero genre, to popular music, to politicians of the time (Gotham’s Governor Stonefellow and Mayor Linseed were parodies of NY Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsey.) The show was exceptionally clever in adding in absurdities that went over the heads of children who saw it as a straight adventure show but amused adults who got a laugh out of the satiric aspect.
Batman was arguably (I would say definitely) the best satire of the super-hero genre ever done. Why? Because unlike other parodies and satires, Batman allowed the hero to remain a formidable crime fighter and not a goof. If you look at parodies like Mystery Men, the Tick, Hancock, Captain Nice, the Greatest American Hero and practically every other one, the humor comes from the fact that the hero is incompetent. Other parodies almost always portray the hero as either being stupid, cowardly, crazy or otherwise inept. Generally, the wacky hero wins through luck or by getting help from a smarter sidekick. What is so unique about Batman as a parody is that the hero is portrayed as smart and formidable. No one ever looks down on Batman as a bungler or klutz. Batman is always the smartest guy in the room and the bad guys invariably see him as a serious threat.
The show was possibly too weird and surreal for its own good and the wild popularity of Batman ended up being sadly short-lived. Season Two saw an inflated budget but declining ratings. An attempt was made to salvage the series by cutting it down to one show per-week (eliminating the popular cliffhanger aspect of the series) and adding in Batgirl (Yvonne Craig) to the mix. This all backfired and the ratings dropped like a stone by the end of year three. Batman was supposed to be picked up by NBC after the cancellation was announced, but by the time the offer was made, the standing sets (the Batcave/Wayne Manor/Police headquarters) had all been dismantled and bulldozed. When NBC found out they would have to pay to reconstruct the expensive sets, they retracted the offer to pick up the series. What had been the hottest show on TV in 1966 was dead in the water by the summer of 1968. Although the show went off the air, West was not quite done with the cowl yet. He and Ward reprised their roles as the dynamic duo in the mini-series Legends of the Super Heroes (1979) and West provided the voice for Batman on several animated projects.
ABCs Batman has never been forgotten. It’s seen in perennial reruns to this day. Adam West is still a much loved figure, frequently appearing a sci-fi and comic-cons. There was a fan petition recently for him to have a part in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, although that didn’t work out. Whatever people today (indoctrinated to Batman by Christopher Nolan) may think of the campy, classic TV show, it continues to be well-regarded and fondly remembered by older fans, as well as finding new viewers on cable.
Happy 50th to a great satire.