ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. The next Batman film, "The Dark Knight," opens tomorrow at midnight. But the most fascinating character in this version is the villain, the Joker, played by actor Heath Ledger, who died shortly after filming was completed. He had said this role was more fun than anything he'd ever done.

Mr. HEATH LEDGER (Actor): It was one of those moments where I was asked if I would be interested in playing the Joker, and I knew, five seconds later, exactly how to play it.

CHADWICK: As part of the NPR series In Character, Day to Day's Alex Cohen reports the Joker has had many interpretations.

ALEX COHEN: The Joker, that clown prince of crime, that harlequin of hate, first appeared 68 years ago in the comic book titled "Batman #1." Though he's now famous as Batman's chief nemesis, the Joker didn't start out that way. In 1940, he was just a bit role. His creators at DC Comics initially got rid of the Joker, after just his second appearance.

Mr. STEVE ENGLEHART (Comic Book Writer): They killed him.

COHEN: Comic book writer, Steve Englehart.

Mr. ENGLEHART: And it was an editor at DC Comics who said, wait a minute, this guy's pretty good. So they added a panel at the end of the story where, in the ambulance, the doctor goes, well I'm amazed, this guy's actually going to live. And then he started appearing quite often after that.

COHEN: Over the years there have been various interpretations of the Joker's origins. Most stories involve an ordinary crook who fell into a vat of chemicals while running away from Batman. When the criminal emerged, his hair was bright green, his face ghostly white, his lips fiercely red and frozen in a clownish grin. Steve Englehart says that look was originally inspired by a 1928 silent movie called "The Man Who Laughs."

Mr. ENGLEHART: The makeup is precisely what you think of as the Joker. So they just stole it, cold. I think in the '40s, in comic books, nobody much worried about things like that.

COHEN: Back then, the Joker was a pretty straightforward psychopath. He stole things, he killed people, but, says Englehart, his real goal was something much bigger than committing crimes.

Mr. ENGLEHART: His main motivation is, really, to play with the Batman. He sees the Batman as his perfect other. The Joker doesn't want to kill the Batman, because then he wouldn't have a Batman to play with.

COHEN: In the 1950s, the character went through a metamorphosis, when a group called the Comics Code Authority was created, in response to what some deemed as inappropriate material. When censors banned excessive violence from comic books, the Joker became much less stark and a lot more silly, kind of a thieving trickster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: That goofier version of the villain jumped out of comic books and onto TV in 1966, when ABC launched its version of Batman.

(Soundbite of Batman TV show theme song)

COHEN: Cesar Romero's Joker sported a Technicolor purple suit, and looked like a villainous Liberace. Romero laughed more than he ever spoke, and when he did talk, he was feverishly fond of alliteration.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of TV Show "Batman")

Mr. CESAR ROMERO: (As The Joker) Oh, my playful pilfering pals, how delicious it is.

Mr. ADAM WEST: (As Batman) We hate to...

COHEN: During the 1960s, the Joker was mostly absent from the Batman comic books, but he had a big comeback in the '70s with several writers, including Steve Englehart. Englehart says he had no interest in the family-friendly, goofy Joker. He wanted the character to go back to his original roots.

Mr. ENGLEHART: He was this very crazy, scary character. I really wanted to get back to the idea of Batman fighting insane murderers at three a.m. under a full moon, as the clouds scudded by.

COHEN: Englehart's much starker interpretation of the Joker later became part of the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the role in Tim Burton's 1989 film, "Batman."

(Soundbite of movie "Batman")

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON: (As The Joker) Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press? This town needs an enema.

(Soundbite of party whistle)

COHEN: In a promotional video for the film, Nicholson said he's often told in real life that he oversteps the boundaries of good humor. But, Nicholson added, he doesn't have anything on the Joker.

Mr. NICHOLSON (Actor): Things that even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny, burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum, not this character. And I love that.

COHEN: Humor has always been a pivotal part of the Joker, and though we usually think of humor as an enjoyable, likeable trait, it can also be tinged with evil, says Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics.

Mr. PAUL LEVITZ (President and Publisher, DC Comics): There's a level in humor, where humor can verge on being offensive, or invasive, of your space or your life. Where you don't quite know what's going on. Is this guy putting me on? Is he actually going to do those things to me?

COHEN: In the 1988 DC comic book called, "The Killing Joke," the man who eventually becomes Batman's arch enemy starts off as a chemical engineer, who quits his job to become a standup comedian. He fails, miserably.

Mr. MAZ JOBRANI (Standup Comic): I could see somebody getting really crazy off of that.

COHEN: Maz Jobrani is a real-life standup comic, a funny one. But even he has rough nights. Jobrani says he easily sees how a failed comedian like the Joker could become bitter after bombing on stage.

Mr. JOBRANI: A lot of times, comics will then get upset at the audience for not understanding them, and they go, you don't understand me, I'm funny, you people are horrible, you people, you know, you people should go to hell!

COHEN: Jobrani adds that many comics, like the Joker, are a little bit crazy. They're funny because they see the world in a different way than most sane people do. In his interpretation of the Joker in the new film, "The Dark Knight," actor Heath Ledger thrives on that insanity.

Mr. LEDGER: (As The Joker)You know, you remind me of my father. I hated my father.

Mr. LEVITZ: I keep coming back to the way he physically incarnates madness.

COHEN: DC Comics president Paul Levitz.

Mr. LEVITZ: Leave the makeup aside, leave the costuming aside. If you had Heath Ledger in plain clothes, who's a very handsome, well presented, very affable looking man. If he walked in a room and started acting with the behaviors that he uses for the Joker, you'd get the hell out of that room fast. And that's pretty cool.

COHEN: Ledger's Joker may be enthralling for viewers, but playing the role definitely took its toll. The Australian actor told reporters that he barely slept while playing the part. He said, even when his body was exhausted, he couldn't stop his mind from reeling. The challenge of the role wasn't lost on Jack Nicholson. When told of Heath Ledger's death, the actor's immediate response was, "I warned him." Alex Cohen, NPR News.

CHADWICK: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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