Wednesday 5 September 2012

Bill Anderson is Batman

Batman comes from Walla Walla, Washington.

We’re talking about the guy who played him, not some story line in the comics. Of course, there’s really only one actor who was Batman, and that’s Adam West. (You didn’t think I’d say Val Kilmer, did you?)

Much like Batman had his real identity of Bruce Wayne, Adam West has a real identity, too. He is Bill Anderson to Walla Wallans (Walla Wallanians? Walla Wallites?).

If you weren’t around when the TV show first aired, you may not have an idea of its impact. It was on two nights in a row. Thursday morning, everyone in class—I was in Grade 4 at the time—would excitedly discuss the previous night’s show and what might happen tonight. I pulled for the unhinged villains. Who doesn’t love Cesar Romero? Or Burgess Meredith quacking away? Frank Gorshin’s unique cadence as the Riddler left the impression he wasn’t all there. And there was just something evilly creepy about Liberace as Chandell (some say there’s something evilly creepy about Liberace, period).

But the show started falling apart. Villains got boring (The Archer? Milton Berle?). I genuinely got annoyed when puns got too obvious or if Batman suddenly got out a suspenseful jam just by using his utility belt (“I could come up with that, and I’m 10,” I’d grumble to myself. Honestly). Regardless, the show is a classic. And Adam West has a whole new fan base, thanks to “Family Guy.”

Like almost anyone who shot to fame overnight, West had been working steadily before “Batman.” 1959 was his most maddening year. Let Mike Connolly’s “Mr. Hollywood” column of August 18 tell you what happened.

Chicagoan Bob Conrad got his big break as star of Warner-TV’s new Hawaiian Eye series when the studio decided not to use Adam West in the series, after first assigning West to the role. That happened because West had already starred in the title role of the pilot film for a projected Warner Western series called Doc Holliday. First the Warners decided to scrap ol’ Doc then they decided to hold it till next January and try to peddle it to the Madison Avenue boys then. That's when West got the word to “sit out” all summer. And that’s when Conrad captured the coveted role of the Waikiki sluefoot. And now Fox-TV is trying to borrow West from the Warners for its new Formula for Adventure series but West’s Warner contract is ironclad and the lad is benched till the ad agencies’ collective stethoscope decides on the fate of Doc Holliday!

TV buried Doc on the lone prairie before he even got a chance to fire a six-shooter. But the durable West recovered, though he didn’t seem all that pleased about it. Here’s a syndicated column from February 18, 1962 that appeared in the Hayward Daily Review.

‘Detectives’ Actor
He Wants To Earn Title

HOLLYWOOD—When it was decided early last summer to expand Robert Taylor’s “Detectives” to an hour series, a new detective was added to the cast — Adam West, who previously had been seen on sporadic featured roles on “77 Sunset Strip,” “Sugarfoot,” “Perry Mason” and “Rifleman,” among many other series.
A healthy fan-mail count already attests to the fact that Adam is in a proverbial Garden of Eden, after on-again-off-again voles, co-starring along with Goddard and Tige Andrews just under Taylor's top billing in a steady series.
But, though he loves his series and worships Taylor (“I’m learning so much from watching him”), Adam, admittedly an impatient man himself, paradoxically is annoyed at the method of grooming stars for TV.
“I want to be a star—tomorrow, if not sooner,” he says, “yet I'm rather dismayed about how little the word ‘star’ means today. There (pointing at Robert Taylor) is a STAR, but how many of them are there like him who worked for years in pictures before they became worthy of the star appellation?
“TV has abused the star title to the point where it means less than nothing. An unknown, like myself, can be cast in a series, and—presto!—he is given a star billing. Just read the credits on any TV show, or even a big motion picture, and you’ll have two or three stars, a guest star and even a special guest star two, then comes a long line of co-stars. Whatever became of featured players?
“Me, I’m impatient. I want to be a star in the worst way, but not till I’ve proved myself as an actor deserving of the title. I’d like to have achieved recognition for fine performances in a variety of roles, from sea captain to priest, before they pin a star on me. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea if they didn’t allow anyone to be billed as a star until he’d gotten recognition first with an Oscar Award or an Emmy Award.
“It seems kind of silly, being a star just because a producer decides you’re one. In some cases, the actors decide it for themselves. Playing on a football team doesn’t mean you’re the star of the team—your performance decides that. And, when you’re voted All-America or All-Pro, man, that’s being a star!”
Adam’s impatience with the fact he is being considered a star after just two short years of acting work in Hollywood was noted also in his student days. Not satisfied with a variety of courses at the University of California in Santa Barbara, he switched to the University of Washington, then to College of Puget Sound, and finally received his degree at Whitman College. But the degree still left him feeling a lack of achievement, so he moved to Stanford University for postgraduate work in journalism and the theatre.
Following a hitch in the Army, he went to Hawaii where for four years he doubled as performer and director of the local CBS radio and TV station. It was there he met and married a lovely dancer, Ngarua Frisbie, daughter of novelist Robert: Dean Frisbie and a Polynesian princess named Ngatokorus-A-Malaa.
Ngarua is as patient and calm as Adam is impatient and storming. She, he admits has done much to curb his restless drive toward perfection.
For Adam, perfection comes with self-gratification, after a job well done. Without this feeling, rightly or wrongly, he doesn’t want to continue as an actor.
“I’m giving myself five years in Hollywood," he says. “If, after that time, I don’t believe I’ve earned the right to be called a star—even if others say I am—Ngarua and I will go somewhere else, maybe even to the South Sea Islands, and start all over again.”
To this, Ngarua smiled sweetly and said nothing. It was evident to her that Adam was a star from the moment they met.

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin had a few stories about its native son. Here’s one from November 21, 1965. Remarkably, it seems West almost missed out on his biggest role.

Adam West Steps Into TV Series is ‘Batman’

Don’t look now but Walla Walla's Bill Anderson, better known professionally as Adam West, is star of a new ABC-TV series called “Batman.”
The Whitman graduate and former Walla Walla Little Theater performer is busy preparing a series of episodes about this high-soaring hero at the 20th Century-Fox Studios in Hollywood. The series will debut on Jan. 12 on the ABC-TV network and will be seen each Wednesday and Thursday evening in the 7:30 time slot.
“It’s a show which is basically designed for the young in heart but I imagine these ‘youngsters’ will run in age from 6 to 60,” says West, who explains that the plots are purely adult, often with tongue-in-cheek story lines.
Faced by Decision
Taking on the assignment as “Batman” was a problem to West, who has just returned from Italy where he starred in a successful western drama titled “The Inexorable Four” and was asked by the PEA Production Company to appear in three more of their planned films.
Shortly after his return to Hollywood, he was approached by 20th Century for “Batman” and West won the coveted role over several dozen well known actors in filmland.
Hardly had the ink dried on his contract when he was cabled from Rome to hop the first jet and take over the starring role in “Matchless,” to be filmed in Spain with several of Italy’s top players.
West had to come down from the “Batman” skies long enough to send a cable of regret. PEA replied that they would postpone the film until West was available, so it has been placed on his summer vacation schedule.
Here in Early Fall
West, or Anderson, was in Walla Walla briefly earlier in the fall to visit his father, Otto Anderson, and brother, John Anderson, Waitsburg ranchers. He had just returned from Europe at that time.
West’s career as an actor has been active ever since he was first placed under contract by Warner Bros., after he had established a name for himself as a radio and TV director-performer in Hawaii.
Well-known motion picture agent Lew Sherrell saw him in a legitimate stage production of “Picnic” in Honolulu and went backstage to sign him to a personal contract. Sherrell has guided West’s activities since.
The actor made his film debut in “Colt 45” and worked steadily for the next year in such teleseries as “77 Sunset Strip,” “Sugarfoot,” “Lawman,” “Maverick” and many others.
In between, he sliced a top role in the movie, “The Young Philadelphians.”
In TV Shows
Upon his release from the Warner contract, he went into such top TV shows as “Perry Mason,” “Overland Trail,” “Michael Shayne,” “Bonanza,” “Alcoa Theater,” "Rifleman,” “Beachcombers” and “Geronimo.”
Desi Arnaz liked his work so much that he signed him to do “Johnny Cinderella,” which was followed by the lead in “Rio.” Then came the break all young actors cherish — West was tested for the romantic Sgt. Steve Nelson in “The Detectives” series with Robert Taylor, and he was given the role.
Following this, he was in “Tammy and the Doctor,” with Sandra Dee and “Soldiers in the Rain,” both motion pictures. On TV he was paged for “Petticoat Junction," "Outer Limits,” “Bewitched” and “The Virginians.”
Seen in Movies
Among his recent movie credits are starring roles in “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” a science-fiction thriller, “Alexander the Great,” a comedy called “The Outlaws Is Coming” and “Mara of the Wilderness.”
Formerly married to Ngarua Frisbee, a Polynesian princess whom he met in Honolulu, he is now divorced which makes him one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors. He lives at the beach at Malibu in an old Mediterranean-type villa where he gets away from his “Batman” characterization by painting, sailing, writing, water skiing and scuba diving.

So what did fans of the Batman comic books think of the TV show? One reporter decided to find out. I haven’t found a copy of the column that has a byline, so all I can tell you is it appeared in papers starting February 4, 1967. I’ll bet this is the same Bruce Roberts who wrote the liner notes for that smash Liberty record album “Jan and Dean Meet Batman” (1966).

Holy Comic Books! It's a Superbatfan
What has 6,000 comic books stored in a closet, can elaborate on Robin’s parentage at the bat of an eye, and never misses an episode of ABC-TV’s “Batman?”
A Superbatfan — what else?
Bruce Roberts, a 24-year-old computer operator from Gardena, Calif., has earned that appellation outstandingly. His extensive knowledge of everything pertaining to the Caped Crusader and his youthful aide amazed, even Adam West (not easily astoundable) on a recent visit to the “Batman” set.
“I’ve collected comic books all my life,” he explained to West, “but I only took it up seriously about five years ago.”
With that he handed West the 1931 “Detective Comics No. 27”—the public’s introduction to Batman. Adam took it with interest and flipped the first page.
“It’s worth $200,” Roberts commented proudly.
West turned the next page slowly, with added respect.
Then he looked through “Detective Comics No. 88,” which introduced Robin and is worth a trifling $75, and “Batman No. 1” (1940) in which the Dynamic Duo branched out on their own.
“I have a complete set of the first 30 “Batman” issues which are worth abont $1000,” Roberts continued. By now, Adam West was transfixed.
As the circle of bystanders silently kicked themselves for having cleaned out their attics, someone asked, “How did all this interest get started?”
“Well, Batman sets an example of physical and mental perfection — he’s a very realistic hero,” Roberts explained.
“He could be harmed, whereas Superman and the others couldn’t be. Superheroes have always appealed to me because the world might be a much better place with a few of them around, don't you think?”
While that significant syncrisis sank into the silent circle, he continued. “In 1954 the Comics Code of Authority ended what I consider to be the Golden Age of comic books. Superheroes are kind of goody goody these days. They can’t even knock a door down, much less wreck a city.”
West asked: “How does the ‘Batman’ series compare with the comics in your opinion?”
“The comic version is not as square as the TV version, but then the series is strictly for laughs. I would resent it if you made absolute fools of Batman and Robin, but that’s not the case.”
With that verdict, it was West’s turn to show his visitor something he had never seen before — an original drawing by Batman's creator. On the wall of the actor’s dressing room is a striking sketch of the Caped Crusader bearing the inscription: “To Adam West, who breathed life into my pen and ink creation. My thanks—Bob Kane.”

West’s Batman was always a very earnest man, not a self-pitying, brooding guy wearing an insecurity-compensating muscle-suit, bathed in black shadows that choke the screen. To the that concept, I say POW! BOFF! EEE-OWW!! I’ll take the fun Batman from Walla Walla instead.

1 comment:

  1. West's turn as a friend of Darrin's on a Season 1 "Bewitched" episode was the pre-Batman role I'd run into most watching TV growing up. The problem long-term about him being typecast is while Batman fans loved the actor, they for the most part hated the way he ended up being used on the TV show, because the people in charge didn't want to take the comic book's world seriously. So, Bill Anderson is Batman, but he's not doing things or acting the way the hard-core Batman fans want to see.

    D.C. comics bent over backwards for 20th Century Fox in the run-up to the "Batman" TV Show, including redoing the bat-shield inside the yellow oval, cross-introducing Aunt Harriet into the comics, and biggest of all, bringing Alfred back from the dead. But when the comic book stories started taking a decidedly 'camp' turn in 1966, readers were none-too-pleased.

    By the final season of the show, things had pretty much gotten to the un-serious/aimed-at-kiddies level of the final few seasons of the old Superman TV show, and the comics started moving back towards more serious stories and villains (rule of thumb for that period of Batman comics is if the cover has that stupid D.C. checkerboard across the top, it's not going to be a very good story, since the 'checks' coincided with the time the TV show was on).