The Dynamic Duo Comes to Television
A Small Screen Success Story
The Batman TV show first debuted on Wednesday, January 12, 1966, at 7:30 pm, and was literally an overnight success. This was great news for everyone involved in the show, but it was also a blessing for those at DC Comics who were in charge of publishing Batman's four-color adventures. While it may be difficult to understand now, after a nearly nine-decade history of Batman comics, movies, video games, and other merchandise, Batman was struggling in the 1960s, and his comic was on the verge of cancellation.
Batman Comics in Trouble
The Foundering Dark Knight Detective
In the 1960s, Batman comics, like all comics at the time, were primarily sold through newsstand distribution. This meant that any comics that were shipped to the newsstand and not sold had their covers stripped and returned to the distributor, and the newsstand was not charged for those copies. That's not necessarily bad news when you have great sell-through, but Batman had far from great sell-through. The Caped Crusader's titles were only selling about 20 percent of their print run each month, according to DC artist Carmine Infantino, and much of this was due to the increasingly generic nature of the character and his adventures.
When he premiered in the 1930s, Batman was a detective hero who solved mysteries and regularly struck fear into the hearts and minds of criminals. But by the 1960s, he was being shoe-horned into any random situation: outer-space science-fiction, monster stories, even zany comedy! Clearly, something had to be done to help the character reclaim his popularity, and that's what Infantino, writer John Broome, and DC editor Julie Schwartz intended to do.
The Bat Signal
Adding a Little Color to the Caped Crusader
Schwartz called Broome and Infantino into his office in 1963, giving the creative pair an ultimatum for revitalizing Batman: "You two have six months to bring him back or he's dead, finished." Schwartz's suggestion was that the two emphasize the character's detective skills, and bring a bit more visual pop to the drab Dark Knight as well.
Infantino took the advice to heart, and added the famous yellow oval surrounding the Batman-insignia on the character's chest. The creators at DC Comics also began to create covers for the series that would intrigue audiences into buying the back, such as the one for Detective Comics issue no. 329, which had the caption promising a "Batman and Robin Thriller...Castle with Wall-to-Wall Danger!"
But these changes were likely not the only thing that saved Batman from cancellation. On the West Coast, far from DC Comics' offices in New York City, plans were being made to bring the Dark Knight Detective to the small screen...
Developing a Batman TV Show
An Alternative to Dick Tracy
Before executives at ABC even considered developing a Batman TV show, their first thought was to produce a detective show starring Dick Tracy, the famous newspaper strip character who communicated with police headquarters through a video signal watch. But NBC snatched up those rights, and ABC was left to figure out another character who could engage in detective adventures each week. Luckily for them, and luckily for Batman fans, the television media rights to the Caped Crusader were available.
20th Century Fox produced a Batman TV show pilot for ABC in 1965, with producer William Dozier at the helm. Like most adults at the time, Dozier would have been embarrassed to be caught reading a child's comic book, so he stuffed the reference material of Batman back issues deep into his briefcase when he made the cross-country flight to meet with ABC executives about the series.
Dozier admits that he did not know exactly how to approach the character, until he considered that the trick might be "to overdo it. If you overdid it, I thought it would be funny to adults and yet it would be stimulating to kids." To that end, Dozier got Lorenzo Semple, Jr., to write a script for the pilot.
The First Episode
Riddle Me This, Batman
Semple's script was a story featuring the Riddler, a Batman villain famous for concealing the true nature of his crimes in the solution for devious enigmas (and as if that wasn't already on the nose, the character's secret identity was Edward Nygma, or E. Nygma). The Riddler was just one of many villains who would energetically play against the stalwart Batman's reserved gravitas. But to make the characters work, the right actors would need to be cast in the roles.
For the Riddler, this meant casting Frank Gorshin, an amazing impressionist whose outlandish performance as the Riddler would eventually earn him an Emmy nomination. And for Batman? Executives decided, rightly, on Adam West, an actor who immediately got the joke, realizing that Batman would play the heroic straight man to the zany villains and psychedelic scenery of the show.
West thought of the show and his role as Batman as a challenge and a responsibility: "I wanted to let people watching know that anyone pretty much could become Batman, or become someone admirable, by doing good in the world." This helped pave the way for a Batman TV show that could be enjoyed on multiple levels, by both children and adults.
A TV Show With Something for Everyone
As we have already mentioned, the Batman TV show was an overnight success. When it came to pop culture in the 1960s, Adam West may not have been exaggerating when he said, "It was Beatles, Bond, and Batman." By the end of the spring of 1966, Batman had broadcast its first 34 episodes, and was regularly ranked in the top ten for Nielsen ratings. A huge reason for this was the popularity of the show with both kids and adults. But what exactly was the nature of this success, and how did America express its passion for all things Batman? This "Bat-mania" is the subject of the second article in this two-article series, and I encourage you to check it out.