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Cathy's World: Holy nostalgia, Batman!

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   March 5, 2003 at 6:36 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, March 5 (UPI) -- One of the oddest ratings successes in recent years was the TV movie "Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Running Three-Hour Tour in History," a surprise hit for CBS in the fall of 2001.

Now the same team (executive producers Paul Kaufman and Dawn "Mary Ann" Wells and scriptwriter Duane Poole) has come up with another wallowing-in-nostalgia treat: the TV movie "Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt," which airs Sunday on CBS.

"Return to the Batcave" uses the same mix-it-up technique as "Surviving Gilligan's." Dramatized scenes of the stars in their heyday -- young actors playing Adam West and Burt Ward as they once were -- are combined with the actual stars as they are today.

The new twist here is that Batman's and Robin's alter egos are now involved in "a modern-day caper comedy adventure," as Adam West described it in his famously halting, kitschy "Batman" delivery, a good-naturedly ridiculous and entirely imaginary story involving the theft of the Batmobile from a charity event.

So the Dynamic Duo -- Adam West, now 74, and Burt Ward, 57 -- take off in hot (if somewhat creaky) pursuit after the mysterious bad guys, just like in the old days. Old foils like the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) come along for the ride.

"Batman" was one of the defining hits of the '60s TV, an overnight sensation when it debuted on CBS in 1966, though it got the worst test scores in television history.

Just as "Get Smart" had every smart-aleck kid announcing "Sorry about that!" as he shoved in the cafeteria line, and "Laugh-In" inspired a million inane impressions of "Sock it to me" around office water coolers, "Batman" had countless adolescents humming (or pounding out, two-fingered style on the piano) the first few measures of that buzzy, three-note theme song.

That particular demographic was the key to the show's phenomenal success.

"The hardest audience to reach at that time was teenagers and college kids," Adam West noted at the CBS news conference. "Older adults would watch television -- it was convenient -- and kids liked the hero worship. But it was almost impossible to get the segment we got, and we got it because we had double entendres."

"We used to say that we put on the tights to put on the world," West added.

But, as he emphasizes to a fan in the movie, "Batman" was not camp.

"No, no," he insists. "It's farce! Social satire! A lampoon!"

The "Batman" craze was especially astonishing to Burt Ward, who was just 20 when he was cast as Robin and had to turn down the lead role in "The Graduate" because CBS wouldn't give him time off.

"Adam and I would go out to make a personal appearance," he recalled, "and I would see people get into a fist fight to get our used paper cup."

One time Ward was passing through a small town in Oklahoma. He put his clothes in the motel dryer, then came out to discover them in a big wet pile.

"Someone said, 'Oh, there's a lady that knew you were here, so she took your underwear out of the dryer to take a picture of it,'" Ward said. "It was just ridiculous."

People obsessed about the deeper meanings of "Batman." Ward noted that "you had psychiatrists analyzing these relationships" years before "Saturday Night Live" lampooned the conceit with its "Ambiguously Gay Duo" cartoon.

"I don't see what's so strange and unnatural about two guys who run around in tights and live together," West deadpanned.

Even the Legion of Decency got into the act, complaining to CBS about the size of the Boy Wonder's crotch bulge. The network sent him to a doctor who gave him pills to make it smaller.

To this day, Ward still doesn't know what was in those pills. "But I'll tell you something," he said. "It was pretty upsetting, because the concept was if this really works so well, maybe it's going to have a lasting effect."

And by that time Ward had already suffered a lot for the show. For four of the first five days of shooting, his stunts sent him to the hospital. He got third-degree burns on his arms during an exploding Batmobile special effect.

"I didn't think I was going to survive the first episode," he noted cheerfully.

One of the pleasures of "Return to the Batcave" is seeing the gray-haired Adam West dance with a still sultry Julie Newmar. What was that reunion like?

"Julie is a free spirit," West said carefully. "She has that ethereal quality that is hard to pin down, but she is so beautiful."

I remember calling up Newmar, a 6-foot-tall former dancer, several years ago when Michelle Pfeiffer was cast as Catwoman opposite Michael Keaton in the gothic new version of "Batman." I'm happy to report that she hasn't lost her catty charm.

"I think she's the most exciting presence on the screen," Newmar purred of Pfeiffer, "but I can't remember what her body looks like, and you need an Olympics-quality body to play that role. Her body didn't make an impression on me."

Annette Bening, you may recall, was originally cast as the movie Catwoman but had to drop out when she became pregnant.

"Absolutely adorable," Newmar said of Bening. "I think she's foolish to drop her talents for ... whatever his name is. Warren Beatty. He chased me all over Rome 30 years ago, but he didn't catch me. He's played the same role for 40 years, the Lothario! Think of how boring that would be, to play the same role for 40 years."

Although Newmar is the Catwoman everyone remembers, other actresses did play the role towards the end of the TV "Batman" run.

"I was busy," Newmar chuckled. "They had the bad taste to hire other people. Producers can be sleazy. We get no residuals from that, you know," she added of the old show. Producers can be so..."

Cheap? "No, you've got to find a more cutting word than that," Newman said. "Penurious."

Ward explained at the news conference that when "Batman" was on the air, the Screen Actors Guild wasn't able to get actors paid for more than 10 reruns. So the effect "Batman" had on pop culture wasn't reflected in how much the two stars profited from it.

"By 1971 our (income from) reruns had run out," Ward said. "And in those days they certainly didn't pay the salaries that they pay now."

"I got six cents from Bolivia last week," West noted.

Silly as "Return to the Batcave" is, there's a deeply gratifying shot at the end in which the aging West and portly Ward face the camera and run, Dynamic Duo-style, straight toward it -- just like they always did in the old series.

If that doesn't make you smile, you're just too hardened and soulless for words.

Either that, or you're under 40.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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