As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
The first attempt to bring Batman to the small screen was by Ed Graham Jr. (LINUS! THE LION HEARTED), who had optioned the TV rights to Batman from National Periodical Publications. He was planning a straight kid’s adventure show for Saturday mornings. It’s said CBS was interested in airing the proposed program, but no pilot was ever made. Perhaps this is because Graham’s previous outings as director or producer were all in animated cartoons and TV commercials, with no live-action credits that I’ve be able to identify. Without a track record, the network may have been unwilling to finance the show’s development. But Ed Graham would not be the only person to see potential in the caped crusader.
Starting around 1963-64, enterprising theater owners (notably in Chicago) began renting the Batman serials from Columbia for weekend showings, and to everyone’s surprise it began to catch on with college students, who found the old kiddie fodder ‘campy’ — humorous because it’s ridiculous, overdone, or just plain bad in an amusing way. These bookings were so successful that Columbia officially re-released the serials in 1965, with marathon viewings offered as AN EVENING WITH BATMAN AND ROBIN.
Reportedly, ABC network executive Yale Udoff saw the serial at the Playboy Mansion, and thought the idea of a Batman TV series for prime time might be a workable proposition. National’s (DC Comics) option with Ed Graham Productions must have been up, because ABC in partnership with 20th Century Fox were able to obtain the TV and film rights. (Said to be only $7,000.)
ABC originally wanted an action-adventure show, perhaps with a certain amount of coy self-awareness, as in NBC’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE. 20th Century Fox production executive William Self originally approached screenwriter (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER) and spy novelist (The Mask of Dimitrios) Eric Ambler to write a film that would launch a Batman TV series. Ambler passed, and ABC wanted the series to go to pilot quickly, so Self’s choice for producer William Dozier (ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS, THE LOSER) picked Lorenzo Semple Jr. (PRETTY POISON) to write the pilot script. Semple had previously written a modern update of Charlie Chan for Dozier called NUMBER ONE SON, which would have featured Dozier’s discovery — martial artist Bruce Lee. The network wasn’t ready for that idea. They weren’t quite ready for what Dozier and Semple had in mind, either.
William Dozier had obtained several issues of Batman and Detective Comics to read while flying from New York to Los Angeles. He was not happy with what he read, and worried. He felt that if he tried to make a serious adaptation of the comics it would flop, and he would become the laughingstock of Hollywood. The only way to save face would be to spoof the character, play up the straight-faced juvenile aspects as intentional high camp. The kiddies would love it, and the adults could laugh if they wanted. Lorenzo Semple agreed with the approach and signed on.
Batman in the comic books had become almost a mockery of his former self in the late 1950’s to early 60’s. The noir-ish crime stories had given way to more whimsical adventures, visits from space aliens and other pseudo-scientific plot devices, along with juvenile attempts at awkward soap opera with Batwoman and the first Batgirl attempting to interest the dynamic duo in romance.
By 1963, DC was considering canceling at least one of the Batman titles. Editor Julius Schwartz was given control of the books, with carte blanche to make changes. He brought in Carmine Infantino, who had redesigned the Flash into a modern superhero to update Batman’s look. The hero’s increasingly broad ( in more ways than one) cartoon appearance was abandoned, slimming him down and adding a yellow circle around the bat insignia on his chest as a symbol of his “New Look”. Stung by public sniggering about a homosexual context to the Bruce-Dick-Alfred living arrangements, they even took the odd choice of killing off Alfred Pennysworth, and had Dick Grayson’s quickly invented Aunt Harriet Cooper take his place as housekeeper. Sales began to pick up somewhat.
At some point in this process, former NFL football player Mike Henry was apparently up for the part of Batman, and it’s claimed that photos were taken of him in a Batman costume. Whether these were for the CBS or ABC proposals is unclear, nor is the there any certainty this actually happened. (In the late 70’s I was shown a picture purported to be of Henry as the character, but it looked to me like the work of an airbrush rather than a tailor.) Mike Henry would in any case be busy starring as another icon, Tarzan in three films — and did a creditable job.
Many actors were considered for the role by Fox and ABC, including western TV star Ty Hardin (BRONCO), but Dozier had set his sights on Adam West (William Anderson), a handsome actor with a flair for light comedy that he had seen spoofing James Bond (as Captain Q) in a series of Nestle’s Quick commercials. At ABC’s request, he also tested future WONDER WOMAN star Lionel Wagner and former child actor Peter Dyell (MR. NOVAK) as Robin. With West he tested gymnast-turned-fledging actor Burton Gervis as Robin. ABC went with the second pair, and Gervis soon changed his name to Burt Ward. It’s interesting to note that the acting and lighting of the screen tests is noticeably more subdued than what the series would feature.
Going into production on the pilot was a gamble for ABC and 20th Century Fox. Wanting to have a good looking show (and one that could be exploited as a movie), the decision was made to build a big Bat Cave set. Production designers Serge Krizman, Ed Graves and the rest of Jack Martin Smith’s staff proposed a massive, two-story structure, that essentially took up an entire soundstage. (Part of the atomic pile came from the recently wrapped OUR MAN FLINT. ) This and other space concerns at the busy Fox Studios led the company and Dozier’s Greenway Productions to make the series not on their own stages and facilities, but at Desilu’s Culver City Studio. This was the old RKO-Pathe/Selsnick International Studios, not their main facility on North Gower Street, next to Paramount.
KING KONG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN had been filmed there. The backlot (called Forty Acres) was where THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW filmed the Mayberry scenes — and both Desilu 1960’s adventure shows STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would often visit. The BATMAN crew would often use the same backlot, though certain episodes would use the Fox lot — and the regular location of Gotham City Hall, where Commissioner Gordon’s office was located was actually (a still-standing structure) on the Warner Brothers backlot. The choice of filming at a rental facility, while solving Fox’s immediate concerns, would later have repercussions.
Lorenzo Semple’s pilot episode was loosely based on “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler” which appeared in Batman #171 (May 1965),written by long-time DC writer Gardner Fox. Semple revised and fleshed out the story considerably, turning the short comic book tale into an hour-long TV series. Actor/impressionist Frank Gorshin (INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN) played the role of the manic and obsessive villain The Riddler, investing the part with great energy and a high pitched laugh inspired by Richard Widmark’s mad psycho killer’s giggle in KISS OF DEATH (1947). Jill St. John guest starred as Molly, a buxom red-head who with the aid of a rubber mask somehow becomes the spitting image of Robin the Boy Wonder.
The show comes off with great style, directed by Robert Butler who also directed the first pilot of STAR TREK. It was full of production value, including comic book-inspired superimposed ‘visual sound effects’ such as POW! BIFF!, etc. superimposed over the fight scenes. The cost of all this flashy, vividly colored action adventure was around a half a million dollars.
The first regular that had been cast was British character actor Alan Napier, to play the role of Alfred. Dozier thought killing the character off had been a mistake on DC’s part, and insisted on including him in the series. Subsequently, the comic books would contrive a science-fictional way of reviving the trusty butler. (Originally as a mutated monster out to destroy the dynamic duo.) The producer agreed with the idea of Aunt Harriet as a blance to the all-male home, and cast Madge Blake (THE REAL McCOYS). Neal Hamilton, with a career as both leads and character roles since the silent days, played the part of Commissioner Gordon. Stafford Repp, once a sound effects man, created the role of Police Chief O’Hara. His faux Irish accent reportedly irritated his irascible co-star Hamilton throughout the series.
Busy jazz and film composer Neal Hefti composed the soon to be famous BATMAN theme, a blues-influenced surf rock number for bass guitar, brass, percussion and vocals that helped set the tone and would win a Grammy.
George Barris proved a sleek black Batmobile, forced by the short time-frame allotted to convert the already existing Ford concept car the 1955 Lincoln Futura. The car, originally pearl white with a double-domed clear canopy, had been painted red for the 1959 comedy IT STARTED WITH A KISS. It was given a through make-over for the pilot, painted glossy black with added details and came off quite impressively on film, though it had be filmed under-cranked to safely exit the narrow Bronson Canyon mine tunnel that was used to depict the exterior of the Bat Cave — and to look as swift as the flame-thrower ‘atomic turbine’ that had been mounted on the back suggested.
The costumes for the caped crimefighters were a good attempt to translate the then-current look of the comic book characters. Costume designer Jan Kemp went to the trouble of matching the color of Batman’s leotards as printed; rather than just gray, they’re actually a subtle mauve, an artifact of how grays were generally achieved in the 4-color process. Unfortunately, the indigo blue material that covered the fiberglass shell of Batman’s cowl had a tendency to quickly turn purple under the stage lights. The cape would face similar problems, and would also be made shorter as the series progressed, so that it wouldn’t get stepped on or snagged in action scenes. The ‘face’ of the cowl was hand painted black, with accents for the nose and eyebrows in lighter blue. The Bat-insignia was a sticker that would be applied and removed daily. Though a printed item, the bat is actually not quite symmetrical. Unfortunately, Batman’s utility belt — made to appear functional — tended to make the in-shape Adam West look a bit thick-set. (Adding to the problem West’s stuntman Hubie Kerns, despite being quite athletic had a slight pot belly, which the belt accentuated noticeably.)
Robin’s costume was right out of the comics, though the cloth gloves in the pilot would be replaced with green leather ones in the series. The palm sides of Batman’s finned gauntlets would be refurbished with suede to avoid tearing.
ABC liked what they saw, and committed to 16 episodes. Of course, the show would have to be audience tested. The reaction nearly scuttled the series. The results supposedly were the worst of any program test in television history. William Dozier thought he knew why; the audience was confused — not getting the concept that the show was essentially a farce. He quickly did some narration with a preface explaining that the idea was to have fun, to ‘hiss the villains and cheer the heroes’ — along with an archly-announced middle cliff-hanger break. It’s rumored that a version with a laugh track was made and tested. Early footage (a network and affiliate promo reel) still exists, scored with stock music from Peter Gunn episodes, which was in the ballpark of what they had in mind. Eventually, well-known big band composer Nelson Riddle would score the show quoting the Nefti theme often, and coming up with distinct personal motifs for the major guest villains as the show progressed.
The show needed work, and initially there was time, as it wasn’t due to premiere until the Fall of 1966. However, ABC had a problem, several of its 1965 season shows were bombing and would be canceled. What was the solution? Launch a ‘second season’ in January of 1966. Batman would be one of the new programs, though the time slots available weren’t the most favorable. ABC figured that kids would be the primary audience, so the show couldn’t be on too late. In the 60’s most children were in bed by 9:00 PM. The answer? Well, the show was inspired by the cliff-hanger serials — instead of coming back after a mid-point break, turn the hour-long show into two half-hour shows at 7:30 on successive nights. Twice the bang for the buck. (There’s some evidence that ABC briefly considered cutting the episodes into 15 minute segments, but if so this never went past initial discussions.)
After a huge promotional campaign, Batman premiered on Wednesday January 12th, 1966. with the episode “Hi Diddle Riddle”. The second segment “Smack in the Middle” aired the next day. The show was an instant hit, with kids excited by the larger-than-life characters and action, and adults generally amused by the then relatively straight-faced spoofing.
Keeping with William Dozier’s plans, well-known actors were sought out to play the guest villain roles. Burgess Meredith would take the part of the top-hatted Penguin, developing his eccentric quacking from trying to suppress coughing from the cigarette smoke of the long holder the character sported. Caesar Romero, once typed as a latin lover, was so amused by the costume designed for the Joker that he cackled helplessly with glee. This became a signature for the role — and to add to the absurdity, rather than shave his trademark mustache, the make-up artists simply spread the clown white make-up over it.
Taking a comic book character originally named Mr. Zero, George Sanders would be the first of theer actors to take on the part of the villain re-named Mr. Freeze (with the supposed identity of a Dr. Shivel in his introductory episode).
TV actor Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF) would play the role of the always-masked False Face, but the use of name actors coupled with his question mark billing led to insistent speculation that it was really some big star unwilling to show his face — certainly an intended result.
After originally planning for the petite Suzanne Pleshette to take on the part of Catwoman, when she proved unavailable the producers went with the statuesque Julie Newmar, who relished the chance to do more comedy, and she became iconic in the role. New villains would be invented for the show, including King Tut (Victor Buono). Unlike most of the guest foes, who never have their comic book real names mentioned, Tut is given an in-joke secret identity; William Omaha McElroy. William Dozier’s middle name was McElroy, and he was born in Ohmaha, Nebraska.
The show was a huge hit, and a wave of Bat-Mania flooded the airwaves, record shops, toy stores, and even adult nightclubs. Celebrities happily did window cameos on the show as West and Ward walked along a set built sideways, capes held up by wires. Shot with a camera on its side, it gave the illusion of the pair scaling a wall. Adam West in later years would remark that the 1960’s entertainment era might well be thought of as “The Three B’s: The Beatles, James Bond, and Batman.”
Buoyed by the success of the show, 20th Century Fox greenlit a feature film, BATMAN (1966) to be filmed during the series’ hiatus. Rather than Dozier’s Greenway Productions, the film was made by a new production company he created, Greenlawn Productions. This and (presumably other) legal reasons permitted the film to be released on video decades before the TV series would be. Adam West and Burt Ward negotiated nice salaries for the film, but their duties would extend to a great deal of traveling and promotion when it was released. (Up to this point, Ward was only making $350 an episode.)
Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin would reprise their TV roles, but Julie Newmar was unexpectedly unavailable for the film. She’d committed to another feature and the production had to scramble to find a replacement. (This is usually said to be McKENNA’S GOLD (1969), but that film didn’t shoot until 1967. I believe the film project Newmar did was the UK-shot Zero Mostel comedy MONSIEUR LECOQ (1967).
It wasn’t until after production had commenced on BATMAN that the producers were able to bring in former Miss America Lee Meriwether (THE TIME TUNNEL) as the Catwoman. The replacement casting makes the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t recognize Catwoman as the romantic interest Russian reporter ‘Miss Kitka’ in the storyline somewhat easier to swallow. The only fanboy explanation for this — as in the series Batman had seen the feline villainess without her mask more or less regularly — is that the film must take place before the Catwoman episodes of the show. There also doesn’t seem to be any hint of the personal attraction the characters shared on the show, despite Wayne’s infatuation with her false assumed identity in the film. The original plan was for a feature to precede the series, perhaps this was a plot ‘hangover’.
The far-fetched sci-fi storyline by Lorenzo Semple Jr. involved the four villains kidnapping the security council of the United World Organization (read U.N.) by dehydrating them into colored powders, with the plan of reconstituting them only after spectacular ransom was paid.
Soon to be The Green Hornet, actor Van Williams did a voice cameo, using his rather good Lyndon Baines Johnson impression as the President. Direction by Leslie H. Martison is serviceable, as is Howard Schwartz’s photography. A number of scenes actually appear a bit less effective or atmospherically shot than comparable ones from the TV show. Running around in broad daylight on real locations seemed to emphasize the ridiculous nature of the material, as did the stronger embrace of outright comedy. The budget (in the area of $1.3 million) allowed for the building of the Batboat and Batcopter, stock footage of which soon would find itself nicely adding production value in the next season of the program.
The film was at best a moderate success in the United States, taking in approximately 3 million dollars, playing mostly kiddie matinees. Adults largely stayed away — why pay for something you could watch free on television? However, foreign box office and re-releases put the film well into profit. (About $7.5 million world-wide over the years.)
The second season saw a number of changes. William Dozier left most decisions up to producers Howie Horowitz and William D’Angelo, while Semple — who’d been serving closely as a story/script consultant — contributed far less frequently. Stories by writers such as Stanley Ralph Ross and Charles Hoffman would venture even more deeply into comedy and farce. Per episode budgets went down, seen with slightly less elaborate sets, somewhat scaled down fight scenes, and more obviously with the money saving expedient of replacing the costly animated overlays with quick cut-aways to solid art cards with rapid lens zooms and color shifts.
Julie Newmar reprised her role as Catwoman, Meredith and Romero returned, but Frank Gorshin’s Riddler did not appear in the second season, apparently due to a salary dispute. John Astin (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) donned the green tights for one two-parter and Maurice Evans (PLANET OF THE APES) received a re-written Riddler script as The Puzzler — a minor Superman villain. Batman co-creator Bill Finger (and writing partner Charles Sinclair [THE GREEN SLIME]) brought in Green Arrow nemesis The Clock King (Walter Slezak) — though mixed with Finger’s earlier creation The Clock, and not quite like either iteration in the BATMAN episodes. Many more villains invented for the show appeared in the second season, allowing guest roles for actors as diverse as Vincent Price, Van Johnson, Cliff Robertson, Michael Rennie, and even Liberace.
To try to save THE GREEN HORNET series, the titular crimefighter and Bruce Lee’s Kato appeared, to no avail. The Hornet would fly no more, and The Batman was soon to get his wings clipped, though not as drastically.
Though ratings were still good, they were not as spectacular as they had been. Batman was an expensive show, and the Wednesday show was consistently weaker in its audience draw. Women and girls were less interested than males. It was time to shake things up a bit.
Dozier had been conferring with the DC editors regarding female interest, and Julius Schwartz, Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox came up with a new Batgirl (Betty Kane had been Bat-Girl, niece and partner of the Kathy Kane Bat-Woman of the `50’s.) This updated version would be Barbara Gordon, the previously unknown librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon.
Former Miss America (1959) Mary Ann Mobely was the first actress considered for the role. (She was the first April Dancer on THE MAN FROM UNCLE in a backdoor pilot episode, when THE GIRL FROM UNCLE went to series Stephanie Powers got the part, instead.) Yvonne Craig, a dancer and film actress (two Elvis Presely musicals IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR  and KISSIN’ COUSINS ) was chosen to portray Batgirl in a presentation film for ABC.
The network approved the actress and the concept, so much so that they briefly considered giving her a solo lead-in series. Craig was given a vivid purple and yellow version of the comic book character’s somewhat more subdued costume, featuring a mask with sharply angled points on the cheekbones in the non-broadcast short. These left red marks on her face, so they would be eliminated when the character was added to the show.
The try-out film had suggested a teasing romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl, this would be largely ignored in the third season. There wouldn’t really be time in the once-a-week 30 minute format. There was also about half the money, since the costs weren’t being spread over two episodes.
As the third season progressed, new weekly settings for hide-outs and other script locations gradually disappeared, with black ‘limbo’ sets filled with simple props, often two-dimensional brightly painted cut-outs similar to pop-art stage dressings taking the place of more realistic designs. 20th Century Fox was known for such cost-saving shortcuts on Irwin Allen’s science fiction adventure shows (LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, et al), though those shows benefited from having accrued a good supply of technical-looking set pieces that were available to fill up space. BATMAN would beg and borrow some of these assets.
Nelson Riddle left most of the third season scoring to his associate Billy May, a jazz trumpeter turned composer/arranger who had also scored THE GREEN HORNET series. He wrote a brassy Batgirl theme to give the character a sense of edgy action, although the producers limited the motor-cycle-riding heroine to relatively lady-like kicks rather than trading punches with evil-doers.
Frank Gorshin would return for a single appearance as the Riddler, but Julie Newmar was unavailable (actually filming MCKENNA’S GOLD this time), so the producers brought in singer/dancer Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Choosing a black actress was a bit of a daring move in 1967, but the show defused the characters’ former sexual tension. With a great purr, Kitt was a fiercer feline adversary, more interested killing Batman than kissing him. The over-all attraction to the Caped Crusader was winding down.
However, BATMAN very nearly went to a fourth season. ABC was willing to renew the series, with several caveats. To 20th Century Fox’s complaints of insufficient budget to cover production costs, the network had some ideas to further streamline the show. Madge Blake, already ailing and only appearing in two third season episodes would not be in the new season. To save time and money, Chief O’Hara was considered unneccesary. Most surprisingly, the network felt that they could dispense with Burt Ward’s Robin, and that Batman and Batgirl would become the new dynamic duo. William Dozier and Adam West both protested the elimination of Stafford Repp’s and Ward’s roles. 20th Century Fox wasn’t happy with the idea of essentially financing a portion of the show out of their own pocket. The studio felt they probably had enough episodes to go into syndication. Not getting the response they wanted, ABC cancelled the show.
What to do about the huge Batcave set filling up that rental stage at Desilu Culver? Hold it for a couple of weeks while Fox offered the series to the other networks, just in case. NBC had evidenced some interest. Weeks passed without firm results, and the Batcave set was bulldozed.
The next week, NBC contacted Fox Television to say that they’d pick up the series, and even restore it to it’s twice-weekly format. But the main set was gone. How much to rebuild it? At least a half million bucks, maybe more because some of the re-purposed set-pieces such as the atomic pile had been destroyed. NBC didn’t care to pick up that tab.
However, this seemingly effective death-trap did not kill off the show’s career on TV.
20th Century Fox was right, the series 120 episodes were perfect for local syndication, and even ‘stripped’ daily, kids would not tire of the series for decades.
True, comic-book devotees would revile the show, even if those who had been kids when the show debuted might harbor some nostalgia for the series. This nostalgia would grow after BATMAN was no longer found daily on local stations. It would have seemed perfect for release on video, but there were major problems involved.
National Periodical Publications/DC had been sold to Kinney National (originally a parking garage concern) in 1967. By 1969 they would buy up Warner Brothers/Seven Arts studio and holdings. (Bob Kane profited by this, as the new Warner Communications wanted to own all the characters free and clear. He walked away with millions, ultimately. ) By the time the video revolution came about, Warner Bros. (Time-Warner) who owned Batman, and Fox Television who co-owned the series with Greenway Productions were at loggerheads. Neither corporate entities wanted the other to be able to release and profit by the show. William Dozier, and then more complicatedly his heirs wanted whatever profit they felt they were due, and all guarded their interests fiercely.
Ultimately, an accord was reached, and now in November of 2014 the show is finally coming to video with DVDs and Blu-rays, complete with special features with Adam West, Burt Ward, and others. A decades-long cliffhanger has been at long last resolved.
But what of Batman’s fate in film and television? The 60’s TV series had cast a light on the Dark Knight, bringing him into widespread public notice, far more so than comic books, newspaper strips and serials ever had. However, his three years in the limelight would also throw a long shadow, keeping the character squarely pegged as kiddie fodder by Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet he would return, and once again a kind of Bat-Mania would sweep the entertainment world.