Adam West (1928-2017) was born William West Anderson, raised in Walla Walla and Seattle, and found fame in the mid-1960s playing Batman in the camp television series of that name. After graduating from Whitman College and service in the army, West spent years working on the fringes of the entertainment industry in Hawaii and California. Handsome, muscular, and with a resonant baritone voice, he was eventually spotted by a talent agent. This led to supporting roles in TV dramas, acting in commercials, and very occasional film work until, in 1965, he was tapped to star in a new ABC series, Batman. The show was hugely popular, but West found himself typecast after its run ended, relegated to attending fan events in costume and taking small parts in bad movies. He regained a measure of fame and respect in the 1990s as a popular voice actor and entertaining talk-show guest, and in 2012 was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. After his death in 2017, his home town of Walla Walla honored West with an illuminated bat signal projected onto the tower of the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel.
High Camp on Pop Culture
In a 1965 poolside interview at the Kahala Hilton, actor Adam West sipped a rum Collins and told Honolulu Star-Bulletin "Who’s News" columnist Cobey Black to call him Bill -- short for the name he'd grown up with, William West Anderson. West was the star of an upcoming new series on ABC, already in the can, which he described as "a great spoof with Oscar Wilde dialogue," adding, "It's really going to fly. It's high camp on pop culture." He was right. Batman did take off.
West was born on September 19, 1928, in Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, although his family lived in Walla Walla. His birth certificate indicates his legal name was Billy West Anderson, but he soon became referred to officially as William. His 25-year-old father, wheat farmer Otto West Anderson, was the son of Swedish immigrants. His mother, Audrey Speer, 22, was a flamboyant beauty from a ranching family who had reigned as queen of the region's famed rodeo, Oregon's Pendleton Round-Up.
As a young woman, Audrey won a scholarship to study opera in Los Angeles. She was also a pianist. Early in her marriage, she and her husband Otto, along with baby Bill, went to live in the Hollywood Hills while she pursued a career. A second son, John, was born there. After three years, the Andersons returned to Walla Walla and the family farm. Audrey remained bitter that a career as a performer had eluded her, later telling her oldest son that his birth had thwarted her ambitions. For his part, Adam West always suspected that she resented his later show-business success, and also speculated that his mother's ambitions had somehow transferred to him. In his autobiography, West described her as a tragic figure -- headstrong, talented, alcoholic, and an untreated manic depressive.
Upon her return to Walla Walla, Audrey sought what glamor she could find there, entertaining any celebrity who came through town, including movie stars Alan Ladd, Nelson Eddy, and Jimmy Stewart, and opera diva Lily Pons. At the age of 10, West came home from school to find his restless mother in bed with a handsome local clergyman. West described his father Otto as "a strong, kind and decent man ... able to tough out the relationship for fourteen years."
'Rebellious False Starts' at Lakeside School
After his parents divorced, West and his brother John lived in Seattle with his mother and her new husband, neurosurgeon Paul Flothow, in a house West described as "a stone mansion." Audrey continued to entertain celebrities, including Yehudi Menuhin, General Jimmy Doolittle, and Duke Ellington.
West and his brother John visited Otto and his easygoing second wife Adele on the farm, attending kiddie matinees featuring western stars such as Hopalong Cassidy at Walla Walla’s Roxy Theatre, and playing cowboys on real horses. West attended Walla Walla High School for a while, but was expelled during his sophomore year. He became a boarder at Lakeside School, a private boys’ prep school catering to Seattle’s upper crust. There, he managed to get expelled again for sneaking out of the dorms after lights out with his lifelong friend Harry Hutchinson. The boys stole the keys to the school bus and drove to Tacoma to meet up with some girls and drink champagne. After his parents pleaded with the school, he was reinstated, provided he live in the on-campus home of a martinet math teacher, an ex-Navy officer, and his family. It is not known whether the drum set West had in his dorm room went with him to their house.
In what sounds like a medal-stripping ceremony for someone who has proven to be a disgrace to his regiment, West also had to surrender his athletic letters, cups, and medals. A 6-foot-2, 170-pound tackle -- he bulked up to 186 by the time of his Batman debut -- West was in the starting football lineup in both his junior and senior years. He also lettered in track, played basketball, acted as a cowboy in a school play, and was elected to student government.
The school paper described him as a sharp dresser -- "everything he wears is strictly red-hot" -- who looked good in clothes because of "that walk of his," hinted that he was a ladies' man, and noted that he had "a mellow and mellifluous voice." (That voice would later stand him in good stead.) When the Tatler ran a feature story listing which comic book characters their classmates most resembled, the bespectacled future Bruce Wayne was cast as Clark Kent. Lakeside’s 1946 yearbook’s student prophecy page had West headlining at the Trianon Ballroom billed as "Tex Anderson and his Walla Walla Cowhands."
Years later, West said that despite his "rebellious false starts," his time at Lakeside helped him find his footing and get "a real head start in life," as well as establish some lifelong friendships, and he expressed gratitude to the teachers who were "challenged rather than daunted by my restless spirits."
Studies at Whitman, Milk Runs in Jersey
After graduation, he borrowed his stepmother Adele’s car and drove straight to California, with his pal Harry. They boys told their parents they were getting a start on college life by taking summer classes at the University of California in Santa Barbara, but instead they headed straight for the beach to meet girls. Often self-deprecating, West later claimed that his friend Harry was a handsome youth who pulled the girls, adding "I was just the guy with the glasses who tagged along."
West chose to attend his father’s alma mater, Whitman College near Walla Walla, where he also pledged Otto Anderson’s old fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. He worked in canneries and on ranches during the summers, and graduated with degrees in literature and psychology. In 1950, his senior year, he married a fellow student, 17-year old Billie Lou Yeager.
After West graduated, he and Billie lived in a small house in Walla Walla owned by his grandparents. She worked at Sears and he was an announcer at a local radio station while saving for graduate school, where he planned to study communications. Graduate school at Stanford included working as a writer and reporter for the campus radio station, but that lasted only six weeks. Someone from the Sacramento-based McClatchy newspaper and broadcasting company heard that mellow and mellifluous voice and recruited West for one of their radio stations.
He was fired after a year, supposedly for some on-air outrageousness during commercials, and was subsequently drafted. The Korea conflict was underway, but his broadcasting experience got him assigned stateside to the army’s Signal Corps and assignments launching the army's first television stations in California and New Jersey and supervising a couple of majors. After his discharge, he worked as a milkman in New Jersey, saving money that financed a three-month budget trek through Europe with Billie.
A Fortuitous Call from Honolulu
While regrouping back at the farm in Walla Walla, a college friend in Honolulu suggested he and Billie come to Hawaii. The friend was the star of The Kini Popo Show, a local children's television show featuring a chimp named Peaches. West acted as a second sidekick on the show, wrote ad copy, and operated a flying service for tourists, eventually taking over as star of show and becoming a local celebrity. After the couple moved to Hawaii, his marriage to Billie ended in what he described as an amicable divorce in 1956. He soon married a Tahitian-born dancer, Ngatokoruaimatauaia Frisbie Dawson. West called her Nga. The couple had a daughter, Jonelle, in 1957, and a son, Hunter, in 1958.
A phenomenon known as the "adult western" was now dominating American television, and a vacationing Hollywood agent caught West's performance as the lead in a community theatre production of the William Inge play Picnic. The agent told West that that he looked like a cowboy and asked him to send him some pictures. West replied that he had grown up in a saddle and located a sad-looking horse with a bad case of mange for an amateurish photo shoot. The result was a contract with Warner Brothers, and a name change from Bill Anderson to Adam West. (The actor born Maxwell Henry Aronson, the world's first movie cowboy whose career in westerns went back to 1903 and The Great Train Robbery, had already staked a claim on the name Bronco Billy Anderson.)
West and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he became a busy actor in popular television shows including Cheyenne, Maverick, Bonanza, 77 Sunset Strip, Lawman, The FBI Story, Colt .45, Hawaiian Eye, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The Real McCoys, Bewitched, The Outer Limits, The Virginian, and more. He made his feature debut as a troubled bridegroom in The Young Philadelphians starring Paul Newman, co-starred with the Three Stooges in a western, shot a brace of pilots, including one starring William Shatner as Alexander the Great, won a recurring supporting role on a police show called The Detectives, and rode the range in an Italian spaghetti Western. In 1962, his second marriage ended in divorce, and he became a weekend father, getting along famously, he reported, with his ex-wife.
The Caped Crusader Catches On
During the 1965 fall television season, the ABC network’s ratings were in terrible shape, and the network sought a mid-season rescue. It planned to launch what it called "The Second Season" with a show based on Batman comic books as the linchpin. Muscular, square-jawed actor Lyle Waggoner auditioned for the part, and, presumably because he was fresh off a Nestlé's Quik commercial, so did Adam West. Like the proposed series, the ad was a tongue-in-cheek sendup of pop culture, with West as parody James Bond figure.
According to cultural critic Glen Weldon, although Waggoner had been favored for the part after his straightforward reading, West's unique voice immediately tipped the balance -- especially important when for a large part of the action in every episode, Batman’s face would be hidden by a static cowl and a mask. West explained in his 1994 biography that as Bruce Wayne, he used a world-weary voice that showed little emotion, coming across as uninvolved and placid. When suited up as the caped crusader, however, West indicated enthusiasm for his crime-fighting work vocally, using different registers to indicate emotion, pauses to reveal his thought processes as he solved puzzles as Basil Rathbone had done when playing Sherlock Holmes, and excitement as he arrived at a solution.
A huge publicity push was laid on before the January 12, 1966 premiere. It included skywriting over the Rose Bowl on New Year's day that announced "BATMAN IS COMING" and a "cocktail and frug" party at a hip New York disco. Preview audiences, including those at a New York screening attended by pop art icons Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, were less than enthusiastic.
But Batman was an immediate hit. It even launched an international dance craze. In a disco scene in the first episode, West added cape swirling and hand motions outlining his mask and bat ears to his dancing, and a variation on the popular Watusi -- the Batusi -- was born. In an era in which families watched television together in real time, children could enjoy the comic book action and heroics, while parents could enjoy the campy humor, sly jokes, and famous guest stars who portrayed the villains. Its core audience was made up of 1960s teenagers who relished the show's high-energy music and pop-art visuals and snickered at its protagonist's square moralizing about using seatbelts, drinking milk, and following rules.
The weekend after the series debuted, West was startled when he and his kids went skiing and everyone recognized him behind his goggles and without his Batman costume. Adam West's life would never be the same. The series lasted for three years, after which West was forever typecast. In his autobiography, he wrote " ... for better or worse, richer or poorer, I'm married to the cape." West later said he had always wanted to do comedy and he found the script hilarious, and he wanted the part, even though he knew roles in silly costumes could be career killers.
Making Peace With the Man Behind the Mask
West was wearing the costume when he met Marcelle Tagan Lear and her two young daughters at a promotional event at the Santa Monica airport, featuring a jet built by her husband's family company, Lear Jet. She had never see the television show, and thought the man in tights and cape was silly, until he removed his mask and they began talking. She decided instantly that he was charming, intelligent, and funny. He was enchanted by her French accent.
They married in November of 1970. His two children, Hunter and Jonelle Anderson, and hers, Moya and Jill Lear, whom West would go on to help raise, were in attendance. The couple had two children together -- Nina in 1976 and Perrin in 1979. West credited Marcelle with helping him through the emotionally tough years when his career was at a low ebb. The marriage lasted 46 years, until his death in 2017.
After Batman, the typecast West had a tough time getting what work he could, including attending fan events. He later said he felt at his lowest ebb when being shot out of a cannon in his Batman costume in Evansville, Indiana, and he occasionally borrowed money from his father Otto, still farming wheat in Walla Walla. He did voiceover work for an animated Batman series and appeared in low-budget movies with titles like Hell Riders, Zombie Nightmare, and Young Lady Chatterley Part II. When the director Tim Burton cast Michael Keaton in the 1989 Batman feature movie, West was nearly 60, but expressed sadness that he and Burt Ward, who had played Batman's ward and sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, weren't asked to audition. West pointed out that actor Buster Crabbe had reprised his Flash Gordon role in his seventies.
But as members of a younger generation who had grown up with West's Batman began making their mark in show business, things began to pick up. West revealed himself to be a witty guest on shows hosted by Howard Stern, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brian. By the 1990s he was launched on a new career as a voice actor working on animated shows such as The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as video games. Eventually, he gained fame once again as the voice and animated image of Mayor Adam West in the series Family Guy, a role he played, beginning in 2000, for more than 15 years. The scripts never mentioned Batman. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and the Batmobile were on hand on April 5, 2012, when the 83-year-old West received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
West also shot a dozen pilots over the years, one of which -- 1991’s Lookwell, about a vain and clueless washed-up television action hero who imagines he is an actual crime-fighter -- was co-written and produced by a young Conan O'Brien and gained a cult following on YouTube.
West died in Los Angeles on June 9, 2017, at the age of 88. He had been ill with leukemia for a short time. Walla Walla honored him by shining an illuminated bat signal -- like the one Commissioner Gordon had used to summon Batman in times of peril in Gotham City -- on the tower of the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. The local paper noted that, "He returned to Walla Walla regularly, and was well-known around town for his jovial nature." Marcus Whitman front office manager Jonathan Grant had become acquainted with West while he checked him into the hotel as a guest on visits to his hometown. Grant organized the first Adam West Day on what would have been West’s 89th birthday, Sept. 19, 2017. The event was attended by family members, local well-wishers and fans, and the celebration has become an annual event.
With his rugged good looks and sexy baritone voice, West was definitely leading-man material, but he also had a deft comic touch and playing a parody leading man typecast him for life. By all accounts, he handled the subsequent stalling of his career with grace and charm. In his later years, West came to terms with his startling career arc. He had both embraced Batman, and emerged as a beloved new character -- Adam West himself.