Mar 26, 2016

Adam West: Playing Gay before Batman

In the 1960s, when my friends and I watched the camp superhero series Batman (which, by the way, we didn't realize was camp), we zeroed in on Burt Ward's Dick Grayson/Robin, because he was a teenager, and because of incredibly bulgeworthy costume.  We all but ignored Adam West's Bruce Wayne/Batman.

During the decades since Batman ended, Adam West has had a substantial career playing quirky, out-of-touch parodies of himself on everything from The Adventures of Pete and Pete to Family Guy (where he plays "himself" as the Mayor of Quahog). Delightfully quirky, but not much in the muscle department.

But before Batman, the future Caped Crusader was a bona fide beefcake star.

Born in 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington, West started his career in comedy, as the host of a live children's show in Hawaii and someone named "Ham Ector" on the Philco Playhouse, but in 1959 he moved to Hollywood to join the beefcake craze -- dozens of hunky actors, many discovered by Henry Willson, were tearing up the screens with shirtless and swimsuit shots.

He became very busy immediately, with 10 roles in 1959 alone, notably in The Young Philadelphians, as a man who cannot consummate his marriage for unspecified reasons (i.e., he's gay). He rushes off and dies in an auto accident.  His wife has sex with someone else, and his "son" grows up to be Paul Newman.

 During the next few years, West guest starred in Westerns -- Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, Bronco -- notably fighting "Tarzan" Jock Mahoney on Laramie.  He starred in swinging detective dramas and sitcoms, and in 1961 he got his own tv series, The Detectives.  His movie credits included Tammy and the Doctor, the gay-subtext classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and the hunk-meets-feral-girl Mara of the Wilderness.

Then came Batman, and everything changed.  Beefcake roles were hard to come by: West played Cleander opposite William Shatner's Alexander in Alexander the Great (1968), and a two-fisted adventurer in The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969), but his presence alone made them campy.

Like many men of his generation, West is somewhat homophobic; in the 1980s, he was flown to London to appear at an event, but when he discovered that it was gay-themed, he refused to appear.  More recently he has commented on the gay undertones of Batman: "gay, straight, whatever.  Add them to the ratings.  If gays like the show, wonderful!"

See also: Lane's Hookup with the Joker.

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