Adam West And The Age Of Innocence

I was sorry to read about the death of Adam West — known to everyone over a certain age as Batman — this past weekend.  West, who was 88, died after battling leukemia.

adam-west-and-burt-ward-i-010Hearing about West’s death made me think, of course, about the Batman TV show that was enormously popular when I was a little kid.  The word that inevitably is used now to describe the show is “campy,” but really it was more about innocence.  Batman was just like a comic book of those days brought to life, with every punch marked by a Pow! or Whammo!, with characters who weren’t dealing with any “real-world” problems, and with a hero who constantly lectured Robin, the Boy Wonder, in an avuncular way, instructing him all on the platitudes about brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables and being a patriotic citizen that we kids were hearing all the time at home from our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the show was played with a wink, and usually Batman gave Robin the benefit of his wisdom as they were using a rope to walk up the side of the wall in an obviously fake way, just before some famous person put their head out of a window in a silly cameo appearance — but the fact is that the platitudes still got stated on network TV by a hero who apparently meant every word, the hero always escaped from whatever devilish contrivance the Joker or the Penguin or the Riddler put him into, and in the end truth and justice and the hero prevailed . . . and nobody really got hurt beyond taking a few punches to the jaw, either.

The show worked because the theme song was cool, the Batmobile was cooler, and Adam West played Batman right down the line, delivering his homilies and interacting with Commissioner Gordon and even the Catwoman with straight-faced earnestness — presaging the career of Leslie Nielsen playing hilarious deadpan characters in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies.  West was perfect for the Batman role, and that West was able to impassively act the part was particularly impressive when you consider that he was romping around in an embarrassingly tight superhero costume and cape.  It couldn’t have been easy being Batman, but West pulled it off — and even more remarkable, when you think about celebrities of the modern era who will do just about anything to get attention, he never dissed the show or made fun of it, even after the show had long since ended.  To the contrary, West seemed legitimately appreciative, at least publicly, that he had a chance to be a star and a hero to little kids during those long-ago days.

It’s unimaginable that a show like Batman would ever get made these days, because network executives would insist on complex characters struggling with inner demons and the violence would be much bloodier, and scarier, and deadlier, and Batman would never give Robin the kind of lectures that the Boy Wonder got back in the ’60s.  It’s understandable, I guess, but it’s too bad, too.  There’s something to be said for innocence, and a hero who thinks it’s important to mention dental hygiene now and then.

Goodbye, Frank

Actor Leslie Nielsen has died at the age of 84.  It is a real loss for anyone who enjoys movie spoofs and broad comedy.

Neilsen had a long career as an actor that included playing a stalwart astronaut on Forbidden Planet and the captain of the ill-fated cruise ship in The Poseidon Adventure.  He really didn’t come into prominence, however, until he was featured as the doctor in the classic Airplane! In that role — where he spoke the memorable line “And don’t call me Shirley!” — Nielsen perfected a deadpan comedic style that was well suited to the parody-type movies that made him a star.  He went on to star in the TV series Police Squad! where he first played Lieutenant Frank Drebin.  After the series was canceled, Nielsen played Drebin in three excellent Naked Gun movies.  Thanks to Nielsen’s deft comedic timing and talent for physical comedy, Drebin became an iconic character who was a kind of combination of Buster Keaton and Inspector Clouseau.  Although Nielsen went on to make many more movies, none returned to the level of Airplane! and the Naked Gun films.

Airplane! is now generally regarded as one of the best movie comedies ever made, but my favorite Nielsen movie is The Naked Gun 2 1/2:  The Smell of Fear, which featured Priscilla Presley, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, and Robert Goulet as the bad guy.  The clip below aptly captures both Nielsen’s comedic skills and the nuttiness of the series.  Leslie Nielsen will be missed.