Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Bat-Road Not Taken

How different the world might have been...

This is the screen test for Billy Anderson and Berton Gervis (you may know them by other names) for the Batman tv show.

If you go to 4:45 at this clip, you can see how the scene was actually played in the show:

Quite similar, except for Burt's embarrassingly absurd imitation of a train whistle.

But the producers of the show had another choice; they could have chosen the other pair who were tested for the role.  And, oh, what a different world we might be living in if they had.

Here, if you've never seen it, is the Batman screen test for Lyle Waggoner and Some Kid Who Was a Better Stunt Man than Actor.  

In fact, if you compare the two screen tests, you'll notice several things.

(1) Lyle Waggoner, despite his ridiculously full hairdo and puffy period face, was much hotter than I remember.  He actually looks like he could THWACK! you into the next panel with one punch.

Holy beefcake, Batman!

(2).  Both sets of actors take the material seriously.

(3).  The West/Ward test feels much more... substantial.  More cinematic.  More 'big-screen' than 'small-screen'. More...real?

Despite what some people might think, you can't just say "Adam and Burt were playing it for laughs." It's not that simple and it's something that most people don't really appreciate.  

Remember, this is the first episode in the series and there's very little sense of 'knowingly camp' about it.  If you set aside your knowledge of where the series went and watch the West/Ward test again, you'll be hard pressed to find any evidence that they are 'playing it for laughs'. If anything, they are playing seriously, deadly seriously, more seriously than Waggoner/Deyell.

Which is why it wound up being so much funnier.  Which is the genius of West.

Now, we all love Television's Lyle Waggoner. Who cannot love the 'Steve Trevor' of the 1970s Wonder Woman show?  Every time I see him, I expect to see a superimposed cartoon sparkle on his teeth, just like in the intro to Wonder Woman.   Great guy, good actor, funny fellow; perfectly capable of playing it both "straight" and "for laughs".  

But watch him in the clip above.  Yes, he's serious. But the whole issue of Batman's identity being exposed by the Riddler seems like... an annoyance.  "And after all that work I did decorating the cave!  How...tedious!  *eyeroll*  Now where am I going to wear this bat outfit?"  Yes, it's a serious problem for him.  For HIM.

Now watch Adam West.  West doesn't take the scene less seriously; he takes it MORE seriously.  It's breathless, momentous drama. Starman-level drama.  He pauses at times as if he's barely able to bring himself to face the terrible consequences of the situation.  The possible unmasking of Batman isn't merely a problem for him; it's a problem for the WORLD (at least the world of Gotham City).   This is the key to making a comic book world acceptable; it must be larger than life or it simply doesn't work.

Here's another example; it's Adam West appearing as both himself and Batman on some old tv variety show hosted by Milton Berle.  [I don't recommend watching the whole thing; it's got painful goofiness by Martha Ray, Adam West crooning a rather touching love song, and that just might be Olan Soule doing the voiceover on the closing commercial]

In the opening few minutes, West is not only capable of playing it perfectly straight against Berle's antics, he's about 50 times funnier than Berle as a result.    The fifteen seconds in which he straight-facedly describes the Batmobile is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen on television; it is quite literally as if Batman has dropped in from a completely different world. 

Berle was a comic giant, for sure, but no one ever accused him of being a sophisticated comic.  He mugged, went for the obvious punchlines, and wore dresses for laughs.  But Adam West?  There's a sophisticated comedian with a deft touch.

The tables were turned not longer after, when Berle guest-villained on Batman as the flower-themed gangster Louie the Lilac.  What could possible be more ridiculous?  And yet...

Note how seriously Berle takes his role.  Despite groovy-talking hippies and giant man-eating plants, Berle is completely committed to portraying Louie the Lilac as a serious and threatening gangster. There's not a hint of winking irony on Berle's part; following suit in the game he was joining, Berle played it just as straight as West did.  In fact, he's kind of scary in his earnestness. 

West's genius is such that it still refreshes and surprises, even fifty years later.  The other day (doing research) I watched an episode where someone compliments Robin on being well read.  Robin says, essentially, that one of the nice things about working with Batman is that he helps him learn about literature and such between bouts of fighting criminals.  To which, Batman says, "But enough discussion of prose and cons; let's go, Robin!"

I'm sure I must have seen him say that about 30, maybe 50 times in my life, without batting an eye.  Finally.... I got the joke.  And laughed my fool head off.  So serious was West's delivery that it had never occurred to me to look for an underlying joke; and it was so much more delightful when I finally found one.

Lyle Waggoner would have been a great Batman.  But I'm glad they chose Adam West, because Adam West made Batman great.


SallyP said...

Lyle Waggoner tried out for Batman? I did NOT know this!

I also cannot conceive of anyone other than Adam West playing that role. Or Lyle playing Steve on Wonder Woman. I grew UP on that television!

But yes, Adam West doesn't get enough credit.

Bryan L said...

I think Lyle suffers by sharing the screen with Peter. As an actor, Deyell is pretty ... well, bad. Lyle's low-key delivery plus Mr. Wooden isn't a good combination. West and Ward seem much more intense and energetic by comparison -- it's easy to see why they won the roles. And on a more superficial note, West and Ward have deeper voices. Deyell's chirping sounds annoying compared to them.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that Lyle Waggoner sure is full of plum-smuggly goodness, isn't he?

Straight men (har har) can make for the best comedians; John Lithgow had no comedy experience before "Third Rock from the Sun", but all he had to do was take himself absurdly seriously and it worked.

"Yeah, whose baby are you, Batgirl?" It's a legitimate question: if she'd inherited a fortune from her parents that would be one thing, but being the daughter of a civil servant is quite another. The fact that she can afford her Batgirl lifestyle on a librarian's salary was an early clue that she's crazy smart, like to an Oracle degree.

Anonymous said...

... and in the post-Crisis world, Babs was no longer Commissioner Gordon's daughter, and it's unclear whose daughter she is in the nu52. So yeah, whose baby are you, Batgirl?