The Blue Van

So I bought Season One of the 1966 Batman TV series, and I’ve been gleefully reliving my childhood binge-watching a show I haven’t seen in a couple of decades. The first season was brilliant. I’ve read the producers or the network believed it was a bit too dark and lightened it up for Season Two which, I believe, cost them their adult audience by pandering to the kids and thereby killed the show.

Season Three was the flailing of a dying man, even sillier than Season Two, the network geniuses not understanding why Season One was such a hit: its pitch-perfect balance between the absurd and the (preadolescent) entertaining captured in perfect tone in the pilot, “Hey Riddle Diddle.” That show gave me nightmares as a kid when the Riddler set the Batmobile on fire and then threatened Robin with a scalpel and a head vise, while being laugh-out-loud funny when Batman enters a discotech, preferring to stand at the bar because, “I wouldn’t want to attract undue attention.”

I’m only now really appreciating how brilliant the show was, and how either the network or the studio killed their own golden goose by not truly understanding how delicate the formula was or how vitally important the balance was to maintain. Other things I’ve discovered:

1. Adam West was not fat. He just looked fat because of how Batman’s utility belt fit, pressed up against his solar plexus, and how the cape obscured the curve of his back. In fact, now that I’m paying attention, West actually looked a bit skinny for the role and could have been served by some discrete padding around the chest and biceps (as could I).

2. That’s not really West in those fight scenes. Only in the close-ups. It’s almost always Ward, who was (a) a martial artist and (b) typically required to do his own stunts. Ward was reportedly paid only $350 per episode (two half-hours).

3. I can’t help but look at Burt Ward’s package. There was, apparently, some furor by the Catholic League of Decency over the size of Robin’s junk which, as a five-year old, I neither noticed nor cared about. Now I can’t help but see it, the Robin suit apparently designed to frame around Ward’s crotch. This would have attracted an entirely different demographic toady.

4. Height disparity: Ward’s stunted height, West’s more heroic height, and Cesar Romero towering over both.

5. There’s a blue van used, typically by the bad guys, in the first half-dozen or so episodes (the first dozen or so half-hours). Maybe it was an inside joke, the same exact van being used over and over with minimal redress, but it was more amusing than distracting and, being a kid, I, of course, never noticed.

6. Adam West’s cowl had a black panel over his face, just like Carmine Infantino’s Silver Age Batman, which was hysterical considering the black panel was meant to emulate how light hit the mask; not a *literal* black panel with eyebrows in it.

7. The restoration is lovely, the colors vibrant. They also seem to have color-corrected the Joker’s hair, which appeared to be red in the original but is green here except in flashback sequences and one odd sequence where The Joker is on TV.

8. The show was an act of genius, capturing the imagination of kids while offering laugh-out-loud camp for adults. The network’s choice to break each episode in half was also genius, ABC locking up not one but two nights per week and fueling Bat-Mania. Of course, both tactics backfired when, during season two, the producers lost the adult audience by moving the needle too far toward silliness while CBS and NBC came after them guns blazing, and the dual-episode format, feature film and reruns caused tremendous overexposure.

9. I just realized the classic shot of Batman and Robin sliding down the batpoles into the Batcave, rushing to the Batmobile as it rotated on its dais, firing her up and racing away cost the studio a minimum of half a million dollars. The Batcave set alone reportedly cost $400k, plus whatever Barris got for the still-sexy Batmobile and the costumes the (presumably) stunt doubles used (we never see a close-in shot of the fellas arriving, this is always a wide shot, presumably done a dozen different times and a dozen different ways and then just used as needed, as was the car’s exit from the cave). That’s, like, nearly two million in today’s dollars—an eye-popping investment in a TV pilot. I presume they’d planned to lay off most of that cost on the feature film, but wow, that was pricey.

I further presume the re-created Batcave for the extremely lame yet fascinating made-for-TV film, “Return To The Batcave,” was largely bluescreen. I couldn’t imagine them spending that kind of loot to re-create the thing.

10. Whatever trepidation may have existed about a DVD release of the Bat-TV show impacting the feature film franchise were woefully misplaced. We have Leggo Batman, for Pete’s sake, which is way stupider and more juvenile than this. Besides, I think TDKR killed off the Bat franchise all by its bloated, overbearing self, and Ben Affleck is definitely not the one to put it back on its feet. BVS will be a huge hit for obvious reasons, but it’s not because we’re all anxious for the next Bat movie. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, TDK was so good, there’s no place to go but down.

11. A strong script, ideally with Johnny Depp as The Riddler, might get her going again. Frank Gorshin’s Emmy-nominated performance is just amazingly satisfying on every level, entertaining kids and their parents at the same time. In an interview, Cesar Romero more or less dismissed his own performance as “easy,” but he defined the Joker for several generations while resurrecting his own career, not as a Latin lover but as the clown prince of crime, mobbed wherever he went. I suspect only Burgess Meredith may have been hurt by his villain role as Meredith was a serious film and stage actor, but was forever known as The Penguin until Rocky rescued his career. Then he was typecast as Mickey.

12. Had he done the show today, I doubt West or Ward would have become typecast as it is now chic to play a super-hero, with Robert Downey, Jr. gleefully leading the way. Had this series been down today, West would simply be known as a bad actor.


  1. I saw them in reruns, not always entirely in order (two-parters always showed in order, but seasons tended to get mixed up). As a really little kid I didn’t really grasp the idea of seasons yet, but Batman was one of the shows where I started to get a handle on the idea that order mattered beyond cliffhangers. I learned to look for the Batgirl swinging through the opening credits, unaware that it meant “season 3,” just knowing it meant Batgirl would be in the episode.

  2. Trev Trev says:

    Unfortunately, the show made me think that Batman was lame and so I never sought out a Batman comic book. I do have one in my collection but it was Batman: Year Two and the reason I bought it was because I was surprised to see him with a gun.

  3. Priest Priest says:

    Batman *was* lame in 1966. Not as campy as the show, but the Batman comic book was on the verge of cancellation before the TV show stirred Batmania. Batman didn’t become “cool,” really, until writer Denny O’Neil shook up not just Bats but the entire comic book industry with his amazing (and deeply disturbing) “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” wherein he re-cast The Joker as a serious threat and deadly homicidal menace. Kudos especially to the colorist for not screwing that up, as colorist sometimes tend to do (ref: KLANG!), carefully preserving Neal Adams’s creepy moodiness (as opposed to going their own way and completely destroying the story).

    I thought Batman Y2 was a fairly lame followup to the brilliant Year One, no offense to anyone involved personally. There were two comics masterpieces that should never have been revisited: BY1 and TDKR. Now, I’m sure Miller is laughing all the way to the bank, but he’s undercut his own legacy by continuing to draw from the well, weakening his masterpiece by, like Michael Jackson, futilely trying to top “Thriller.”

    • Mo says:

      “he’s undercut his own legacy by continuing to draw from the well, weakening his masterpiece by, like Michael Jackson, futilely trying to top ‘Thriller'”

      But Bad and HIStory had songs that blew Thriller out of the water.

      • Priest Priest says:

        Yes. “Bad” was an exponentially better album, ruined only by the cartoon title track and Michael’s laughable getup. But Michael’s obsession with *sales* is what I mean. Most artists today put out these wretched patchworks of “albums” with multiple producers and guest artists all in search of sales. I’m more into the 80’s where a single producer (David Foster, Quincy, Jam & Lewis) produced the entire album. Those records told stories and had the luxury of having a consistent beginning, middle and end. Also bear in mind, Thriller was released on wax. By the time of “Bad,” the CD revolution was in full swing, with far more durable digital discs. I bought three Thriller LPs and one Thriller CD but only one CD copy of Bad because it never wore out or got scratched. Didn’t make Thriller the better album, it was just a perfect storm of a killer record that people played to death and needed to replace and the introduction of compact disc (or CD players becoming more affordable–take your pick), so everyone bought multiple copies. It is unlikely, in the digital age, that we’ll ever see numbers like Thriller again.

    • Trev Trev says:

      I enjoyed the first issue of BMY2 because it was a Batman I hadn’t seen before — the complete opposite of the 1960s TV show. As a casual reader of comics I didn’t bother to collect the other parts to the series. Last year I managed to grab part 2 which had Todd McFaralane’s pencils. No disrespect but it wasn’t that good. He must have been trying to pitch Spawn because Batman’s cape was very Spawn(y).

      You’re right about it being lame as I couldn’t get into the story whatsoever and it was quite terse.

  4. Thad says:

    I wouldn’t say it’s “almost always” Ward in the fight scenes; for much of the time it’s a guy with a receding hairline.

    I think you make some good observations about what killed the show in season 2; I would add that the formula was a big part of it. Every two-parter has the exact same plot beats, over and over again. That’s great for kids, who love repetition and predictability, but I expect it started to bore the adults in the audience in a hurry.

    There’s also a pretty big dip in quality in terms of original villains between season 1 and 2. Season 1’s got Bookworm and King Tut, with amazing performances by Roddy McDowall and Victor Buono; season 2’s got Ma Parker, Shame, the Archer, the Minstrel, etc. — a fine crop of actors playing uninspired, forgettable characters.

    The new characters weren’t all duds — Vincent Price’s Egghead is a notable exception –, and of course Romero, Meredith, Newmar, and Buono continued to put in great performances. But I suspect Gorshin’s absence hurt the ratings too.

    • Priest Priest says:

      Yeah–what was that about? They nominate the guy and he vanishes in S2? A guy w/a receding hairline, really?!? Got to look closer–I was going off of Ward interviews where he complained mightily about having to do dangerous stunts.

      I also read somewhere that S2 was rushed together because they’d been busy w/the movie and the writers/producers were just kind of winging it thru S2.

      Good point re: the formula, though: I loved the formula as a kid, but could see it producing diminishing returns as it wore on. The cheap sets didn’t help, either. S1 was like a visual candy store: other than the Batmobile obviously looping around the Fox back lot, the sets were gorgeous (including a cheesy-looking ut serviceable subway station and sewer pipes Gorshin gleefully raced through). You really can see all of the money up there on the screen.

  5. Randy DeLoach says:

    Hey Priest, it’s been a while. First, being a product of the 60’s I grew up with “The Adventures of Superman ” and Adam West as Batman. Superman was hokey and poorly produced. Batman on the other hand had the Batmobile and Catwoman in that tight catsuit, which sure made a 7 year old very happy. Anyway, I remember you from way back when I used to be an intern for Ron Wilson. That is, until he and I got into a dispute Over some artwork I did for him when he worked on his Super Boxing graphic novel. Which I believe you on-wrote with Ron. I’ve always wondered what happened to you. Glad I was able to track you down. Do you still talk to Ron Wilson? Hit me up on Facebook when you have a moment.

    • Priest Priest says:

      Randy! Oh, hey, yes I remember you. IIRC, my basic memory was you being one of those pretty guys who scoops up all the women while people like Ron and me fight for the leftovers 🙂 No, been out of the loop w/comics for a long time, so haven;t spoken with Ron in quite awhile, though he’s actually been on my mind recently. I believe I did a treatment or something for SuperBoxers, but was ultimately not the writer on that project. I don’t do social media of any kind, but feel free to click the @ button on my site to contact me. Great hearing from you.

  6. The network MeTV airs Batman reruns at 7 pm Eastern every Saturday evening; it’s a programming block featuring the 50s Superman, 70s Wonder Woman, Star Trek TOS, and creature-feature movie host Svengoolie [a longtime Chicago-TV staple that’s finally achieved a national platform.]
    I can really appreciate the third season; mostly for the very lovely Yvonne Craig (RIP), and partly because the extremely spare “villain hideout” sets inadvertently trudged into psychedelia. Some of the villains proved to be kind of dumb, though. The three-part episode with Lord/Lady Pfogg were underwhelming. I also wish that Milton Berle had a better role than Louie the Lilac. Special shout-out to Eartha Kitt (RIP) for her stint as Catwoman.

    Too bad that Fox apparently were in a rush to demolish the Batcave set; supposedly another network wanted to pick up the show after its initial cancellation, but balked at building all-new sets.
    If and when I can finally get a better job, I’ll treat myself to the Batman show Blu-ray boxed set, it’s supposed to come with a mini-Batmobile.

    I really hope that a “tribute animated movie” can be done with West and Ward reprising their roles.

    • Priest Priest says:

      The Box Set is not worth it. Seasons two and three were not great and slid to horrible. Season one was the killer, and you can get it from Best Buy for $11.99. Forget the mini Batmobile, you can get Batmobiles of any size from virtually everywhere… everybody loves that car. The individual seasons are skimpy on extras. The packaging doesn’t say there are extras but there are. They stink, but they’re there. What I wanted/expected / hoped for was an in-depth length sit-down with the surviving cast and producers. I mean, after how this show virtually destroyed West and Ward’s careers, throwing money at them from the DVDs is the least Warners (it’s a Warners release) could do.

  7. ireactions says:

    Season 3 is bad — but I love Batgirl. I think I love every Batgirl except Alicia Silverstone.

    • Priest Priest says:

      I was a six-year old black kid, *totally* gone over Yvonne Craig. Man, was she hot. The best was her and Eartha Kitt going head-to-head in those painted-on suits. It’s funny, given all the politics swirling around sexuality, it never, ever, not even once occurred to me that I might be gay. So far as I recall, I’ve been a lustful little bastard my whole life. *sigh* Yvonne…

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