Adam West: Behind the mask
He was as famous as The Beatles - and had the groupies to prove it. But today Adam West, aka Batman, is a recluse. In a rare interview, he talks about his superhero past and his real-life battle with demons
Sunday 14 August 2005
As Batman in the original television series, West represented an icon whose fame rivalled that of James Bond and The Beatles. But ever since the mid-1980s, by which time he'd retreated to a farm outside the remote town of Ketchum, Idaho (pop. 3,003) he has become increasingly reluctant to speak to journalists.
The process of arranging a meeting with West has taken months and involved the submission of previous interviews, dozens of phone messages and emails. Even though the actor has finally agreed to see me, when I get to Idaho his mobile is switched off, and have to spend two days at a Tyrolean-themed motel in Ketchum before I manage to get through to him. He suggests meeting the following morning in a coffee shop, from where we'll drive up to his house.
"Otherwise," he says, "there's no way you could find where I live. I hope," he adds, "that you are not planning to cannibalise me."
He arrives on time, looking amiable but furtive, in a baseball cap and shades; he wears both indoors, even though everybody recognises him as easily as if he'd arrived in cape and cowl, and people in the café greet him by name.
"I sometimes feel tempted," he says, "to renounce my status as a recluse."
West orders black coffee and heads for the most isolated corner table. I hand him the latest issue of this magazine, and a copy of my latest novel. He explains that he's unable to take me back to his house: this is because the yard has been flooded, he has people coming to dinner and, "I have to pack."
At 76, Batman is a little less muscular than he was, appears slightly deaf and is experiencing back pain, but the resonant baritone is largely unchanged. Highly articulate and immediately engaging, West is a reflective man whose manner suggests both serious intensity of thought, and experience of mental pain. ("He is always thinking and analysing," the actor once said of Batman, "maybe at the expense of his * emotional health".) If he can be difficult - and he can - his behaviour, these days at least, has its origins in diffidence, not vanity. That said, some low part of me assumes that his reticence, and his remark about cannibalism, indicate some unspeakable behaviour in his past.
"I am a simple man," he says. "Though my wife says I am complicated."
"I'll trust her on that one."
"Well, you're probably right. But I am simple in that I no longer feel the need to walk on a red carpet. I am a private person. I don't need a lot of company. And I find it really, really difficult to talk about myself."
Ketchum is best known as the place where Ernest Hemingway came to experience silence and tranquillity, an ambience momentarily interrupted on 2 July 1961 when he blew his brains out with both barrels of a 12-gauge shotgun. Today, however, the town serves as a sanctuary for film stars including Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
West suggests moving on to Sun Valley Lodge, where Hemingway wrote much of his later work. Wincing from discomfort in his lumbar region, he hauls himself into his pick-up and makes the short drive to the Lodge, now an extensive complex of cafés and luxury cabins. As we walk through the immaculately tended gardens I can see what he finds so attractive here (topiary, sommeliers, swans, etc). And yet, I tell him, I'm surprised he didn't settle in the US stars' most famous mountain retreat - Aspen, Colorado. A favourite haunt of Johnny Depp, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson, Aspen was home to Hunter S Thompson until the writer, who made a pilgrimage to Ketchum shortly after Hemingway's suicide, despatched himself with a .45 in February.
"I got banned from Aspen," West says.
"Well, you know, we'd been partying and..."
All this was some years ago, West recalls.
"I was escorted out of town and advised it would be unwise to return. About 15 years later, I had a letter from the Aspen authorities saying it would be OK to come back - to visit."
These days Adam West, who has six children, lives quietly with his third wife, Marcelle, making a living from voiceovers and independent film projects. And yet - as 15 years' banishment for one evening's excursion might suggest - West, as a younger man, was a gregarious character with a global reputation for swift bonding with strangers, especially women. We sit on the terrace of one of Sun Valley's elegant restaurants, and West tells me how, on the strength of his popularity as Batman, he was invited for an audience with Pope Paul VI. He arrived the day before, and went out for a drink.
"I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life," he says. "I made it to the Vatican, and I was at the back of this line of people who each knelt down to kiss his ring. Then it was my turn. He put out his hand. I realised that, if I knelt down, I wouldn't be able to get up again, I was so hung over."
Mindful of the consequences, if he collapsed or vomited on the pontiff, West simply bowed his head slightly and shook the Pope's hand.
"He looked at me and said: 'Oh, Signor West. I have seen all of your shows. I love Pipistrello.'"
"Were you both in costume?"
"No. Well... he was in his, obviously. I wasn't wearing mine. I didn't want to steal his thunder."
West - who has a BA in literature and psychology, studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio-West, and has just written a film version of the life of Thomas Jefferson - has a dry wit which makes him immediately likeable, even though his extreme wariness leads me to wonder if this interview will go the distance. After the Papal ceremony, he says, he went to the Sistine Chapel with Sophia Loren.
"She looked... how can I put this? When you go to the Sistine Chapel with Sophia Loren, it can be quite some time before your thoughts turn to the ceiling."
He believes - and who would argue - that he was the definitive Batman. Adam West is a man who, as somebody once said: "was capable of playing Alice in Wonderland as though he was acting Hamlet."
The original ABC production, 120 episodes first screened between 1966 and 1968, also starred Burt Ward as Robin. (Ward, who has had his differences with Adam West, is married to the daughter of venture capitalist Victor Posner, and oversees a Great Dane sanctuary in southern California.)
"Batman was comedy," West says, "let's face it. What I loved about Batman was his total lack of awareness when it came to his interaction with the outside world. He actually believed nobody could recognise him on the phone, when he was being Bruce Wayne, even though he made no attempt to disguise his voice."
"In the same way that Inspector Clouseau never notices his accent," I suggest, "when everybody around him is also French."
"That's right. In the first episode, Batman goes into a nightclub in the cowl, cape and bat gloves. When the maître d' says: 'Ringside table, Batman?' he replies, 'No thank you - I'll stand at the bar. I would not wish to be conspicuous.'"
In another episode, the dynamic duo meet fellow superheroes The Green Hornet and his sidekick Kato. "Gosh, Batman," says Robin. "Why are they dressed like that?"
"Well, Batman was the theatre of the absurd. In a lot of ways," West adds, "the show was very like your novel."
"Have you read it?"
"Yes," he says, with a mutinous look. "I read the whole thing just now - while you were in the men's room."
West - who mentions, with some satisfaction, that the Latin motto on Bruce Wayne's family crest means: "Art, Nonsense and Money" - says he finds it difficult to take life too seriously.
"Or," he adds, "to take people too seriously. Unless they're aiming a 9mm handgun in my direction. Life is full of ironies and absurdities."
That said, he is nothing if not protective of the character of Batman. Burt Ward has mocked West for having drawn an analogy between his Batman and Charlton Heston's Moses in The Ten Commandments. There are moments, as West discusses the more recent film versions of Batman, when he can sound like a man perturbed by blasphemous representations of that other defender of the oppressed, Jesus Christ. (A modern Batman, in West's view, "should be using his fortune to help the needy, the homeless, and people without hope".)
He is genuinely troubled that, in Tim Burton's 1989 remake, Batman pursues villains without stopping to comfort their wounded victims - behaviour that his own scrupulously moral crusader would never have contemplated.
He also recently went to see Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, but left after an * hour. "It was too noisy," he says. "I'm afraid it just didn't hold me."
And, unlike the original Batman, it is not a film for all age groups.
"It's certainly not for young kids. It could be OK if they are 14 or 15. And," West adds, "of a violent mindset."
Billy West Anderson - he adopted his screen name for his first film, The Young Philadelphians, in 1959 - was born at Walla Walla, in Washington state, close to the Idaho border. His father Otto was a farmer; Audrey, his mother, had theatrical ambitions and never took to agricultural life. When West was 12 he found her in bed with the local preacher. An alcoholic, Audrey divorced when her son was 15 and took him to live in Seattle. She told him it was his birth that stopped her becoming another Joan Crawford.
"There is a curse running through our family," West's daughter Nina said recently. "Alcohol, and manic depression. That's what she suffered from."
His mother's disappointed ambition, West says, "meant I always felt guilt about what I achieved as an actor".
He got his BA from UCLA in Santa Barbara, then began a postgraduate degree in "communications" - what today would be called media studies - at prestigious Stanford College, but left when he was offered a job in broadcasting.
His first major break came in Hawaii: in the mid-1950s, he was presenting a daily television show on which he shared top billing with Peaches, a male chimpanzee.
"They can be vicious, chimps, can't they?"
"Now you come to mention it," West replies, "I did have to have one ball replaced."
One evening, he recalls, he met film star Natalie Wood, who was visiting the island.
"I remember hoping that she didn't turn on the TV the next morning and see Peaches and me in hula skirts, strumming ukuleles and singing Mala Mala Mala to a puppet octopus."
In 1966, ABC cast him as Batman - billed as the most expensive production in the history of US television. West seized his chance with the urgent determination of a man weary of collaboration with the lower primates.
He was chosen mainly because the producer had enjoyed West's performance as Captain Q in an advert for Nesquik, a powdered milk drink. "The Boy Wonder", Burt Ward (previously known as Sparky Gervis) had been an estate agent.
In recent years, Ward has argued that West's distinctive style as a comic actor - ironic earnestness, which invests the most ludicrous plot with a kind of surreal plausibility - simply betrays his woodenness as an actor; a theory which, having recently watched dozens of episodes of Batman, I think is deeply unfair to its star.
West, for his part, says he was inspired by Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps his finest moment comes in the 1966 feature film, Batman: the caped crusader is running along a boardwalk, clutching a fizzing bomb which he repeatedly attempts to discard but can't, because he runs first into a group of nuns, then a woman with a pram, two lovers in a rowing boat, and a family of ducks.
"Some days," Batman complains, "you just can't get rid of a bomb."
On occasions, West says, numerous takes were required as the cast couldn't stop laughing.
"In one episode, where Catwoman had produced a set of cat ornaments," he recalls, "I ad-libbed the line: 'Drop that golden pussy Robin - it may be radioactive.'"
Certain critics feel that they can detect a certain element of camp in Batman. This may be because the story concerns a mature, powerfully-built man and a naïve teenage boy, who avoid relationships with the opposite sex, but spend long hours together, wearing tights, in a secret cave; they explain their excursions, which routinely involve bondage, by informing their elderly aunt that they are "out fishing".
Off the set, neither actor had a reputation for sluggishness in courtship. West had been divorced twice: his first marriage, to Billie Lou Yeager, ended in 1956; his second wife, a Tahitian dancer called Nga Frisbie Dawson, mother to his first two children, left him in 1962. From the first screening of Batman, he says, the adulation of women fans was such that: "Burt and I were like kids in a candy store."
When Batman was cancelled in 1968, after disappointing ratings for its third series, West and Ward continued to appear, in costume, at county fairs and Bat conventions. Two years ago, the pair collaborated on a feature film called Return to the Batcave. At one point Robin turns to Batman and suggests that, at their age, it might be prudent to use the staircase, rather than the batpoles. West looks at him, and says: "There were stairs?"
Even at the height of Batman's popularity, West's relationship with Burt Ward was problematic. At one stage each was refusing to enter the set before the other, so that producers had to rap on their doors simultaneously and lead them out shoulder to shoulder, like Premiership football captains.
"Looking back," I ask him, "were you perhaps a primadonna?"
"Only in so far as I had no patience with fools, or people who didn't get it, so to speak."
"You strike me as potentially a bad man to get on the wrong side of."
He leans forward, mock-forbidding.
"I am a little unsure as to what this phrase means, but - Robert - be very careful with me."
Both actors have written autobiographies. West's Back to the Batcave, published in 1994, is a perceptive account prefaced by a runic observation from Henry James; it also quotes Oscar Wilde, Dickens and Horace.
The opening page of Ward's Boy Wonder - My Life in Tights (a no-nonsense inventory of his sexual conquests) shows a picture of Burt dressed as the Pope, holding a sign that reads "Party Zone".
If West's book is one of the best show business memoirs I've come across, Ward's, which was published the following year, is possibly the worst book I have ever read - more excruciating, if such a thing is possible, than Orange Colored Sky¸ the notorious single he recorded with Frank Zappa in 1966. Boy Wonder, published in 1995, accuses Adam West of practically every failing known to man: drunkenness, lechery, greed and self-love; West is also portrayed as a poor tipper secretly troubled by the allegedly modest dimensions of his penis. Ward, meanwhile, refers to his own manhood as "the monster" and "the beast in the bat trunks".
From the moment I mention that I've read Boy Wonder, which was advertised with the slogan "Holy Tell-All, Batman!" I can tell that Ward's book has been a significant factor in Adam West's loss of interest in public speaking.
"It was apparent to me..." West says, after a deep sigh, "that Burt fell victim to making up stories to sell books. But in a way it was flattering, because he made me sound like King Kong."
I tell West about the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award - a trophy that Burt, on the strength of this book alone, should be allowed to keep in perpetuity, like Real Madrid with the European Cup.
The erotic content of Robin's autobiography is too lengthy and detailed to relate in full but I have abbreviated a couple of typical passages.
At the Holiday Inn, Buffalo, New York state, for instance. "A ravishing young woman is * wearing my Robin costume... large breasts... peach skin... thighs... passionately engorged my organ... width and length... intense, pounding and unrelenting... 'Now I know why they call you the Boy Wonder', she whispers."
Another encounter, at a hotel in Springboro, Ohio, proved to be less rewarding.
"Restaurant... exquisite waitress... instant chemistry... my room... eyes... lip ... thighs... intoxicated with lust... luscious triangle... 'I am married', she whispers... enormous husband... pounding at my door... gorilla fists... dove through window... face-first in mud... patrol car... police station... indecent exposure."
In marked contrast to West's book, serious literary references are entirely absent in Boy Wonder, with one exception. At one point, Ward describes how a fan called Karen left him a note which quoted Sir Francis Bacon's 1597 essay Of Friendship: "A principal fruit of friendship is the care and discharge of the swelling of the heart which passions of all kinds do cause and induce."
Though he was initially attracted to Karen, Ward writes, "If Francis Bacon really wrote that, then either he was one of the horniest men of all time or out to lunch. Her note," he continues, "was so kinky that I never got in touch with her. She was too weird."
The most memorable moment in Boy Wonder, I suggest to West, "is when Ward refers to: 'My never-ending vortex of horniness.'"
"Isn't that amazing?" West replies. "His vortex of horniness?"
"And he does, with no apparent irony, compare his penis to the Hindenburg."
"I know," says West, looking increasingly agitated. "I think all that came from the fact that Burt felt insecure."
"There is one especially bizarre moment..."
We are interrupted by Gregg, the Sun Valley barbecue cook, who's spotted his childhood idol from across the lawn. His arrival is so perfectly timed that I suspect West has summoned him with some Masonic signal of distress. The actor gives Greg - who is wearing one traditional starched chef's hat, and carrying another - the kind of welcome a hypothermic mountaineer might extend to a St Bernard.
"Mr West," Greg says, "you have brought me so much joy in my life. The least that I can give you is this hat."
He puts his present on the table, and returns to his stall.
"At one point," I continue, "Burt Ward wrote..."
"Isn't that great!" says West. "Look! He brought me a hat!"
West ostentatiously raises his wrist and peers at his watch.
"I have to get back," he says.
"At one point," I go on, "Ward makes insinuations about your own sexuality; he mentions you mud-wrestling with a Swedish man who looked 'rather like a Viking...'"
"He says I was what?"
"And he claims you once said: 'Robin - kiss me.'" [A remark that, from what I've seen of West, I have no doubt was a joke].
"In his book?"
"Yes. And he goes on: 'I found myself asking, was there more to my fellow crime fighter than met the eye?'"
"You see," West replies, "I don't even understand what he was talking about. I think that, from time to time, Robin had a real problem with not being Batman," he adds. "Burt wanted to play Batman. But he was a marvellous Robin. He was perfect."
"He does portray you in his book as something of a monster. Before you worked together again in Return to the Batcave, did you have to talk certain things over?"
"Erm..." West's wrist is raised for a second time. "I'm sorry to be looking at my watch again. I think it has stopped."
"So - in order for you to work together once more..."
"Burt has come up to me," West says, "and he has apologised. And I know he feels badly about what he did. To me, it was just funny."
He gets to his feet.
"I'm gonna have to go really soon. I think my watch stopped. Is this interview so horribly difficult that my watch stopped? The thing is," he goes on, "I think I am so boring. I am being serious. I am not sucking up. God," he says, "what do I have to say that could be interesting?"
His back pain returns as he begins his retreat.
"I hate to leave you like this. It's good to walk. Ouch."
He walks away, looking flustered.
"You forgot your sunglasses," I tell him.
"I'm gonna hit the john," he says. "It's good to stretch a little. I've got to go back to work."
And with that, Adam West disappears.
But Greg the chef is back.
"Has he left his hat?" he asks, looking at the gift, which is still on the table.
"I'm not sure," I tell him. "He might be coming back."
"Thank God for that."
Greg returns to his barbecue stall.
West then reappears, from behind where I am sitting, looking slightly more composed.
"I thought you'd fled."
"It's good to walk," he repeats, with a look that suggests any further exchange involving Robin's memoirs will be our last. I turn over the page in my notebook which has other quotations from Boy Wonder, including West's alleged instruction to Ward [his capitals]: "KEEP YOUR EYE OUT FOR THE BIG POLYNESIAN MAMA WHO LOOKS LIKE SHE GOT HIT IN THE FACE WITH A PLANK."
West clearly feels, not unreasonably, that there should be a statute of limitation concerning his actions from four decades ago, and that his social life while filming Batman represents an ancient wound which Robin's book reopened.
And yet it was when the series ended that West's problems really began. He was so identified with the role that, as he puts it, "I could have played a naked Jack the Ripper, and * someone would have said: 'Yeah, I hear that Batman's back in a cape.'"
He began to experience the depression his daughter describes as a congenital trait.
"I became very self-destructive," he says. "I suppose that came from being disillusioned and frustrated." He was drinking heavily and generally 'wild', though: "I held on to my sanity during the lean years."
"Then," he says, "I had an epiphany. I realised I had been squandering what gifts I had. I called my agent and got back to work."
He says his wife Marcelle, mother of his four youngest children, oversaw his recovery. His lowest point came when he was in his Batman suit - this, remember, is a man who could have had a career as a Stanford academic - waiting to be fired out of a cannon, at a carnival in Evansville, Indiana.
"I felt I had betrayed Batman."
West has remained in work as an actor, consistently, for the past 20 years, but the great sadness of his professional life is that he has never found another outlet in mainstream comedy. He has made films and television pilots he's proud of, but many of the later titles on his CV tell their own story: Zombie Nightmare, The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood and Young Lady Chatterley II. In the last of these, he plays an anthropology professor who is sent to Britain to investigate the history of Lady Godiva and - for reasons I couldn't quite follow, even after substantial study of the video - is billeted in the stately home of a titled nymphomaniac.
Once we get up to leave, and I turn off the tape recorder, West's mood changes. He takes me to Ketchum's Hemingway monument, a simple bronze bust set on a marble plaque by a small river. He climbs down the bank, though the effort clearly causes him some pain, and reads out the inscription: "Best of all he loved the fall; the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods; leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills... The high blue windless skies... Now he will be a part of them forever."
"I love the way it's so simple," he says.
He talks about his favourite passages from Hemingway, and how he was close to the writer's son Jack, and read the eulogy at his funeral, five years ago.
"Jack Hemingway was a wonderful guy," West says. "He had many of the attributes of his father, but he was afflicted with the same gene - the gene which I've always been terribly afraid of indulging too much. And yet what is life," he adds, "without a glass or two of wine?"
"In your autobiography," I remind him, "you describe your mother with the words: 'She was an alcoholic.' Of yourself, immediately after Batman ended, you say: 'There was a lot of drink about.' Are these phrases synonymous?"
"I think that most of us repeat, to some extent, the behaviour and attitudes of our parents," he says. "The difference between me and my mother was that I was always able to pull up before I crashed. She wasn't."
As we drive back into town - in one of those scenes which you sense is unlikely to be repeated - I'm listening to Batman reminiscing about drinking Scotch with Margaret Thatcher, when Arnold Schwarzenegger crosses our path on a mountain bike.
"Arnold," West says. "He's a good guy. He's up here a lot."
He talks enthusiastically about his forthcoming projects, which include Climbing the Walls, a new book about the frustrations of playing Batman, and a film he's narrated, on the history of the cowboy.
"Why did they yodel?" I ask him.
"Three reasons," he says, without hesitation. "Loneliness, fear of the coyote, and sitting on the saddle backwards."
"Can you really believe there was no camp dimension to Batman and Robin?" I ask him. "I couldn't help noticing that The Picture of Dorian Gray is mentioned at least twice in your book."
"I can say," West remarks, "as a straight guy - as I am - a heterosexual man, playing someone like Batman, that... you don't really know."
He turns to face me and asks: "What are you going to do with all this?"
"Do you still think I will cannibalise you?"
"No," says West, good-naturedly. "Of course not. Now I think you're going to crucify me."
"Did Oscar Wilde ever, er... out?" he asks.
"Well, he had no choice, after the trials."
"You know," West says, "that is a really interesting concept. That Batman - because he lives with Robin, who is younger than him, and they run around in costumes... that Batman gets arrested on suspicion of immoral behaviour. That's a very interesting idea for a script; I think that's something I could work on."
As is often the case with West, it's not easy to tell if he's joking or not. I watch him drive off in his pick-up, and wonder what's going through his mind; my guess is that he's pondering whether his version of Batman - in common with that other holy crusader, who was also immortal, unmarried, betrayed by a close associate and cruelly killed off before his rightful time - might, even now, be capable of resurrection.
Adam West will be at Collectormania, Milton Keynes, 30 September to 2 October. For more information, tel: 01234 752 485, or visit www.collectormania.com
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