Some may see it as overstatement, but I consider interviewing Adam West as sort of like talking to God. The actor is legendary for having played Batman in the landmark ’60s TV series and 1966 movie, in which he and his trusted sidekick, Robin (Burt Ward), fought a bizarre gaggle of celebrity villains including Cesar Romero, Vincent Price, Milton Berle and Otto Preminger. The crazy show was such an integral part of my childhood and adolescence, I can’t imagine I’d be the same person had I been deprived of it.
Though he conceded at least that the show owed something to Andy Warhol’s art of the era, West notoriously disdains the idea that Batman is camp. There was, nevertheless, something decidedly queer about the entire affair. You had to wonder about two dudes who spent so much time in tights. There was a homoerotic tension between Batman and Robin, who lived together by day as Bruce and Dick with only their male butler and Dick’s sexless Aunt Harriet to round out the household. There were the over-the-top plot setups, splashy colour sets and fight sequences and a ludicrously, brazenly queer lineup of guest villains.
Where else could you tune in to see Joan Collins, Victor Buono, Tallulah Bankhead, Leslie Gore, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Roddy McDowall, Liberace, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ethel Merman creating all sorts of trouble? At least a couple of generations of drag queens must have been inspired by Batgirl (Yvonne Craig), who joined the show in its final season.
West, who turned 83 on Sept 19, now has a recurring role on Family Guy. He spoke with Xtra while in Montreal last weekend, where he was making an appearance at the Comiccon with Ward and the original Batmobile.
Xtra: Are you overwhelmed by the resilience of the show?
Adam West: Matthew, I’m never overwhelmed by anything. I’m a little underwhelmed from time to time, but I think that’s my age. But yes, it’s surprising. I was in Austin, Texas, a couple of weeks ago, and they showed our Batman movie from 1966. I couldn’t believe the turnout. And it’s the second year in a row that they’ve showed it. So Matthew, I must be doing something right.
Xtra: What’s the strangest thing a fan ever said to you?
AW: People come up and play entire scenes from Batman for me. That’s a little strange. But it’s wonderful. In airports they start yelling, “It’s the mayor!” because of Family Guy.
Xtra: When I interviewed Janet Leigh, she said the strangest thing for her was when someone asked her to sign a knife like the one from Psycho.
AW: That is strange. Someone came to my hotel room once and asked for my sheets. They had scissors in their hands, saying they wanted to give a little piece of this to everyone.
Xtra: When you met the pope in ’67, he told you he was a fan.
AW: It was really a humorous moment, because I was too hung over to kiss his ring. I was afraid to bend over. He told me how much he enjoyed the show. I think he probably had a lot of advisors, because I can’t see the pope sitting around watching Batman. Or Family Guy. But who knows?
Xtra: In your memoirs, Back to the Batcave, you describe having lunch with Kim Novak while you were wearing nothing but a bathrobe. You worked with a lot of sexy stars, including Joan Collins and Julie Newmar. Who was the sexiest you worked with?
AW: I was continuously excited. They all gave me curious stirrings in my utility belt.
Xtra: Who was your favourite villain guest star?
AW: Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Joan Collins – they were all terrific. Burgess would have loved to come to Montreal with me, going to good restaurants and drinking fine wines. Burgess told incredible stories; he was such a raconteur. Frank Gorshin was maniacal, always on the edge of crazy, and I loved that, because I love working on the edge. These people gave me so much, I love them for it.
Xtra: Did you enjoy working with Eartha Kitt? She had a reputation for being difficult.
AW: Eartha could be difficult, but with me, she wasn’t difficult. Nor was someone like Tallulah Bankhead – and it was her last show, she was dying. I always try to come into situations with a little humour, and they respond to that. These are great entertainers who appreciate that. They don’t want to deal with dolts.
Xtra: Since you donned the cape, a number of actors have played Batman, including Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Who’s your favourite Batman, other than Adam West?
AW: I have none. They’re all very good in their own way, and they all do their own thing. I did mine, and leave me alone.
Xtra: You never liked the show being referred to as camp.
AW: No, it was just a term of convenience for the media at the time.
Xtra: But the show is over-the-top and absurd.
AW: I never really knew the definition of camp. I thought camp referred to the prostitutes who followed the Roman Legions.
Xtra: The New York Times referred to it as “avant-camp.”
AW: It was a nice term, but I still don’t see it as camp.
Xtra: We just had the 9/11 anniversary. If Batman really existed, do you think he could have stopped the terrorists?
AW: No. I don’t know whether Superman could have on time. It was so horribly diabolical. Such a terrible thing. I’ll never forget it, as I’m sure no one else will. I wrote a narrative poem afterwards, called “The Viewing Platform.”
Xtra: In Burt Ward’s memoirs, he says that he fell into sex addiction and that you basically showed him how to be a womanizer.
AW: Burt thought that would sell books. I couldn’t even read it, I was so proud of myself! But seriously, for me, it was a tough read. In the years since, Burt has apologized for using me like that. He’s a great guy, really. We have different lifestyles, but when we get together on the stage, the same chemistry comes back instantly. Burt makes me laugh.
Xtra: Where were you when you heard Heath Ledger had died?
AW: I was driving to the mountains in Idaho. I thought, ‘My God, the things I’ve seen him do with that character!’ He made it kind of punk rock. It was brilliant. It was very sad what happened to him. It can be very risky.