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Adam West's 'Bright Knight' was the best Batman ever

Commentary: The Dark Knight's tortured persona has its appeal, but give me Adam West's suave and charming 1960s hero any day.

Adam West in Batman
"Batman" star Adam West was well aware of the show's campy intent, yet he also had a grace and confidence that made the series work.
Getty Images

Announcing Adam West's death on Saturday at age 88, his family used a certain phrase.

"Our dad always saw himself as The Bright Knight, and aspired to make a positive impact on his fans' lives." reads a statement quoted by CBS News. "He was and always will be our hero."

That phrase, the Bright Knight, perfectly sums up the character West played on the "Batman" TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968. Those of us who grew up with West as our Batman remember how very different it was when the Dark Knight of later movies came along. Sure, the 1960s show West headed was one step away from a cartoon, but its very delicious tongue-in-cheek style was the point, and no one knew that better than West.

His Batman was the kind who could say to young Robin (Burt Ward), "They may be drinkers, Robin, but they're also human beings." He could request shark repellent spray while an obviously plastic shark chowed down on his leg like a kid gnawing a pacifier. He could face with aplomb such death-defying dangers as being sewn into a mattress or left to suffocate in sand inside a giant hourglass.

His villains were kooky and their weapons ever weirder -- the Mad Hatter had a "Super Instant Mesmerizing Device" that popped two eyes out of the top of his hat and shot energy bolts at its victim. Cesar Romero reportedly didn't want to shave his mustache for his role as The Joker, so the makeup crew just smeared white face paint over it. Flamboyant pianist Liberace played a criminal pianist -- and his identical twin, because that was how this show rolled. In the hands of a lesser hero, West's series would've been snorted off the screen. 

A film version of the TV series made its way to theaters in 1966.

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But because West carried with him an innate grace and confidence, the show always worked. His Batman could quote Edgar Allan Poe to the ladies, and filled out a tuxedo like he was born wearing it. Suave movie stars played Bruce Wayne in later years, even dashing George Clooney, but none seemed as to the manor born as West.

The show could've been a flop. It was so campy and so over-the-top, and there's a fine line between a show you laugh at and a show you laugh with. West walked that line in every episode, and because he sold it so well, you bought it. 

The character of Batman carries a grimmer shadow now. He's often played as the Dark Knight, a man hurting, a rich guy who could just as easily hole himself up in "stately Wayne Manor" and never be seen again. But West's Bright Knight was always out in the light, fighting his way out of hourglasses and mattresses, saving the world.

Adam West at Comic-Con in New York last year.

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There's a great scene in the 1966 theatrical "Batman" film where West's Caped Crusader is carrying a gigantic comic bomb, its fuse ablaze. He dashes from corner to corner but can't find a safe place to dispose of it -- he runs into a group of full habit-wearing nuns out for a stroll, then a mother pushing a baby carriage, then a jolly band playing music. Finally when he thinks he can drop the bomb safely into the water, he sees a family of ducks swimming below, and West's Batman was not the kind who'd murder a fleet of ducklings, even to save himself. 

"Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb," he famously declares. 

But he finds a way, because Adam West's Batman always found a way. That was what the Bright Knight did. That is why we'll always miss him.

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