I love the new era of micro documentaries. Seemingly everything of any significance gets a feature-length retrospective. My favorite among these act more as self promotion platforms and invitations for audience involvement. Even if they don’t work as films, I still feel invested in the outcome. After watching “Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth” I wished I had a club to book him. “Searching for Sugarman” of course incites a righteous rage to recover Sixto Rodriguez’s royalties.
“Starring Adam West” frames its structure around the quest to get West’s career recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but hidden underneath is promotion for a very active performer. Look at the crowds he draws at comic cons, potential organizers. Look at how gracious he is with the fans and the staff alike! Did you know Adam West is now an enthusiastic voice over artist open to more work? Have a late night talk show? Well Adam West is a reliable guest who can carry multiple appearances a year.
West’s agent puts the actor among Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and Roger Moore, all of whom came up through the death of the studio system and bid their time in TV roles until breaking big in iconic cinema roles. Whatever the real charms of West’s performances he’s simply not in that lot (excepting maybe Roger Moore). A better comparison is with Hogan Heroes star Bob Crane, chronicled in the interesting “Auto Focus”.
Both West and Crane hit at the dawn of TV’s color period in stylish, self aware junk culture confections. They epitomized a class of guileless, clean faced, plain spoken midwestern Americans. Blessed with being just the right age to dodge the major military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and tenacious enough to bide their time for years in radio and local TV while working toward their big breaks.
They were cast as clever, resourceful beacons in a deranged world. Behind the scenes they were young men, famous and handsome enough to have their pick of any woman. Both struggled with doing right by their children while satisfying their appetites. West even manages to become single at just the peak of his fame.
West’s complicated relationship with his most famous role takes up most of the film. The cancellation of Batman and the cruel transition from being a pop culture darling to joke plunged West into a decades worth of self loathing and alcoholism.
Desperate for work and with six children to care for, he frequents dinner theater and auto shows during the lean years. In public appearances he always wore the Batman cowl, never assuming that the audiences were coming to see him and not the character.
But unlike Crane who wound up bludgeoned to death pursuing his vices, West managed to put his affairs into order. He moved his family to Idaho where they could enjoy a high quality of life at a lower cost of living. Through increasingly frequent appearances on hip radio and tv talk shows, he established a new persona, one of Adam West: a font of oblivious, skewed dad-humor. After all “Adam West” was the invention foisted onto William Anderson, farm boy from Walla Walla, Washington, why not broaden the screen name into a full fledged character? He became a lesser Lloyd Bridges or Leslie Neilsen, available for projects as Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, and Seth MacFarlane broke into television.
At the same time comic books were enjoying a resurgence off the back of Tim Burton’s Batman feature. For years the campy Batman series was held up as a pariah that the comics industry spent years fighting. By the early nineties the mainstream companies pivoted so far into the dark, serious, and nihilistic they circled right back to “camp” without realizing it. West was synonymous with his character and received much of the vitriol. Everything was fighting against “Adam West’s” Batman (I never once heard the show referred to as “Burt Ward’s”).
With the release of Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman film, the mood shifted. The comic book industry offered detente and accepted West’s Batman as an important part of their legacy in pop culture. All this was formalized In an episode of Batman The Animated Series where he played the “Gray Ghost” a fictional crime fighter who’d influenced Bruce Wayne, though sadly skipped in this documentary.
There’s little more to it than that. West regains his career and even gets a nice little Hollywood Star to codify it. Once again, he’s ready to work just give the word!