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Legends of the Superheroes 1.2 – The Roast

The other episode of Legends of the Superheroes is one of those things you hadda been there for, and you hadda been under the age of nine. It still amused Daniel today, quite a lot actually, but to have seen this as a child in the era of celebrity roasts was to love this on a totally different level. As kids, we were all aware enough of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts to understand what this was making fun of. But the very intoxicated Dean Martin and all of his incredibly drunk friends – seriously, the only reason that Match Game bettered the Martin roasts in the “Inebriated Seventies Celebrities” stakes was that Match Game was on at least five days a week – weren’t for kids. This was, and it was magical.

But kids today, they have no idea what a roast is. And Daniel’s a little small to catch all the “grown up” gags about the Budweiser Clydesdales, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Idi Amin. This just has dumb slapstick to appeal to him, and it succeeded mightily in that. Even if the entire business with the “regional” superhero Ghetto Man went completely over his head.

There’s also the cute innuendo about how the hot new couple, Atom and Giganta, might have children. That also went over his head. Frank Gorshin’s not in this episode, but Ruth Buzzi is, as Aunt Minerva, and all the gags about her finding the right man also confused him. In what might be the strangest thing Daniel’s ever seen, Aunt Minerva – who, if you remember your comics lore, is a loony old lady, meaning Ruth Buzzi was just about the perfect casting choice – kisses Captain Marvel, shouts “Shazam!” and is transformed into a gorgeous young blonde, at which point all the superheroes who have been desperately trying to avoid her want her telephone number. “Who is she?” asked Daniel, not getting it. And he certainly didn’t get the climax, in which Mordru sings a version of “That’s Entertainment” that lists all the naughty things that supervillains enjoy.

Things that he did like: there’s a bit where Adam West and Burt Ward play charades in order for Robin to explain that he’s totaled the Batmobile, and a bit where William Schallert, who passed away last week, plays that “old, doddering fellow” he always played in the sixties and seventies – a bit like Ruth Buzzi, I suddenly realize – and, of course, the greatest and only actually funny moment of either special: Ed McMahon battling Solomon Grundy.

Fact: the day after this show aired, every single boy in my class reenacted and recited this bit ALL DAY LONG, and we kept doing it for weeks. It remains stupendously silly, stupid, and lovable. Ed McMahon somehow manages to repeatedly offend Solomon Grundy by either mentioning the word “swamp” or another word which Grundy can connect to a swamp, at which point Grundy shouts “HATE SWAMP!” and pounds McMahon. It’s a stupid shtick as ancient as, I dunno, Niagara Falls, but it works brilliantly for its target audience.

We’ve been hollering “HATE SWAMP!” at each other for the last ten minutes, actually.

Well, mercifully, they only made these two specials. After this, West and Ward put away their capes and cowls, and most of the other actors who played the superheroes (or, in deference to the ladies, super persons) left their very brief time in the Hollywood spotlight.

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Legends of the Superheroes 1.1 – The Challenge

Well, speaking of Gary Owens, Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin, one day in the winter of 1979, the worst thing in the universe aired. Well, one of them. Hanna-Barbera sold NBC on a pair of variety specials using many of the same DC Comics superheroes that they were using on their Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends, despite the fact that Superman and Wonder Woman’s live-action TV rights were not available.

In his autobiography, Adam West later said that he deeply regretted the experience, but he needed the money. I’m not sure what Ward thought. Frank Gorshin came back as the Riddler for a week, one in a group of seven villains played, in the main, by Vegas-style standup comics. Among them: Jeff Altman as the Weather Wizard. The following year, Altman would appear as the co-host of Sid & Marty Krofft’s equally awful and notorious Pink Lady. Nobody else has that kind of track record.

As the heroes: a bunch of models and stuntmen. Neither of the actors who played Captain Marvel for Filmation and CBS were involved; a guy named Garrett Craig with three other parts listed in IMDB appeared in their place. He at least looked the part. Instead of Batgirl, Barbara Joyce appeared as the somewhat similar character Huntress, who had debuted in the comics a little over a year previously. Joyce was given exactly zero lines in episode one, which tells you where this show’s brain is. Gary Owens is the narrator, because anybody else tapped for the job would sound like a poor imitation of Owens.

The “plot” involves the villains starting a doomsday device, challenging the heroes to find it, and then disguising themselves as gas station attendants, gypsies, psychiatrists, kids with lemonade stands, and used car salesmen to delay them. Since the heroes are, to a man (or, in deference to the ladies, to a person), complete morons, they fall for these traps.

It’s a huge missed opportunity. I’m not such a stick in the mud that I object to superheroes being made to look stupid, but the script has about two dozen things that sounded like they were meant to be jokes and not one of them is actually at all funny. It has a reputation of being terrible, terrible television and it deserves it. It’s boring.

That’s one way of looking at it. What actually happened in the winter of 1979 might have been the best thing ever. I was seven when it aired and I freaking loved it to pieces. Daniel is now five and he loved it every bit as much as I did. One day, of course, he might have the chance to look at this with adult eyes and then he will cringe. Let’s not worry about that.

He looked at the events with curiosity until Solomon Grundy threw a boulder at the Riddler, and then he chuckled. Then Sinestro blasted a hole in Riddler’s clipboard and he howled, and he didn’t stop howling for forty-seven minutes. Every dumb joke landed with expert precision and every slapstick foible ricocheted around the room. Every bonehead disguise and wacky accent employed by the villains had him grinning ear-to-ear. When Batman and Robin chased after Mordru on jet skis, he flipped. That was far more exciting to him than any chase on the original Batman.

I first saw this silly thing at my grandfather’s house in Fort Payne, Alabama. We’d visit every five or six weeks, usually arriving Saturday afternoon and leaving after supper Sunday, and this was one of those occasions that coincided with my uncles, who lived in Kentucky, making one of their long visits. In order to spend more time with Dad’s brothers, we left after school on Thursday, and I begged to watch the show on my Pappy’s only television set.

All the grown-ups tolerated the awful show while my younger brother (then the same age as my son is today) and I were entranced, but the raspberries started with the second commercial break. Each act’s end was accompanied by a caption reading “To be continued… in a moment.” I recall one of my uncles saying “Oh, thank heavens. It’s over. To be continued next week, turn it off!” I think he knew darn well what it meant, but his patience was exhausted. They grumbled and mocked for the rest of the hour.

At school on Monday, it wasn’t quite what everybody was talking about – that would come Friday morning – but I couldn’t wait to talk about it and most of my friends were still raving. This was what we wanted to see: superheroes on TV. Captain Marvel tricking Solomon Grundy into running into the distance to see who threw a tire the farthest was probably everybody’s favorite bit.

I’m writing this the night before my wife and I are going to watch Captain America: Civil War, and we’re completely confident that we’re going to enjoy the heck out of a film made with competence, love, and enthusiasm by a bunch of really good actors who care about their characters. There was so little of it around back then, and when Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman or Spider-Man did appear on TV, they were almost exclusively the only ones with super powers, and never fought villains from the comics.

Green Lantern and Sinestro shot beams at each other from their power rings, and Hawkman tussled with Solomon Grundy. Sure, we know it stinks now, but from the age of five to seven, this was A-OK.

No, it was more than that: it was why television was invented in the first place.

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Batman 3.26 – Minerva, Mayhem and Millionaires

Well, it’s not as though anybody was expecting this show to do much more than limp across the finish line, but this is one of Charles Hoffman’s very few scripts to impress me a little. With cancellation assured by this point, they messed with the formula just a little more than usual, and had the villain be a character known and trusted throughout Gotham City.

Her name’s Minerva, played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, and she runs a spa. She’s begun extracting secret information from all her millionaire clients, and, in a great little bit of continuity, has enlisted Freddie the Fence to move the stolen goods. We saw Freddie, played by Jacques Bergerac, once before in a season two episode. I like the idea of a villain who’s hiding in plain sight, but that’s about all I liked.

It’s a weak, smug, dull episode, and even the final Batfight is boring, but it does have a tremendously colorful corridor set, and I was very pleased by an observation that Daniel made. As Minerva extracted the “deep secrets” of two of her clients, who are producers William Dozier and Howie Horwitz playing themselves, Daniel said “Hey, I know who she is! The Queen of Diamonds!”

This was a remarkably neat thing to say, because Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, whom we saw in five episodes of season two, was written for Zsa Zsa Gabor to play, but they couldn’t work out the schedule and Carolyn Jones took the part instead. It was nice for Gabor to get the chance to join the show in the end as a different character (albeit one who calls everybody “DARLING!” as often as possible), but oddly, Joel Eisner’s Official Batman Batbook says that Minerva was written for Mae West, of all people! West ended up being unavailable, and Gabor appeared after all.

So that’s it for the 1960s Batman, but that’s not quite it for Adam West and Burt Ward… and for Frank Gorshin…

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Batman 3.25 – The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra

Far out, baby! Your mind’ll be blown when those wild hepcats, the mad mod Dr. Cassandra and Cabala, totally flatten those square superheroes, Daddy-O! Or not.

So here’s Stanley Ralph Ross’s final episode of the show, and it appears to have been made for no money at all. They didn’t have budget left for stuntmen in the fight scene – which, in the episode’s best moment, Commissioner Gordon clocks at usually lasting forty seconds – so the villains are given invisible pills. Then Batman turns out the lights.

The villains include six of the most famous arch-criminals on the show, all freed from jail to work with Dr. Cassandra: Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Egghead, and, bizarrely, King Tut, whom we just saw two installments previously restored to health and memory. The villains are played by stand-ins who don’t get any dialogue and who aren’t seen in close-up. It’s a phenomenal missed opportunity on one hand – again, imagine how a contemporary superhero series would do this at the end of a season – but it completely convinced Daniel. This might have been one of the highlights of the entire series to him, seeing six classic villains teamed up with newcomers. He’s too young to realize what a big fake-out it really is! And he loved the fight. Seeing our heroes flail around the set being “punched” by invisible villains had him howling with laughter.

As for the newcomers, they’re played by Ida Lupino and her husband Howard Duff. The actors were actually separated at the time, but they wouldn’t get around to divorcing for another sixteen years! Lupino had a long list of disparate film and TV credits and is remembered as one of the first women directors in Hollywood, with a few movies and lots of sixties TV episodes – everything from The Fugitive to Gilligan’s Island – to her credit. Duff had played Sam Spade for years on radio, and starred in ABC’s Felony Squad. He’d actually made a Batclimb cameo in season two in character as his Squad character Detective Stone. Together, the couple had starred in the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve for two seasons in the fifties.

Tune in next time for the final episode, and, more than a year after she was first approached to play a role, Zsa Zsa Gabor!

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Batman 3.24 – The Joker’s Flying Saucer

Every once in a while, we run into an episode so boring that there’s nothing to say about it beyond noting the firsts or lasts. This one, like the second Louie the Lilac episode, is just plain dull. It’s the fourth and final appearance in the show for Richard Bakalyan, who here plays one of the Joker’s henchmen, painted green and sent to cause a Martian panic in advance of the Joker’s arrival in a craft-built flying saucer. It’s the final appearance of Cesar Romero, and I would say that it’s the final appearance of the Joker, but I think we’ve got one very silly cameo by a stand-in to get through before that.

Earlier this evening, I picked up two more volumes of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold for our son, since he’s watched the 13 episodes on the one that he has about six times each. This episode was so dull that I genuinely felt bad putting on this bore instead of letting him have fun with the cartoon. I’ll make sure he has time to watch a couple tomorrow.

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Batman 3.20 – Penguin’s Clean Sweep

This is a phenomenally dopey episode, but at least it’s a fun one. This time, the Penguin contaminates some of the newly-printed money at the Gotham Mint with a sleeping sickness. It’s immediately collected for distribution, and one bank circulates $13,000 in the space of a couple of hours. A panicked populace dumps all their currency in the streets for Penguin, his moll, and two goons to sweep up. But he can’t spend any of it because Bruce Wayne warns all the world’s financiers that Gotham’s money is no good. Somehow they don’t find time in 25 minutes to address the economic upheaval that this might cause and still have time for a fight scene.

Daniel enjoyed this episode, which was the final outing for Burgess Meredith and the Penguin, in part because the heroes are almost not put in any real danger. Batgirl is almost entirely superfluous to the plot this week, but she does get a face full of knockout gas to lead into the commercial break, and that caused him to growl a little. I thought it was all kinds of fun because unlike some of the recent villains – Rudy Vallée, Barbara Rush, and Milton Berle in particular – Meredith was always having a ball on this show, yelling and making threats and running rings around everybody. No, the plot’s just plain dumb, but anybody bored of watching Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is bored of life itself, I say.

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Batman 3.19 – Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club

This one is painful. Daniel adored it; the resolution involves leading several thousand explosive mice into the harbor playing tunes on flutes, and he thought that was incredibly charming and had a big smile on his face. I was grimacing because, in an episode that’s mainly filmed on the backlot, the producers somehow came up with the dopey idea to shoot the final scene in that awful limbo set.

But while Daniel smiled and I grimaced, Marie just fumed at the sexist awfulness of this very dated disaster. I suspect the writer must have been a real hit down at the Moose Lodge complaining about the womenfolk thinking that they could do men’s jobs. But the men doing the jobs in Gotham City are the most incompetent gang of numbskulls on television. Solution: make the women even worse.

Mayor Linseed’s wife has withheld cooking and dry cleaning until he appoints women’s libber Nora Clavicle as police commissioner. A month in, and unable to do his own shirts or learn to cook, he caves. Clavicle is played by Barbara Rush, a film star who had recently made the great Robin and the 7 Hoods with the Rat Pack and Peter Falk, and she’s accompanied by two blonde amazons in gold lame. (Incidentally, one of the amazons is played by June Wilkinson. Unfortunately, Jayne Mansfield had been killed about six months previously. Had she been alive to play the other character, that would have been the one good joke in the whole episode.)

Clavicle fires O’Hara and hires Mrs. Linseed as the new chief, and she then sacks the entire police force and replaces them with every screaming stereotype that the real women’s libbers in ’68 were warring against. I remembered that all the policewomen were terrified of the robot mice, because it was the 1960s and that happened on TV a lot then, and I was certain that would aggravate Marie. What I did not remember, apart from Linseed’s awful marriage, was that the policewomen cannot do their jobs because they are too busy putting on makeup, swapping recipes, gossiping, and using the police radio to alert each other to bargains at the shops.

Daniel occasionally enjoys the shows that we watch more than the grown-ups do. This was one of those times.

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Batman 3.18 – Louie’s Lethal Lilac Time

Last night, we were talking about bad movies with our friend David and I mentioned my belief that the very worst films are the ones that are just plain boring. Then tonight we watched this episode of Batman which, by that definition, must be the worst so far, because it’s so amazingly dull.

In other episodes, we might have seen other guest stars seem unhappy that they chose to do this show, and that tends to result in rushed, sloppy performances that come across as abrupt and grouchy. See Rudy Vallee in the Londinium episodes for a fine example. But here, Milton Berle acts like he just does not care at all. He put in his eight or ten hours on the set, perhaps learning his lines immediately before delivering them, and never again thought about this show. In his previous appearance, he at least had a twinkle in his eye even if Louie the Lilac is played oddly straight, but in this, there is nothing.

Perhaps with an interesting plot this might have worked, but no, we saw Charles Hoffman’s name in the credits and knew it wasn’t to be. This should have been a Batgirl solo mission, rescuing Bruce and Dick from Louie the Lilac, but once she finally arrives, she’s immediately captured and Batman and Robin have to save the day, thanks to a pair of – oh, come on – instant unfolding Bat-costume capsules, just add water.

There’s so little to the plot that even having just twenty-five minutes to fill, Hoffman has to add a highlight reel of exciting moments from season two and a subplot of a maintenance man almost finding Barbara’s Batgirl room. Of course we have to keep Batgirl and the cops away from the warehouse as long as possible, because once they do arrive, there’s no doubt Louie is holed up inside. He has his name painted on the side of the building! Next!

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