There’s never been anything on television quite like ABC’s Batman. Airing in a brief burst of pop phenomena from 1966 to 1968, the series used DC Comics’s brooding Dark Knight as the premise for a campy, vibrantly-colored farce, with Adam West and Burt Ward keeping earnest faces in the midst of their villain-of-the-week plots. With the show celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, we’ve got some facts and trivia sure to please any respectable Bat-fan.
1. A QUARTERBACK FOR THE L.A. RAMS ALMOST PLAYED BATMAN.
The kitschy approach of Adam West was not on producer Ed Graham’s mind when he optioned Batman for a television series from DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) in 1962. Figuring he could capitalize on a Saturday morning kids' series similar in tone to the George Reeves-starring Adventures of Superman from the 1950s, Graham struck a deal with CBS and enlisted former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Mike Henry for the title role. With CBS dragging their feet, Henry decided to opt out and play Tarzan instead; ABC was more ambitious about the idea, securing the license from National and moving ahead with producer William Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., who agreed the show would work best if it didn’t take itself seriously. (Just seriously enough not to cast a football player.)
2. “HOLY [BLANK]” CAME FROM TOM SWIFT NOVELS.
Semple’s enduring contribution to the show’s dialogue came in the form of Robin’s exclamations, which were usually preceded by “Holy.” (“Holy Cryptology, Batman!” “Holy Heart Failure, Batman!”) Robin wasn’t so effusive in the comics: Semple made up the habit after remembering some Tom Swift children’s books he had read as a youth that used a similar device.
3. HUGH HEFNER HAD A SIMILAR IDEA.
Though Batman was already well into development at ABC, Dozier and Semple weren’t the first to think about poking fun at the character. In the summer of 1965, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago screened chapters of the 1943 Batman serial to audiences full of cheering college students. The camp revival was so successful that the serial’s distributor, Columbia, took it on the road. When Batman premiered the following year, at least a portion of the audience was primed to go along with the joke.
4. ADAM WEST WAS CAST BECAUSE OF A NESTLE QUIK AD.
Dozier was unsure about how to fill the title role until he saw a television commercial for the chocolate drink mix Nestle Quik. In it, 36-year-old actor Adam West is seen sending up James Bond with droll delivery and a winking sense of humor. Though Dozier felt he was right for the part, he sent two screen tests to ABC executives—one with West and one with actor Lyle Waggoner—in order to give them a choice. West won out.
5. THE SHOW KICKED THE STUFFING OUT OF BURT WARD.
Ward—given name Bert Gervis—was given his first acting role after auditioning with West and demonstrating some prowess with Judo throws and tumbling. Over the years, Ward has repeatedly claimed the show offered him several brushes with death or disability: shooting his first scene in the Batmobile with a stunt man sitting in for West, Ward was nearly tossed out when his passenger door opened. Later, a two-by-four sailed into his face after an explosion. He also received burns on multiple occasions from pyrotechnics and once from the sparks that flew from the back of the car.
6. IT HAD THE LOWEST TEST SCORE OF ANY TV PILOT IN HISTORY.
Before its January 12, 1966 premiere, ABC screened the pilot for a test audience. Using knobs that could express their approval (or disapproval), the group verified the equipment was working when they gave the “control” footage, a Mr. Magoo cartoon, a favorable rating. When Batman ended, it scored in the upper forties, a disastrous number. (Most pilots of the day scored in the mid-sixties.) The national audience, prepared with weeks of advertising to help contextualize the humor, found it funnier: the show was an immediate success.
7. FRANK SINATRA WANTED TO PLAY THE JOKER.
For a DVD commentary track tied to the release of 1966’s Batman: The Movie, West recalled that Frank Sinatra once lobbied for the part of The Joker. (It went to Cesar Romero.) Sinatra, Gregory Peck, and Elizabeth Taylor later wanted to make appearances in the window of the building Batman and Robin scaled, but the guest spots were booked before they could be accommodated.
8. THE BATMOBILE COST $1.
Before $30,000 in modifications, anyway. Car customizer George Barris used a concept car from Lincoln called the Futura, which the company had built for $250,000. Seeing no future in the vehicle and thinking the show might give them some publicity, Ford sold it to Barris for $1. It sat on his property for years until Fox contacted him to fabricate a Batmobile. The Futura, with its fin accents and open cabin, was Barris's first choice.
9. THEY HAD TO SHORTEN WEST’S EARS.
West originally screen-tested wearing a distinctly-different Bat-costume: he was missing the yellow oval behind his emblem, and the ears on his cowl protruded much higher up. Designers wound up clipping the ears because they realized the tips would be cut off during close-ups.
10. BRUCE LEE SCARED THE TIGHTS OFF OF BURT WARD.
Ward, who fancied himself something of a martial arts expert, once boasted to West that he had sparred with Bruce Lee. When Lee made an appearance on the show as part of a crossover with Dozier’s other series, The Green Hornet, he and Robin were scheduled to have a fight. According to West’s autobiography, Lee showed up to the set wearing a dour expression and looked ready to kill Ward, who put his hands up in a defensive reflex. Lee cracked a smile and called out, “Robin’s a chicken!” Everyone but Ward found this funny.
11. THE SHOW ALMOST HAD A FOURTH SEASON ON NBC.
Bat-Mania flared for only a brief time, lasting roughly a year before ratings began to dip in the second season from both competition (Lost in Space) and viewers skipping the first of the weekly two-part episodes. After the introduction of Batgirl failed to salvage the expensive show in its third season, producers got a cancellation notice from ABC; NBC was interested in picking it up, but the sets had already been demolished. With the network unwilling to rebuild them, Batman wound down after 120 episodes.
12. WEST STOPPED A REAL MACHETE-WIELDING CRIMINAL.
After the show had cooled down, West was on vacation in Maui for a celebrity tennis tournament when he spotted a man wielding a machete approach a couple on the beach. To his amazement, he realized the man had criminal intentions, and was preparing to take a swipe at the woman. West sprung up and waved the man off with his lounge chair, then pinned him to a wall until the authorities arrived.
13. WEST AND WARD SUITED UP AGAIN IN 1979.
In a departure from the good taste that typified the 1970s, NBC aired two one-hour specials featuring DC heroes in January 1979. Produced by animation studio Hanna-Barbera, the live-action Legends of the Superheroes was a low-rent affair that brought West and Ward back as Batman and Robin alongside Hawkman, Flash, and Green Lantern; the second of the two hours featured Ed McMahon and a roast. West would later call it a “degradation” of the character.
14. IT INSPIRED A BAT HAIRCUT.
In a 1966 Life magazine profile on the success of the show, it was noted that one Detroit-area hair stylist was offering patrons a “Bat Cut,” which consisted of shaving down a woman’s eyebrows and trimming her bangs to match the arch of Batman’s cowl. It's unknown how many customers took him up on the offer.
15. AN ANIMATED MOVIE IS COMING.
In 2015, Warner Bros. announced that West and Ward would be providing voices for a straight-to-video animated film based on the 1960s series aesthetic. The project is part of a recent campaign by the studio—including comics, collectibles, and a DVD box set—to capitalize on the continued popularity of Batman’s camp years.