Adam West, obituary: actor who found fame but frustration as TV's Batman

The actor never quite escaped his Caped Crusader incarnation, although in later years he found a new audience as the deranged mayor in animated comedy ‘Family Guy’

Anthony Hayward
Monday 12 June 2017 12:57
West in 1967: he appeared in a number of roles and wrote two autobiographical books
West in 1967: he appeared in a number of roles and wrote two autobiographical books

The American actor Adam West found fame as the Caped Crusader in the high-camp 1960s small-screen version of Batman. He brought to television for the first time the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane in 1939 and gave a winning deadpan performance while other cast members hammed it up and captions of “ZAP!” and “POW!” screamed out of the screen as Batman and his Boy Wonder, Robin (played by Burt Ward), brought villains to heel in Gotham City.

Worldwide Batmania followed West’s debut in 1966 with a series featuring fast-paced action, literally colourful characters, humour, gadgets, stylised directing and a strict formula.

West with co-star Burt Ward (Rex Features)

The actor would be seen as millionaire Bruce Wayne, living in “stately” Wayne Manor with his ward, Dick Grayson (aka Robin), Dick’s Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake) and their butler, Afred (Alan Napier). A call from polilce chief Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) received on the red Batphone in the study leads Bruce to flick a switch concealed in a bust of William Shakespeare, causing a bookcase to move to one side and reveal two Batpoles on which he and Dick slide down, change into their costumes and arrive in the Batcave, where the Batmobile stands ready for them to embark on their latest adventure. A teenage audience enjoyed the action while adult viewers loved the tongue-in-cheek humour.

A spin-off feature film, Batman: The Movie (1966), pitched the Dynamic Duo against all four of their leading enemies, the Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). However, TV ratings eventually flagged and Batman ended in 1968 after 120 episodes over three series.

Finding himself typecast, West then struggled to land further starring roles. Instead, he voiced the Caped Crusader in cartoon series – The New Adventures of Batman (1977), SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show (1984) and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (1985) – a 2002 episode of The Simpsons and the one-off animated TV adventure Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016). He also provided the voice of the nutty Quahog mayor, mischievously named Adam West, in Family Guy from 2000 to 2017.

West with his Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2012 (AFP/Getty)

West was born in Walla Walla, Washington, to Otto, a wheat farmer, and Audrey (née Speer), a pianist and opera singer. While in his final year of an English literature degree at Whitman College, he presented shows on a local radio station. He also acted in theatre and, while serving in the US army, was an announcer on American Forces Network television, before jobs in radio – including hosting a show with a nappy-wearing chimp named Peaches as his co-star.

After signing to a Warner Brothers contract, West appeared in TV Westerns and co-starred as Sergeant Steve Nelson in the final series (1961-62) of The Detectives.

Fame in Batman was followed by frustration and occasional guest roles in series such as Alias Smith and Jones (1982), Hart to Hart (1983) and Murder, She Wrote (1987), but there was one starring part – as Captain Rick Wright, in charge of police academy rejects, in the short-lived sitcom The Last Precinct (1986).

West in character appears in a road-safety advert in 1967

West, who died of leukaemia, wrote two autobiographical books, Climbing the Walls (1984) and Back to the Batcave (1994).

His first two marriages, to Billie Lou Yeager (1950) and Nga Frisbie (1957), ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Marcelle (née Tagand), whom he married in 1970, their two children, Nina and Perrin, and his stepchildren, Moya and Jill, as well as the two children of his second marriage, Jonelle and Hunter.

William West Anderson (Adam West), born 19 September 1928, died 9 June 2017

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