THE HERO COMPLEX
Adam West barely recognizes Gotham City these days. “Batman is so dark now,” the 80-year-old actor said with a carefree chuckle. “The new films, they are grim, Gothic, full of explosions, mayhem. It’s the way of things, I suppose; the whole world seems darker.”
Well, the world was also heaving with angst back when West wore the cape for 26 months of prime-time silliness that began in January 1966. The native of Walla Walla, Wash., became an icon of camp with his masked-man deadpan and, for much of America, his version was the definition of the Caped Crusader for decades.
That’s changed since the cemetery cabaret of Tim Burton’s Bat-movies and the ferocious revenge films of Christopher Nolan, whose “The Dark Knight” hit the billion-dollar mark at the box office a few weeks ago. Batman now seems closer kin to Dracula and Dirty Harry than to Dick Tracy, but don’t tell that to West, who is still dancing the Batusi and enjoying his busy role as an elder statesman of farce.
“I look at [it] this way: They’ve got ‘The Dark Knight,’ and I was the bright knight,” he said with the breathy, oddball diction that still keeps him in demand as a voice actor in animation. “Or maybe I was even . . . the neon knight.”
West has an upcoming appearance on “30 Rock,” and there’s also his ongoing voice work on “Family Guy,” on which he plays Mayor Adam West; that namesake role, along with his portrayal of himself (albeit, a cat-obsessed version) on the loopy Nickelodeon series “The Fairly OddParents,” has given him a new generation of fans who have never seen the old “Batman” series except maybe in snatches on YouTube. He’s also had voice roles in “Chicken Little,” “Meet the Robinsons” and animated Batman shows on which he played the mayor of Gotham, not its infamous mystery man.
“I’m like Madonna: I keep reinventing myself,” said West, who splits his time between Palm Springs and Sun Valley, Idaho. “I get called ‘Mayor West’ a lot in airports. I’ve been very fortunate to have a fan base that keeps growing, and the work gets such a warm response and humor from people.”
This week, West is back in a familiar comedy vehicle -- literally. The film “Super Capers,” yet another superhero parody, opened Friday, and while it’s showing in just 80 theaters nationwide, it’s a memorable gig for West because it puts him back in the driver’s seat of his most famous ride.
“It’s a very bright comedy adventure. In it I’m a cabdriver who’s gotten hold of the Batmobile and converted it to a taxi cab -- with air conditioning,” West said. “I meet up with a young guy who’s trying to be a superhero, played by an actor named Justin Whalin, who is quite good, and I’m able to drive him around on some of his misadventures.”
And how was it to sit in that grand old tail-finned time capsule? “It was great,” he said. “All those things that you do in a long career come back pretty easily once you get your hands on the wheel.”
Like William Shatner of “Star Trek,” West spent a considerable amount of his career feeling smothered by his short-lived but unforgettably eccentric TV role from the 1960s: “I remember the struggle that I had,” West said. “I mean, I did the Music Center in L.A., I did the Mark Taper Forum, I did regional theater, anything I could to keep working. I think it’s an actor’s obligation, if possible, to keep working, playing the instrument. But, yes, there were a lot of doors closed for a long time.”
As the years passed, West (again, like Shatner) eventually decided the better tactic was to celebrate and spoof the old reruns instead of fighting them. Still, there’s a tinge of jealousy in West’s voice when he talks about the actors today who can play Batman, Wolverine or Iron Man and simply move on to the next nonhero role without the sort of treacherous typecasting that faced West, Clayton Moore, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve.
“I’ve never felt the envy . . . well, I don’t know. Maybe I have a little,” West said. “I look at it and I think, ‘Well, it’s a lot simpler now to do other things.’ And why is that? Well, I think they’re in big movies on big screens and they’re in roles written so the actor can have moments outside of that superhero thing. I fought for that a little bit and they gave me a little more Bruce Wayne, but still he was a comedic Bruce Wayne. . . . It was still theater of the absurd.”
The absurd is going quite well now for West. On an upcoming “Family Guy,” he and Rob Lowe appear during a live-action scene edited into the ribald Seth MacFarlane animated series. On “30 Rock,” West will deliver a daft introduction to star Alec Baldwin, but he didn’t want to give away too much. In a way, he said, “30 Rock” reminds him of “Batman” with its rapid-fire gags, winking style and celebrity guest stars.
All subjects come back to “Batman,” and there West is in a legacy-maintenance mode. He has a new DVD venture called “Adam West Naked,” which has him recounting anecdotes about all 120 episodes of “Batman.” As the title suggests, the behind-the-scenes tales are often sexed-up stories about a 1960s tomcat who sometimes comes off like Austin Powers with a cape.
Asked to pick the favorite Catwoman he worked with, he says, “I think I’d better not say. Julie Newmar was first, Lee Meriwether was Catwoman in the feature, Eartha Kitt was the black Catwoman. They were all splendid in their own way. We tried to put a lot of sexual tension in there between Catwoman and Batman, and in costume it was almost absurdly delightful.”
The Neon Knight says he has no plans to slow down despite the fact that 55 years have passed since he made his television debut in “The Philco Television Playhouse.”
“The reaction has been so positive and good for me that I love it now,” West said of his enduring pop-culture image. “How could I not? I would hate to be a bitter, aging actor. I’ve been so fortunate to have this opportunity to bring Batman alive on the screen. There’s a lot of talent, money and expertise with the new films. They’re beautifully crafted, but there’s something about our Batman that still strikes a chord. And as for me, I’m too young and pretty to retire, as somebody once said.”