Our love affair with Batman’s best baddies.
By Damian Holbrook, ReMIND Magazine
Holy Hooligans, Batman!
In his 80 years of defending Gotham City, the Caped Crusader has assumed myriad incarnations, from his debut in 1939’s Detective Comics #27 to big-screen versions to FOX’s recently wrapped Gotham, which ended its five-season run with young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) finally slipping on the cowl. But as memorable (or maligned, Mr. Clooney) as the many Dark Knights have been, our hearts have always belonged to the rogues’ gallery of foils faced by Adam West’s Batman in the campy classic series of the same name.
Colorful, crazy and at times downright comical, these felonious sorts fit in perfectly with the show’s high-energy, low-budget approach to action, which was balanced by the stone-faced gravitas of Batman and sidekick Robin (Burt Ward). And while they surely seem tame by today’s superhero-show standards, at the time of Batman‘s 1966-68 run, this crew’s fondness for bloodless burglary and other underworldly activities was enough to keep fans tuning in to the same bat time and same bat channel! It didn’t hurt that most of the over-the-top outlaws were played by well-known stars from stage, screen and lounge acts.
Of course, there was the unholy trinity. With a background in comedy, impressionist Frank Gorshin was the perfect choice to bodysuit-up as The Riddler. Not only did the rubber-limbed actor — who had just starred opposite Hayley Mills in 1965’s That Darn Cat! — appear as the show’s inaugural evildoer, but his turn as the quizzical thief also scored him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy.
Already a film star in his own right, Burgess Meredith followed up his unforgettable 1959 appearance as a book lover surrounded by tomes in The Twilight Zone‘s postapocalyptic “Time Enough at Last” with his equally iconic take on The Penguin. Elements of his monocle-sporting, top-hatted gangster informed future iterations in both print and celluloid, such as Robin Lord Taylor’s classic-inspired costume as The Penguin in the Gotham finale.
Rounding out this terrible trio was Cesar Romero, a film legend famous for playing copious Latin lovers, who earned his place in the Batman canon as The Joker. That pale face and green hair, the magenta suit, his cackling laugh … for generations, Romero’s garish, ghoulish portrayal has been the quintessential Clown Prince of Crime. He was even named one of TV Guide Magazine‘s “60 Nastiest Villains of All Time” in 2013. Not too shabby for a guy who had the makeup department use heavy white grease paint to cover up the mustache he refused to shave for his episodes!
Now, behind every strong Batman is a stronger Catwoman, and West had three of them over the course of the show! After winning a Tony for Broadway’s The Marriage-Go-Round, singer-dancer Julie Newmar sank her claws into the cat-burglar gig for the first two seasons, while original “Santa Baby” chanteuse Eartha Kitt proved to be a purrfect fit for the role in Season 3. Due to prior commitments, Newmar was unavailable to film the Batman movie that was released in theaters between the first and second seasons, so 1955’s Miss America Lee Meriwether was brought in for the job. She would later guest-star as a love interest for Bruce Wayne who wound up in the clutches of frequent troublemaker King Tut — deliciously played by Victor Buono, the avuncular character actor who’d received Oscar and Golden Globe nods for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? four years earlier.
Other femme fatales included All About Eve‘s Oscar-winning lead actress Anne Baxter as Zelda the Great, the bank-robbing magician behind the abduction of Bruce Wayne’s dear Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake). The future Marcus Welby, M.D. standout resurfaced in the final run of episodes as well, only this time in the fur-trimmed guise of Olga, Queen of the Cossacks. Her fab Russian colluded to pilfer a priceless artifact from the Gotham City Museum in a multi-part episode that marked the series return of horror-movie staple Vincent Price as the big-brained baddie Egghead … and Olga’s love interest!
And they weren’t the only famous folks wreaking hilarious havoc under Commissioner Gordon’s watch, either. The producers wisely recruited a slew of celebrities and set them loose to be as outlandish as their eye-popping costumes. “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle, dropped in for two episodes as Louie the Lilac, a diabolical perfume peddler dumb enough to take on Batgirl (Yvonne Craig). Cliff Robertson, fresh from starring as a young JFK in 1963’s PT 109, raised hell as Shame, the cowboy criminal responsible for a pair of thefts during Seasons 2 and 3. And Oscar-nominated director Otto Preminger went so far as to ask executive producer William Dozier, a longtime pal, for a role on the popular series, leading to his strangely surreal one-episode stint as Mr. Freeze. The cryogenic crook with the ice-blast gun was later played by Eli Wallach, the prolific film star of The Misfits and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, who has admitted that he garnered more fan mail for Freeze than all of his other roles.
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