Adam West may not have been the first Batman—the Caped Crusader appeared in a few 1940s serials long before West donned the cowl—and the brood-dudes who followed definitely overshadowed him. But to my mind, no actor ever made the Dark Knight quite so delightful as West, who died Friday at the age of 88.
From the very first episode of the dayglo-a-go-go Batman series, which premiered on January 12, 1966, West almost intuitively understood the best way to play an oddball gazillionaire-turned-vigilante: Make him the least outwardly crazy figure in a world of over-the-fop bad guys and ding-a-ling bureaucrats. His Batman (and, of course, his Bruce Wayne) was always the smartest, most sincere guy in the room, and West dedicated himself to that portrayal throughout the series’ three-season run: Announcing Bat-clues with his patient, dry-as-driftwood delivery; imparting moral lessons with eager earnestness; and expressing disgust at the latest Joker or Egghead scheme with the same shocked surprise. West’s Batman was always this close to nutso, but he never winked, literally or figuratively (you would have known; back then, you could still get a look at Batman’s eyes). The result remains one of the most wonderfully comical, anti-ironic TV performances of all time. Call it campy if you want; to me, it was straight catnip.
West was a nearly-middle-aged screen veteran by the time Batman debuted, having starred in a series of westerns, TV dramas, and sci-fi B-movies (including the fun-dumb 1964 classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars). And even though Batman didn’t last long—and despite a post-show career drought through the ’70s and into the ’80s—the character followed West everywhere he went, often in wonderful ways. In 1991, he played a former TV detective trying to get into the crime-fighting biz in Lookwell, a pilot co-written by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel that elevated West’s straight-faced, quasi-oblivious Bat-demeanor to deconstructionist heights. After that, he sent up his own post-fame persona with a mock-suave turn on The Simpsons. And he appeared in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series as the Gray Ghost, a hero whose secret identity just happened to be a frustrated back-in-the-day TV star.
West himself, though, never seemed to lament his small-screen past, regularly appearing at conventions and reprising his vintage Batman for a 2015 Robot Chicken special and last year’s animated movie Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. He also signed on to voice the character for the upcoming Batman vs. Two-Face.
Those efforts will stand as West’s last turn as Batman, whom he often called “the Bright Knight,” and who inhabited a small-screen world that seemed Silly Putty’d straight from the comic books, full of jarring colors, askew angles, and fly-off-the-page one-word sound effects. As a result, you might be tempted to consider West’s quietly absurdist version of the character as the most lightweight—after all, his Bruce Wayne always seemed relieved to step into his Batsuit, not out of it. But for those of us who grew up watching Batman reruns, couch-hopping madly in Bat-ticipation of that amazing theme song, watching him fend off everything from sharks to cats, West remains the eternal Batman: The charmingly goofy, kind-hearted hero who made being the good guy seem like a blast—so long as you took it semi-seriously. If the semi-broken freak of the Bale/Affleck years is the only Batman you know, I implore you: Go West, young fan.