The death of Adam West on Saturday (June 10) at the age of 88 marked the end of an era for generations of TV fans. Sure, West was known for guest appearances in recent years on shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, and did a lot of voiceover work, but was of course best known for his portrayal of the Caped Crusader in the campy but fun TV series Batman. West’s deadpan delivery made the character the stuff of legend. A silly show turned into a major hit and a cultural capstone.
Just how big are we talking, anyway? The final ratings for the 1965-66 television season show Batman in 5th place with about 14.5 million viewers each week. That’s for the Thursday edition. The Wednesday night airing finished in 10th place with 13.3 million viewers a week. Since the show premiered in January of 1966, it only had a half a season to put up such numbers. To put that into perspective: there were 53.8 million households with television in 1966. The top-rated show in 2017 was NCIS, with about 14.6 million viewers a week. Consider that there’s a lot more households now, and you can see just how popular Batman was in 1966. Interestingly, by the 1966-67 season, the show was gone from the Top 30 entirely, and by March 1968 it was gone from the primetime schedule. Batman was television’s one-hit wonder, in a sense.
Radio wasn’t left out of the excitement. In Chicago, WLS jumped on the Batman bandwagon. DJ Ron Riley had a Batman club, and listeners mailed in for membership cards and buttons to be a part of it. Riley gave commentary on his show about the program for listeners to keep up with the series. Not to be outdone, crosstown rival WCFL created its own superhero – Chickenman – whose exploits, created by production director Dick Orkin, were very popular.
Musically, the theme song was big business. Neal Hefti wrote the music. (Technically, he wrote the words, too – but since there’s only one word in the lyric it might be stretching it a bit.) His original version was released as a single by RCA and made it to #35 in March of 1966. The cover version by the Marketts fared better: it made it to #17 and was on the charts at the same time as Hefti’s version. Hefti went on to compose another very memorable theme song – “The Odd Couple.” (He wrote all of the incidental music for the film version as well, which is worth hearing.) The song was also done by Nelson Riddle (that’s the version that you heard on the TV show), the Ventures, Al Hirt, and some unexpected versions by The Who and The Kinks.
The musical influence of the show didn’t stop there. Jan and Dean got in on the craze, releasing a whole album based on the adventures of Batman. The LP turned out to be their last, but the single – “Batman” – made it to #66, also in March of 1966. And, of course, the appearance of Lesley Gore on the show as Pussycat, performing “California Nights,” helped the song to become her last major hit. (We won’t talk about Prince’s 1989 movie soundtrack here – that’s best for another day.)
There’s been a lot written about Batman in the last day or so, and many people who either remember the show and haven’t seen it in years have been hunting down episodes. Younger students of television are now figuring out what the fun is all about. (If you’re new to the show, start with the pilot. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.) It’s silly fun, and some days we need a little of that. Adam West certainly knew that, and relished the Batman role until the end.