Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Correct, Frank Gorshin

Frank Gorshin, who played the Riddler on the Batman live-action TV series of the late 1960s, has died. One second after I read it on-line, there was a moment of silence ... broken suddenly by his manic Riddler giggle (it's a sound snippet that occasionally turns up on Superhero Radio, which I had on at the time). It was very creepy; but then again, Frank's the one who made the Riddler creepy to begin with.

The Riddler was very good to Frank Gorshin. Before he got the role, he was, in his own words, a nobody. As the Riddler, he skyrocketed to overnight fame, and became a headliner in Vegas. As a multitalented actor/comedian/impressionist, he never faded into 'has-been status' but maintained a respectable career, capped by his acclaimed performance as George Burns in a one-man show. Unlike some actors who came to resent the typecasting that followed their career-making roles, Gorshin was grateful to the Riddler.

But the reverse is equally true. The Riddler had been around for over a decade before he "met" Frank, and had only managed two appearance and not much notoriety. The Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, Catwoman; those were Batman's recurring enemies. The Riddler was more like the answer to a trivia question: "What seldom-seen Batman enemy once robbed a bank underwater?"

With Frank's portrayal, the Riddler came to life in a way he never had on paper. The mania that drove him, the nearly unrestrained enthusiasm for his crimesprees and peculiar M.O. made the Riddler the very picture of brilliant obssessive/compulsive (before we even had a word for it, I think). The Riddler became a A-list villian instantly, solely on the strength of Gorshin's bracing performances. So committed was he to his vision of how the Riddler should be, that after John Astin took his place in the role for an episode, Frank was driven to return as the Riddler just to see the character portrayed properly.

The Riddler has had some bumpy patches on his road since then, as inferior and unimaginative writers, unable to rise to the demands of writing such an intellectual villain in a complex way, took the easy way out. Rather than struggling to craft appropriately elaborate schemes and clues for the Riddler, they copped out and wrote him as a buffoon, a has-been, a mere annoyance. Recently, he received a well-deserved redux, and remains a challenging and intriguing villain not just for Batman but for the entire DCU. But that never would have happened without Frank.

They were good for each other, and for us.


Doctor Sordid said...

Nice tribute, well said.

naladahc said...

He was probably the only thing I can still tolerate from the Batman TV show.

He did a mean Kirk Douglas too.

Mike Loughlin said...

When I was a kid, the Riddler became my favorite villain because of Frank Gorshin's portrayal.

Oh, and because he wore green.

Shane Bailey said...

All the Batman villains had great laughs on that show.

Scipio said...

Anyone who can hold his own on screen with Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Adam West at the same time is darned good in my book!