NPR logo Adam West Saved Batman. And Me.

Adam West Saved Batman. And Me.

Actors Adam West (L)and Burt Ward dressed as their characters (Zappp!) "Batman" and (Powww!) "Robin," on Jan. 27, 1989 at the "World of Wheels" custom car show in Chicago. Mark Elias/AP hide caption

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Mark Elias/AP

Actors Adam West (L)and Burt Ward dressed as their characters (Zappp!) "Batman" and (Powww!) "Robin," on Jan. 27, 1989 at the "World of Wheels" custom car show in Chicago.

Mark Elias/AP

"Why is a welder like a woman in love?"

I'm 7 years old, standing between the two dogwood trees in my backyard. It's autumn; there's a crispness in the golden, late afternoon air. I've taken the hood of my parka and thrown it over my head, but my arms are not in the sleeves. The coat falls over my narrow, bird-boned shoulders and down my back.

Like a cape, you see.

I'm cold, sure, but the important thing is that I've achieved the necessary look.

My next door neighbor/best friend Eric is here too. He's done the same thing, coat-wise, because we both need capes. Because I'm Batman. He's Robin.

That's not technically correct: I'm Adam West. He's Burt Ward.

He pretends to read from an imaginary computer punch card, with a bit more oomph this time: "Why is a welder like a woman in love?"

"Because," I say. Intone, really, letting my thin voice undulate through the words as I speak them. "They both ... carry a torch."

We then leap into action. The specifics of said action elude me, today, but I'm reasonably certain it involved a lot of punching the air. Whiffed jabs and haymakers in the gathering suburban dusk, each one punctuated by a shout: "Biff!" "Bam!" "Pow!"

To be clear: neither Eric nor I understood what we were saying. Didn't know what welders were, and certainly didn't have any idea what "carry a torch" meant as a figurative expression. We were simply aping a scene we'd just witnessed on television, from a mid-afternoon rerun of a show that had enjoyed a cultural moment a decade before. Batman, it was called. It came on at 3:00 p.m. on Channel 29. After The Space Giants. We liked it.

We liked the costumes, the sets, the big brawls that occurred at precisely the 15-minute-mark of every episode; you could set your Teeter-Totter watch by them. But that wasn't why we'd donned our parka-capes and retired to my backyard to throw punches at nothing.

No, that was Adam West.

I know this, because I remember how I carried myself that day, how I spoke my memorized yet mystifying lines, adopting – internalizing – West's knack for sending his delivery slithering through a range of registers and tempos and volumes.

It felt good. I stood straighter, as West's Batman.

I was a devout rule-follower, a grade-grubber; I lived in abject fear of getting in trouble. Adam West's Caped Crusader understood me: he lectured Robin about seat belts and pedestrian safety – things I worried about! He drank milk. I drank milk! He was ferociously intelligent. I drank milk!

West's Bruce Wayne voice was sonic milquetoast, slight and bland and even, placid as a pond. But his Batman voice was supple and sinuous, and it wrapped around my young brain.

Grave Seriousness, Played For Laughs

Think about this: The role that would define the man's acting career – the man's life – obscured 80 percent of his face behind a mask. Maybe you know some actors personally. Imagine any of them agreeing to that.

But West did, because – I suspect – he knew. He knew that he could shunt the expressiveness of facial expressions, of eyebrows, into his voice, his stance, his waggling finger.

And it was all there, from the very beginning. Watch these two screen tests.

Batman screen tests.

elsquared201936 YouTube

First up, Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell. Waggoner's Bruce/Batman is passable, straight-ahead, dutiful, unremarkable. Had the network gone with his take, Batman would be remembered today – if it was at all – as a solid mid-60s actioner in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea/The Time Tunnel vein.

But then comes West (and Burton Gervis – later Burt Ward). What's remarkable – what's absolutely crucial — is how deeply, how thoroughly, how comprehensively he hurls himself into his delivery. The show is a goof, yes – but for the show to work, West's performance can't be. There's nothing glib or withering or safe in his Batman. It's a risk, a big swing, and it works.

In my book, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, I attempt to unpack how the show, and West's performance in particular, are the reason anyone's talking about the character of Batman today.

Batman comics had languished near the bottom of the sales charts – the publisher even made (likely disingenuous) threats to cancel them outright — before West took the hero into the mainstream. The mainstream embraced him, and — after a brief Batmania fad gripped the country in 1966 — swiftly tired of all things Bat. Batman comics sales plummeted again.

Comics creators and fans resented the clownish version of their hero who'd spent time in the cultural spotlight, and reacted against it by engineering a version of the character who was – specifically and intentionally — everything West's Batman wasn't: dark, haunted, gothic, brooding. Obsessed.

A new generation of comics readers – who knew a little something about obsession – saw themselves in this new, grim, self-serious Batman. For better or worse, he's been DC Comics' top-selling hero ever since.

You don't get to the Batman of today without going through Adam West.

You don't get to the me of today without going through Adam West, either.

Since hearing of his death, I've been trying to imagine the person I'd be if I hadn't spent so many afternoons in that suburban backyard, with that dumb parka over my head. I'm not having much luck.

I've dressed as the Adam West Batman on four Halloweens (and counting). I've got a replica 1966 Batmobile on my desk. I've got t-shirts, Blu-rays, coffee table books and action figures bearing his likeness.

But that's just merch. My connection to him, my sense of loss, goes deeper. Because West's Batman was, at the end of the day, a hopeless, inveterate, unrepentant square. I'm a square!

As a kid, I didn't get that this was the whole joke, the central goof of the entire endeavor: Look at this milk-drinking, seatbelt-wearing doofus in the dumb costume!

A part of me – a big part – still doesn't get it, if I'm honest. Because milk is good. And seatbelts are sensible. And the costume is awesome.

Adam West lived inside the joke, but was never a part of it. That's his secret. That's why his performance will endure.

Ready to Move Out

I don't wear parkas anymore. But just this morning my husband and I got into our car – he in the driver's seat, me in the passenger's seat – and as we put on our seatbelts(!), I did what I always do when I get into the car with him.

"Atomic batteries to power," I said. "Turbines to speed."

"Roger," he said. (It took him a few years to learn his part, but he's got it down pat now.) "Ready to move out."

It's a ritual, I now realize. A kind of invocation, a summoning.

Today, it felt different. Softer, sadder. It'll feel that way from now on, I suppose. Every time we do it, through all the years to come.

Not so much an invocation. More like a benediction.