BOOTLEG FILES 317: “Batman” (1966-1968 television series)
LAST SEEN: It has been a staple of TV syndication for years.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It appears to be tied up in some sort of messy licensing and rights clearance miasma.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: In the future, perhaps, but not on the near-horizon.
The classic television series “Batman” had a very profound impact on my life at two very different levels. First, I learned how to write from the program – its pop art fight sequences that flashed words like “Biff!” and “Pow!” and “Ouch!” across the screen emboldened the four-year-old version of me to pick up my crayons and duplicate the words on my drawing pads. While some people have crassly stated that the clarity of my penmanship hasn’t progressed that much since those crayon days, at least I got an idea of how to put words on paper.
Second, “Batman” also gave me the notion of pursuing a future career. In this case, it was being a superhero – for which I trained by tying my mother’s apron around my neck (it was the closest thing I had to a cape) and jumping off the living room furniture. Needless to say, I didn’t go very far in that career path, but it appears that the world got along quite well without my saving it.
Nonetheless, “Batman” was always a source of entertainment throughout my life. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the comedy elements of the screenplay and the strength of its all-star line-up of guest villains. Since I was never a comic book addict, I didn’t share the displeasure that many people have with the goofier camp elements of the production – and, to be blunt, just how much heavy drama can one truly invest in stories where a man dressed in a bat outfit runs around chasing a man who thinks he’s a penguin?
Surprisingly, “Batman” was constantly plagued with problems. It was originally intended in the early 1960s as a serious superhero series based on the Bob Kane comic book, with former football star Mike Henry in the title role. However, the success of the offbeat spy series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, coupled with a then-growing cult following for the cheesy 1940s Republic Pictures serials based on the comic book, suggested that a somewhat more whimsical approach to the subject could be tried.
However, the test screenings for “Batman” were legendary for their complete and utter failure. The audiences who previewed the program didn’t know what to make of it, and the network tried inserting a laugh track to cue viewers that the show was not to be taken seriously. ABC decided to hold the program’s debut from its original September 1965 to a midseason January 1966 launch. This gave the network a longer lead time to build up the promotion for the show, and those marketing efforts went to great length to drop broad hints that this program was being played in the spirit of fun rather than serious adventure.
With unknowns Adam West and Burt Ward cast as Batman and Robin, the series put a special emphasis on having guest stars play the larger-than-life villains. At first, the casting was along the B-list line: movie tough guy Cesar Romero was cast as the Joker (Romero would later express bafflement as to why he was chosen, since comedy was never his forte), ex-blacklisted character actor Burgess Meredith came in as the Penguin, minor comic Frank Gorshin was hired as the Riddler and second-tier sexpot Julie Newmar was tapped as Catwoman.
Incredibly, it all clicked. “Batman” took off with unprecedented popularity. ABC, traditionally the third place network in the ratings, enjoyed a rare spike by the success of the twice-a-week series. Merchandising related to the show flooded the retail markets, and some department stores devoted entire sections to Batman-related goods. The program’s guest list expanded beyond the B-list, with major stars such as Shelley Winters, George Sanders, Cliff Robertson, Vincent Price and Tallulah Bankhead (in her final screen role) joining the miscreant parade while notables including Jerry Lewis, Edward G. Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr. popped up in unbilled cameo appearances. Even the chart-topping pop group Paul Revere and the Raiders turned up in one episode. Reportedly, the show’s producers fielded guest requests from Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson and Natalie Wood, but no one could figure out how to accommodate these luminaries. (Clint Eastwood was supposedly tapped to play the villain Two-Face, but an adequate script was never developed and the star never appeared on the program.)
Yet not everyone was enamored by “Batman.” The National Safety Council was appalled at the sight of Batman and Robin jumping into the Batmobile and driving off without wearing seatbelts. The show’s producers, realizing the large youth audience watching each week, belatedly inserted a quick clip of the superheroes buckling up before each ride.
Even more troubling, audiences began to get weary of “Batman” almost as quickly as they embraced the show. A feature film based on the program hit theaters in the summer of 1966, but it was not a commercial success. And ratings for the series’ second season did not duplicate the initial run, which surprised everyone associated with the show.
“Batman” was able to hang on for a third season renewal, but ABC ordered changes to refresh was being seen as a stale show. The twice-a-week episode offering was cut to one episode a week and a new Batgirl character (played by Yvonne Craig) was added to sex up the cast. New villains were also devised to refresh the proceedings – film stars Barbara Rush and Joan Collins plus Broadway legend Ethel Merman came in. Julie Newmar’s decision not to return as Catwoman provided the chance for a social statement by recasting the role with sultry singer Eartha Kitt as television’s first African American villain.
But by March 14, 1968, “Batman” more than wore out its welcome and the show was cancelled. The producers were hopeful that it would be picked up by another network, but when no offers came they decided to demolish the show’s extravagant sets. As luck would have it, NBC made an offer after the sets were torn down – but the Peacock Network balked at having to pay to rebuild the sets, so the show died for good.
“Batman” went into syndicated reruns and was a staple of local TV stations for years – I came to show when it was an afternoon offering on the independent WPIX-TV in New York City. Subsequent generations came to both love and hate the program – the two film franchise revivals of “Batman” made blatantly self-conscious efforts to avoid the campier elements of the television production.
Strangely, the “Batman” series has never been available for home entertainment release. The most obvious theory has been an alleged feud between 20th Century Fox as the series’ producer and Warner Bros. as the studio that owns the Batman character – but that doesn’t explain why the 1966 feature film has been on VHS video and DVD. A more likely problem would involve the tangled web of licensing issues that involve a larger number of companies and individuals. There is no evidence that any of this will be cleared in the near future, despite a number of false hope alarms raised over the years.
However, the program has remained in syndication without any problem. Enterprising bootleggers have compiled all 120 episodes into unauthorized DVD anthologies, while numerous clips have been posted in full violation of copyright laws on YouTube. “Batman” still lives, albeit in a shadowy manner.
Someday, perhaps, the show will finally turn up in an official DVD release. Until such time, Batman and Robin will be welcomed guests in the bootleg environment.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!