Adam West, best known for his portrayal of Batman, has died following a battle with leukemia. He was 88.
A family spokesperson confirmed the news that West had passed away Friday night. “A true American icon and beloved father and husband, he will be dearly missed by his family, friends, and millions of fans around the world,” the spokesperson said. A statement from the family reads, “Our dad always saw himself as The Bright Knight and aspired to make a positive impact on his fans’ lives. He was and always will be our hero.”
Born William West Anderson Walla Walla, Washington, the son of a wheat farmer and a singer, West grew up in Seattle after his mother, Audrey Speer, re-married. After getting a degree in literature and psychology from Whitman College, he spent two years in the U.S. Army helping to establish military television stations.
Eventually, he found his way to Hawaii, where he teamed up with childhood friend Carl Hebenstreit for The Kini Popo Show, and his career as an actor had begun.
Making his way to Hollywood, West spent several years working in supporting roles and commercials. It was his stint as “Captain Quik” — a James Bond styled character in commercials for Nestlé Quik — that caught the attention of producer William Dozier, who was casting for a new television adaptation of the Caped Crusader. West won out over Lyle Waggoner (who would go on to play Steve Trevor opposite Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman) and spent three seasons with tongue planted firmly in cheek for his take on Batman.
(West was even considered to play an American James Bond for Diamonds Are Forever, but turned it down because he felt the character should remain British.)
“The tone of our first show, by Lorenzo Semple Jr., was one of absurdity and tongue in cheek to the point that I found it irresistible,” West said in a 2006 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I think they recognized that in me from what they’d seen me do before. I understood the material and brought something to it.
The show, which debuted in January 1966, was an immediate hit, but the role of Batman was both a blessing and a curse, as it made West a star while at the same time typecasting him for years. He would forever be associated with the comedic version of the Dark Knight, and producers stumbled over that fact when considering him for other roles. West struggled for years after Batman was cancelled, making his way with personal appearances.
“The people who were hiring, the people who were running the studios, running the shows, were dinosaurs,” West said in the 2013 documentary Starring Adam West. “They thought Batman was a big accident, that there was no real creative thought, expertise or art behind it. They were wrong.”
After several guest appearances in shows like Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, and Laverne & Shirley, his career got a reboot of sorts with voice work in animation. He would reprise his role of Batman — albeit a slightly more serious version — in SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, both sequels to the original SuperFriends.
Guest roles would continue to come in along with voice work — Rugrats, Batman: The Animated Series, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Animaniacs — until nostalgia worked its magic and he was suddenly a star again.
When asked by Variety what Batman has meant to him over the years, West replied, “Money. Some years ago I made an agreement with Batman. There was a time when Batman really kept me from getting some pretty good roles, and I was asked to do what I figured were important features. However, Batman was there, and very few people would take a chance on me walking on to the screen. And they’d be taking people away from the story. So I decided that since so many people love Batman, I might as well love it too. Why not? So I began to reengage myself with Batman. And I saw the comedy. I saw the love people had for it, and I just embraced it.”
More recently, West found new fandom from his work as Quahog Mayor Adam West on Family Guy, Seth McFarlane’s animated hit on Fox.
From an interview with IGN: “I had done a pilot with Seth that he had written for me. It turned out we had the same kind of comic sensibilities and got along well,” he said. “When Family Guy came around and Seth became brilliantly successful, he decided to call me and see what I was doing. He asked if I would like to come aboard as the mayor, and I thought it would be neat to do something sort of absurd and fun.”
After Batman ’66 had a successful run in the pages of DC Comics, the popularity of the show inspired DC and Warner Bros. to bring it back in animated form. West returned to his role as the Caped Crusader in Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and the upcoming Batman vs. Two-Face. (West had finished recording his tracks back in October).
Co-star Julie Newmar, one of three actresses to play Catwoman opposite West, said in a statement: “Stellar, exemplar, a king to the end. He was bright, witty and fun to work with. I will miss him in the physical world and savor him always in the world of imagination and creativity. He meant so much to people.”
Burt Ward, who played Robin and remained friends with West in the fifty years since the show, released this statement: “I am devastated at the loss of one my very dearest friends. Adam and I had a special friendship for more than 50 years. We shared some of the most fun times of our lives together. Our families have deep love and respect for each other. This is a terribly unexpected loss of my lifelong friend. I will forever miss him. There are several fine actors who have portrayed Batman in films. In my eyes, there was only one real Batman that is and always will be Adam West. He was truly the Bright Night.”