If I were to remember Adam West for one thing, then it is the strength of his selfhood. An actor working in the business for over fifty years, West was best known for his tenure on the campy 1960s’ Batman. Throughout the remainder of his career, he would never escape the shadow of this particularly goofy incarnation of the Dark Knight mythos. West was too smart to be ashamed of such a legacy though. For a time embracing it and for the rest of the time utilising it, turning it on its head. West was a master of sfottò, an ancient form of buffoonery: a light-hearted teasing that reveals the subject’s own awareness of peculiar physical or personality traits that never goes more than skin deep. It’s a subtle technique that you have to execute deftly or risk looking like either a sadist or a narcissist. It runs opposite to a typical gut-reaction to roles that so thoroughly define the actor playing it, which is run away from it, define oneself by the direct opposite. You could look at Dustin Diamond and Elizabeth Berkeley and the curse of The Bell as reason enough to dissuade oneself from these reactionary methods of deflection.
West kept Batman at arm’s length. One might even say that he used the post-modern affectation of self-reference and the-fourth-wall-rupture to allow Batman to become a shield that protected him from what might have been a career-deadening phenomenon. Think of his role on Family Guy as the insane mayor of Quahog. Everyone knows that the Mayor somehow references Batman, but no one can say exactly say how. Seth MacFarlane never made a Batman reference (intentionally), so nothing on the surface can point to why Batman is so strongly in our minds. But Batman is there because we put him there and West played with this superficial, obsessive referential point of the viewer and exploited it. In the end, Quahog’s Mayor is funny not because Adam West is a joke, but because we’re a joke for not being able to let go of a bit of 1960s kitsch. He exploits the fun we have and allows it to become our own inside joke while he stands back and laughs at us laughing. The Batman from this particular series has very little to do with Adam West and far more to do with the absurd pop culture affinities of that era (as viewed from our modern standpoint). West was a genius in this sense. His manipulation of the public’s obsession with a superficial understanding of his career. Could you call the particular aesthetic he created from this Bat-ploitation? Regardless, Adam West is not just an actor, but a tone, a register.
I was reminded of this as I watched Zombie Nightmare, an ‘80s zombie flick soaked in hair-metal. It has all the traits I love in B-movies – shoddy storyline, bad acting, campy acting – and Adam West is listed as the lead character. The movie is skewed by Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (last episode on the Joel Hodgson/Mike Nelson incarnation of MST3K) and, predictably, the bots can’t help but reference Batman. West’s affectation is like catnip and they’re fools not to take it. He makes it so much fun to watch the movie! Any movie that he’s in! You feel that you’re in on a private joke. That’s what I was drawn to the most: the fun West was having. He admits that the Batman role was fun, playful. He’s a talented actor with the chops to perform, but he could do camp and enjoy it. I see this in Zombie Nightmare. The gravitas of the Batman character was what West’s farcical 60s series took most aim at. I encourage you to watch it (especially West’s death scene…sorry for the spoiler).
Some actors perform roles and some actors create universes of self. True personalities open a space in the media realm that cannot be filled once they’ve left. Adam West was a true original and whatever he starred in received tickle, a bit of sugar where it otherwise might have passed over as dry satire or a barely-watchable horror schmutz. Was it the superhero genre that allowed this to happen? I think so. The cartoonish potentiality of a character that asks to receive respect and admiration has the capacity to reify its actor into an archetype beyond his or herself. It made me wish that more had taken advantage of this. For example, could you imagine what Bruce Campbell would be if he’d been The Green Lantern first and then starred in The Evil Dead? His power would’ve increased ten-fold. Adam West did this and his legacy lives on as a result. I will miss him for his humour, his intelligence and his largeness of heart that it took to laugh at himself and invite others to do the same.