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Yvonne Craig dies at 78; actress was television's Batgirl

Yvonne Craig dies at 78; actress was television's Batgirl
Yvonne Craig played Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in the television series "Batman" in the 1960s. (Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

When Yvonne Craig was a little girl she dreamed of being a ballerina, and she had the talent for it — as a teenager she performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, trained with luminaries such as George Balanchine and had a high kick.

But she ended up using that kick on evil villains — Craig starred as the masked, cape-wearing Batgirl in the 1960s TV series "Batman." Although the show was comic-book campy, she demonstrated that she could be as fierce a superhero as her male counterparts.

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"I'm always meeting women who tell me I was a role model," Craig told the New York Daily News in 2000, "that I could kick butt."

Craig, 78, who had numerous other TV acting credits, including as a dangerously seductive, green-skinned space alien on an episode of the original "Star Trek," died Monday at her home in Pacific Palisades. For the last two years she battled breast cancer that spread to her liver, said her sister, Meridel Carson.

Her TV career began in the late 1950s, and even though she didn't have much formal training as an actress, she worked steadily, appearing in shows such as "Perry Mason," "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," "77 Sunset Strip," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "Dr. Kildare" and the other big doctor show of the time, "Ben Casey."

Craig also appeared in a few movies, including the legendary turkey "Mars Needs Women" (1967), which she described in the Daily News interview as, "the worst movie ever made."

Adam West, who played Batman in the series, said on Twitter that he was "deeply saddened" by Craig's death. "She was a joy to work with," he said.

"Batman," with its tongue-in-cheek humor, intentionally over-the-top acting and colorful on-screen graphics saying "Pow!" "Thud" and other exclamations as villains were battled, was a smash hit when it debuted in early 1966. But a year and a half later, the novelty was growing stale. Craig was called in for a test of a new character, Batgirl, in an attempt to boost ratings.

"I think they probably chose me because they knew I had a dance background," she said in a documentary about the show.

Of course she had a secret identity — by day she was Barbara Gordon, mild-mannered librarian and daughter of the police commissioner. But when danger lurked, she would become Batgirl in a clinging purple costume.

"It was perhaps the first time for some young men to see a [female] character in a tight-fitting outfit on TV and they fell in love — or perhaps their hormones did," Craig told the St. Petersburg Times in 1997.

She loved doing the show, in part because she got to work with several veteran performers such as Eartha Kitt, who played Catwoman. But even Batgirl couldn't save "Batman" — it went off the air in 1968.

Decades later, however, when Craig appeared at fan conventions, admirers would flock to see her.

"Guys all say, 'I had such a crush on you,'" Craig told the Boston Herald in 2002. "Girls all say, 'I always waited for Batgirl to come on. You were really an inspiration,'"

The show lived on in reruns on cable, introducing new generations to Batgirl and the woman who played her.

"I was always pleased to be recognized as Batgirl," she said in the Herald interview. "It was always a plus."

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She was born May 16, 1937, in Taylorville, Ill. Her father was a tool-and-die maker, and moved the family to wherever he found work. When she was still a toddler, the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, and later to Dallas.

At 16, Craig got a scholarship to study ballet in New York and she performed with the famed Ballet Russe company. But after a dispute over casting — her solos were taken away amid internal politics in the troupe — she moved to California to continue her dance studies. There she met John Ford's son, Patrick, who cast her in a film he was producing, "The Young Land" (1959).

She appeared in two Elvis Presley movies — "Kissin' Cousins" (1964) and "It Happened at the World's Fair" (1963) — and dated the King for a while.

Probably her best-known part after "Batman" went off the air was in "Star Trek." It made her popular at conventions focused on that series, but Craig found some of the fans too fanatic. She told the Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., that some "want me to discuss the third rock from the left on the 13th segment. And they can be very annoyed that I don't know."

Craig gave up acting for the most part in the 1970s. She sold commercial and residential real estate and had a prepaid phone-card company with her sister. And she attended several fan conventions.

"My God, I've had a charmed life," she said in a 2000 New Orleans Times-Picayune interview. "I like going to the shows and interacting with fans.

"It's nice to be remembered."

In addition to her sister, Craig is survived by her husband, Kenneth Aldrich.

Follow @davidcolker on Twitter.

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