Saturday, May 14, 2011

Batman: The TV Series

Holy Boob Tube, Batman! The 1966-68 television series featured actor Adam West as the Caped Crusader, and Burt Ward who donned nylon stockings and fairy boots for his portrayal of the erstwhile sidekick, Robin. The show was noteworthy for its memorable use of onomatopoeia during climactic fight scenes, and while it proved popular to many fans, and transformed Adam West and the rest of the television cast into modern pop culture icons, I still can't wonder what the heck goes on here. Personally, I watched over a dozen episodes (giving it a fair chance to appreciate what everyone else seems to see) and to this day I still think the show is stupid. Stupid might be too harsh of a word. Ridiculous and silly are perhaps a bit more accurate.

Cesar Romero as "The Joker"
However, Batman is perhaps one of the top five most-often bootlegged television programs on DVD. We all know why Fox and Greenway have not put the series out on DVD by this time and frankly, it's their financial loss. Two fantastic movies from Christopher Nolan opened the door to a possibility of cross-promoting. Are the studios listening? Apparently not. And with illegal downloading on the internet, a commercial release today might be hampered by Rapid Share, You Tube and other venues people are using to download the television programs.

Like a lot of motion pictures, radio programs and television programs, the history behind Batman is more fascinating than watching another two-parter with Art Carney as The Archer or Cliff Robertson as Shame. Regardless of what the history books tell us, Batman was not the brain child of William Dozier. The network, ABC, approached William Dozier with the idea. "When they first proposed the series to me, I reacted with complete horror," recalled Dozier. "They somehow had the instinctive feeling at the network that a series based on a comic book character might somehow be a success. I could understand why they wanted to do a program for children, but I couldn't see anything in it to interest me."

The American Broadcasting Company had carefully chosen their property long before they came to veteran TV producer Dozier. They sent a public relations firm all over the country with the names of about 15 comic book heroes. The number one choice was Dick Tracy. Number two was Batman. Superman, naturally, was number three.ABC tried to buy the rights to Dick Tracy, but the rights were not immediately available. So they then turned to the number two choice.

Talent fees for the episode, "A Piece of the Action."
For the first few days after agreeing to do the show, Dozier was baffled by the whole thing. "Then, suddenly," he recalled, "I hit upon this tongue-in-cheek idea -- the so-called 'camp' approach. This seems obvious now, and when I began to see the show in these terms, it began to amuse me. In fact, it began to interest me so much that I found I could enjoy it. Then I felt that older adults could enjoy it, and I found it easy to work on. This was the concept from the beginning and we never shot a foot of film with any other style."

Dozier made arrangements with Lorenzo Semple, a writer he had worked with before. He was at that time living in Torremolinos on the south coast of Spain. After reading a few issues of the comic books, Semple met Dozier at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid. Semple and Dozier composed of the basics and the premise, and by the time Semple moved to the U.S., he had the entire draft completed. The rest of the story, as they say, is history.

The popularity of the colorful villains, and the actors who portrayed them, is perhaps the only endearing charm of the program. As evident in the poll (photo enclosed on the left), Catwoman was the most popular, followed by The Riddler and The Penguin. Oddly, Mr. Freeze and The Minstrel were more popular than The Joker! (Ever notice how Cesar Romero never shaved his mustache off to play the role? White face paint was put right over his upper lip and mustache!)

Production Sheet for The Clock King episode.
One question that continues to plague fans today: why did John Astin play the role of The Riddler, instead of Frank Gorshin, for the episodes "A Riddling Controversy" and "Batman's Anniversary"? According to a letter dated May 9, 1966, from William Dozier to Frank Gorshin, the Hollywood impressionist had acquired new agents, the William Morris office, who insisted that he be paid $5,000 for his role as The Riddler. Dozier would not pay the fee, and turned down the new salary demand. "I had hoped you would be satisfied to reap your financial harvest from the multiplicity of opportunities playing The Riddler has opened up for you, rather than attempt to exact a fatter stipend from Batman," Dozier wrote. "Our budget just can't stand it, as much as we shall dislike having to recruit another Riddler." (Gorshin was nominated for an Emmy for his role as The Riddler at the time, so this may have generated the William Morris insistence that Gorshin be paid more for his services.)

Among the proposed villains for the series was The Ghost, Rita the Ripper, The Corkscrew,The Calendar Man, The Dancer, The Eel (described as a slippery fellow), Lady Macbeth, and Two Face. Believe it or not, there was a teleplay written with Two Face as well as a number of plot proposals. None of them ever faced the camera. Had the series been renewed for a fourth season, Two Face would have almost become a certainty and consulting the production paperwork, it appears Clint Eastwood was slated for the role!

Frank Gorshin as The Riddler
By today's standards, the cost of television production was relatively cheap. The first two episodes of the series, considered the pilot, cost $572,000. Beginning with the second episode, each two-part episode averaged $205,000 each, and the total cost of the first season (all 17 hour shows) was $3,327,000. Situation comedies, reusing the same living room and office sets, cost much more in salary per half-hour episode!

The episode that intrigued me the most was one written by mystery writer Henry Slesar, "The Greatest Mother of Them All," with the beautiful Shelley Winters in the role. Dozier originally wanted Bette Davis to play the role, but she turned him down. The original draft was scripted late March 1966, titled "Mother's Day Madness." Dozier and Howie Horwitz loved the premise, offered suggestions, and Slesar submitted a revised synopsis in mid-April, titled "Mother of Them All." Obviously, it was re-titled before they went into production.

On August 19, 1966, Shelley Winters was disappointed with the production. She was not apparently aware of the format and felt, like Otto Preminger and George Sanders, the program was beneath her. Walking out the door on her way to the Ladies' Room, she slipped in a pool of water. The faucet, it was later determined, was leaking very badly and never repaired. She refused first aid treatment on the set, and was very boisterous in her opinion about the company, the production office and Fox studios. The television production was delayed approximately one half-hour. After Howie Horwitz talked to Shelley Winters, she settled down and decided to return to the set and shoot the remaining three shots she had on the picture. (According to an inter-office memo dated August 12, a week before the "accident," Shelley Winters disapproved of the wardrobe, holding the company up for 40 minutes.) It's no wonder Winters never made a return visit to the set.

Art Linkletter's possible appearance?
The program was extremely popular with children. Not so popular for adults. By the third and final season, Dozier pushed ABC to consider broadcasting the program in a once-a-week, hour-long time slot. ABC executives, proud of the successful format, avoided any consideration to change the program's format. Dozier presented polls and statistics that proved more than 50 percent of the audience preferred the show as an hour-long format. Dozier even referenced Lost in Space as an example. But ABC had statistics of their own: the ratings were slipping and the juvenile audience was now considering programs of a serious nature. Ironically, while the program's ratings were at an all-time low, Hollywood actors begging to be on the program, was at an all-time high. Some of the actors were motivated by their children, who asked their father or mother to try for a part. Joan Bennett and Greer Garson wanted to play a role (neither of them got the chance). Edward G. Robinson and Dick Clark accepted invitations. Celeste Holm called the studio and personally asked to play a role, having recently seen Anne Baxter as a Olga, Queen of the Cossacks/Zelda. Joan Crawford would have made an appearance, had she not been scheduled for Pepsi through the entire month of shooting an episode that Dozier felt she would have been perfect. Agnes Moorehead, Shirley Jones, Nanette Fabray, James Mason, Robert Morley, Rod Steiger and Raymond Massey were also among the list of celebrities who expressed an eagerness to play a special guest villain. Kirk Douglas would have, but had to reject the prospect  because he was venturing to Mexico for a film shoot at the time (and Douglas asked Dozier not to tell his kids because not appearing on the program would have disappointed them).

Censorship
Like NBC and CBS, ABC had their own Department of Broadcast Standards and Practices. The department reviewed each and every shooting script before filming and submitted a list of suggested modifications. This was to limit any possibility of a lawsuit from viewers (or concerned parents). After reviewing a ton of these "reports," some requests are obvious while others are definitely a charmer. In "Hizzonner, The Penguin," the network requested that none of the campaign buttons were identifiable as belonging to any actual organization or party. "Please modify Commissioner Gordon's second line [on page 40] so as not to completely disillusion the youth of this great country of ours," the network requested.

For "The Penguin's Nest," the network requested Bruce Wayne's line, "Good Lord," be replaced with something different. An added caution was to ensure the gun was not actually touching Aunt Harriet's head.

In "Come Back, Shame," ABC requested Shame's "dang" be replaced, theorizing that if he's speaking with a southern drawl, it might be mistaken as "damn." The network also requested that they eliminate the business of dropping the hot rivet down Rip's trousers. At the conclusion of part one, Batman and Robin were to be hung by the neck. The network objected, bold facing the word "UNACCEPTABLE," asking that the death threat come from another source, fearing young children pretending to be Batman and Robin might try to hang themselves in the same manner.

Archival Materials
For fans of the Batman television program, the archival letters, inter-office memos and production sheets from my collection were chosen at random. From time to time I have made copies of certain pages for serious researchers and authors, but my schedule is too hectic to answer every request. Rejects are almost certain. I understand that generating a blog post of this nature will more than likely generate a number of requests for scanned copies of the Batman collection, especially from obsessed fan boys, so please remember that the entire collection spans over 3,000 plus sheets of paper and I have not yet cataloged or filed every sheet of paper under categories so finding anything specific is a needle in a haystack. With this explanation, it is impossible to answer most requests.
 


Batman Meets Godzilla
After the success of the 1966 motion picture, in 1968, Dozier considered doing a sequel, Batman Meets Godzilla. A multi-page plot summary was composed for a feasible screenplay, with Commissioner Gordon and Barbara taking a well-deserved vacation in Tokyo. When the monster rises out of the water, Batman comes to the rescue. It's not known if a screenplay was ever developed, but it seems unlikely that the rights to using Godzilla for the Batman sequel was ever acquired.

According to a June 1966 issue of Hollywood Reporter, William Dozier was contemplating using the title Batman Encounters King Kong for the sequel. Gordon E. Youngman of Youngman, Hungate & Leopold (a law firm representing RKO General, Inc.) notified 20th Century Fox, and William Dozier, that permission would never be granted. According to the letter, the studio was currently negotiating the licensing of King Kong for a motion picture, and informed Fox that any use of the name or character would be an infringement. Dozier responded on June 28, stating "nothing could be further from the truth."

Conception sketch for Batgirl's costume.
Batgirl
For the third season of the program, Yvonne Craig was hired to play the role of Batgirl. Like the 1997 motion-picture, Batman and Robin, the addition of a female crime fighter was eye candy to a fan boy's fantasy. But the series was already doomed -- and perhaps three crime fighters are a bit too much. Dozier admitted in an inter-office memo that while nothing obvious was to be displayed on the screen, romance between Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon was going to be shadowed with Batman's concern for Batgirl's safety in the role of a female in peril. To introduce Batgirl to ABC and convince network executives that a female element was needed, a short pilot film was made in 1967. In 1974, a few years after the television program ended, Craig appeared as Batgirl in a film short, a Department of Labor public service announcement, advocating equal pay for women.

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl
January 1968: The Batmobile from the television series briefly became the official Batmobile of the comics (beginning with Detective Comics, issue #371). Twenty-three issues later, Batman abandons the Batmobile for something more modern and faster.

Tim Burton paid homage to the television program in the two Batman movies he directed. In Batman (1989), the Joker destroyed Gotham's art exhibit at the museum, and in Batman Returns (1992), the Penguin ran for mayor -- both of which were plots from the television program.

One positive side to come from the television program: the comic books underwent a drastic change from campy to a more darker, serious tone. In 1969, Dick Grayson (Robin) attended college. Batman moved from Wayne Manor into a penthouse apartment atop the Wayne Foundation building in downtown Gotham City, in order to be closer to Gotham City's crime. Batman spent the 1970s and early 1980s mainly working solo, with occasional team-ups with Robin and/or Batgirl. Batman's adventures also become somewhat darker and more grim during this period, depicting increasingly violent crimes, including the first appearance (since the early Golden Age) of an insane, murderous Joker, and the arrival of Ra's Al Ghul, who made an appearance in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005).

4 comments:

Ben Ohmart said...

Ms. Craig was a big reason I was a teen Batman fan!

John said...

Great tribute to a cult classic. I enjoyed all this backstage trivia in this post. Loved this show when I was a kid and couldn't get enough of it in all of its many rerun lives throughout the 70s. Periodically it shows up on a nostalgia station out here in Chicago and I watch all my old favorite episodes all over again. It was nonsense, but really rather brilliant nonsense. And the actors brave enough to let loose and go all out as the villains and villainesses really impressed me.

maishee said...

I miss the good old days. Watching
batman TV series before used to be my favorite pastime. Reading this article bring good memories of my childhood.

Andrew Godfrey said...

The original Batman TV series is currently being shown on the new Hub Network that started last fall and can be seen at various times.

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