Requiem for a cheeky ‘Batman’

TV series creator speaks up for irreverent take

When I first heard, some time ago, that Sir Michael Caine had been engaged to portray Alfred the Butler in the latest Batman movie, I was frankly disturbed. Full disclosure: I was the piloter of the 1966 “Batman” TV series, aired with spectacular if short-lived success on ABC and arguably responsible for rousing millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson (and his Batmobile and Batcave and myriad other Batgadgets) from the quiet pages of DC Comics into the savage glare of filmed entertainment.

As such, I am often asked what I think of the string of “Batman” features which has followed. My answer disappoints. Truth is, I think only rarely about Warner’s bigscreen charades, for they are related to our antique effort in little beyond the eponymous title.

However. Back to my disturbance with Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler. It had nothing to do with his competence, of course. Michael Caine is magnificent in everything he does. My concern was with the psychological havoc this casting might wreak. How would Caine adapt to butling in the quiet confines of Wayne Manor? Was the Joker not a feeble adversary for this man who had faced down a zillion freaked-out Zulus shrieking for his blood in South Africa, not to mention an assortment of armed villains in the U.K.? Would not this change of circumstance send any man — especially a member of the thespian tribe, who are uncertainly balanced at best! — reeling to the loony bin? I held my breath.

And soon enough exhaled, as I realized how foolish I’d been. Alfred the Butler had hardly taken up his duties as Wayne Manor factotum and keeper of his employer’s stupendous secret before he was dashing into a burning mansion and heroically rescuing Bruce Wayne from a hideous death. I applauded mightily — or would have, if I’d actually seen the movie — and cursed myself, sort of, for not having given Alfred a deed like that in the TV pilot.

Which cues me to reminisce, for a moment, about the circumstances of TV Batman’s birth. It is truly an only-in-Hollywood tale.

In 1963 or thereabout, the ever-enterprising William Dozier sold ABC on the notion of an hourlong dramatic TV show to be called “Number One Son,” Bill to produce, me to write a pilot. We had collaborated already on several TV pilots and taken third strikes, looking. The title, of course, referred to the elder son, trusty aide and sometime despair of great San Francisco detective Charlie Chan, familiar to audiences of the era from the series of movies. (Nearly all now on DVD — don’t miss!)

I repaired to my Santa Monica office and wrote that pilot. It was less than Shakespearean, but it did the job and folks expressed suitable excitement. Then we hit a pothole. Bill got a call from the network with stunning news: Unfortunately for “Number One Son,” the powers had decreed they would not air any show featuring a Chinese person. In fact, no ethnic heroes whosoever. Period. Ours not to reason why. So sorry.

“But we owe you one,” they told Bill, realizing their conduct had been south of deplorable, even for a TV network. “You’ll hear from us…”

Time lapse. Now it’s 1965, mise-en-scene morphed to Torremolinos, south of Spain, where I’d moved with my wife and baby kids to live cheap but well while writing a play. Actually, I’d had two produced on Broadway earlier, with neither great success nor ignominy, though thanks to the magic of the late great play agent Harold Freedman, one comedy had sold to MGM for the then-barely imaginable sum of $100,000. (I had nothing to do with the ensuing screenplay, which I doubt was the reason it ended up — I’m told — as the only Steve McQueen starrer ever to lose money.) But that was earlier, the loot was spent, I had been, as we’ve seen, whipped off the Great White Way into the salt mines of busted Hollywood TV pilots. The play was getting nowhere, naturally, and then one day the postman dropped off a cable from Bill, instructing me to meet him at the Ritz in Madrid three days hence. Burning with curiosity, I did so.

As we sat in the garden of that splendid caravanserai, sipping cool sangria, Bill pulled something from the inner pocket of his jacket. For those who never had the privilege of knowing him, Bill Dozier was one sophisticated gent. “This,” he said, with a look of humiliation bordering on shame, “is what ABC has given us.” It was, as the shrewd reader will have guessed, a copy of the comicbook “Batman.” I’d seen this comic from time to time, even read it with amusement, but I was hardly a dedicated fan. Nevertheless. At the risk of pretending to Minerva-like wisdom, I must tell it like it happened: The TV show concept virtually exploded in my sangria-enhanced brain, full-blown. Bill asked me what I was thinking. I replied it was a really terrific idea — trust me and fly back home to Los Angeles, and I would write it. Trust me.

Without much further ado, Bill went back, and I wrote it. It’s nearly impossible to describe the differences between our 1965 experience and industry TV writing conditions today. Faxes were in the future. I didn’t even have a telephone in our Torremolinos house; communication was entirely by ordinary airmail and the very occasional brief cable. There was never a treatment or an outline involved. I never exchanged a word with an exec from either ABC or 20th Century Fox, where the thing would be shot, nor did I suffer any creative consultation with DC Comics, owner of the character. Whatever handholding had to be done, Bill did it all.

It was a writer’s hog heaven. I was sent four issues of the comic for plot ideas, each featuring one of the Big Four villains. The Joker seemed the best pilot choice, though I’m not sure why. I mailed Bill the script at Fox. He and his folks loved it. Then I flew back from Malaga to New York for a meeting with ABC, where Bill eloquently pitched the script and its high-camp POW!! BLAM!! WHAMMO!! style, those onscreen graphics already written in. The network was a bit flabbergasted, so different was this from their usual pilot, but they got it. A particular supporter was exec Douglas Cramer, whom I like to think was only exhibiting the same exquisite connoisseur’s taste that has since made him one of America’s leading contemporary art mavens and collectors.

Whatever. I had hardly returned to Torremolinos before Bill cabled that ABC was handsomely repaying the debt to us incurred by the “Number One Son” betrayal. The network, seeking urgently to fill a hole in its schedule, stepped up and rolled the dice. “Batman,” the series, was scheduled for immediate production even without shooting the pilot script, which now would be simply the series opener. Only the most trivial production rewriting was requested, and I was to immediately begin writing the next three scripts, each featuring one of the remaining Big Four villains.

Days of innocence, days of Andalusian heaven! From the very beginning, Bill Dozier and I had seen millionaire Bruce Wayne and his Bat regalia as classy comedy, hopefully appealing to kids as an absurdly jolly action piece and to grown-ups for its deadpan satire, entirely nonfraught with psychological issues. I mean, golly gee! How else can one view a character who enters a nightclub in full Batgarb and mask, accompanied by a gorgeous chick, and when greeted by the maitre d’ with an obsequious “Good evening, Batman! A table for two?” gravely replies, “Yes, thank you. But please, not too near the music — I wouldn’t want to appear conspicuous.”

If some pseudo-sophisticates saw a possible relationship between Millionaire Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson that dared not speak its name — and did they ever! — that was their problem. Nothing epitomizes the difference between our Batman and that same hero in the Warners franchise as clearly as the treatment of his backstory. The movie “Batman Begins” is obviously dedicated to that (for me) wholly inconsequential matter. In the TV pilot, I followed the guide of the comicbook and disposed of the hero’s origin very simply … Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered by criminals. This naturally caused the angered heir to devote his life to crime-fighting. It required only minimal research to discover that criminals live in deadly fear of the flying mammal microchiroptera, more commonly known as the bat. The rest of his arc follows with mathematical precision.

As the browser of this little memoir must have caught on by now, I’ve not been bashful about tooting my own horn. At age 85, that is permissible. But now I must give full credit to what was going on back at the ranch while I was typing away in my little walk-up office overlooking the Mediterranean. Bill Dozier’s casting of the series was only phenomenal. Adam West was Batman, and Burt Ward was hardly less perfect as the oft-pestiferous Dick Grayson, while the casting of secondary characters was equally stellar. Michael Caine’s predecessor, for example, was Alan Napier, a solid Broadway actor, and the choice of actors for the four chief villains is legendary. The roles literally meant new careers for each.

Without them, and the super-cool direction by Robert Butler, I like to imagine that my pilot script might have had some small literary value, but the show would have been a pale simulacrum at best. As it was, the series preemed in January 1966, two episodes each week, the first ending always with a cliffhanger from which Bruce and Dick extricated themselves by some utterly shameless cheat — and was a spectacular, if surprisingly short-lived, success.

For a time, Hollywood’s brightest stars vied for a chance to appear in the 30-second cameos Bill so shrewdly inserted. Despite efforts to juice it up with a Batgirl and a Batcycle and other ornaments, the series was a one-trick pony at heart, and barely staggered through a second season.

But all that was in another country. It will seem incredible to today’s episodic TV writer-producers, but after the show went on I stayed in Torremolinos and served as executive story editor, still without even a phone in my house, reworking other writers’ Batscripts, simply sending pages back and forth by ordinary airmail — prop-plane airmail, the 707 was still around the corner. Much as it delighted me, this system was obviously unacceptable in the long run, so family and I were manhandled back to Hollywood by degrees — first making a futile stand in Westport, Conn., finally surrendering and returning all the way. It took almost eight years to engineer another escape, this time to Aspen, Colo.

Whatever. The experience of getting TV Batman airborne was pure pleasure, and I hope explains why I disappoint those folks who ask me my opinion of bigscreen Batman, doubtless looking for something juicy. Apples and oranges. Their complex hero is not my innocent, brow knitted as he and Robin dig deep to decipher one of the Riddler’s third-grade-level puzzlers. Who knows? Folks who prefer the new guy may well be right. Several years ago, a scholarly avant-garde science-fiction/comicbook fan mag — yes, there actually are such things! — ran an issue with this banner on the cover: “Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s Hate Mail!” And indeed, there were colorful samples of such mail inside. The accusations were that I had dissed Batman in the TV series, not treated him with the gravitas he deserves. Ominously, I was to face the same charge a second time, a decade later, over my movie characterization of Flash Gordon in the Dino De Laurentiis confection of that name, now a great cult favorite but I’m told about to be remade — in a more respectful mode, no doubt. I wonder if there’s a third-strike law in this business? Drat it, Sir Michael … I mean drat it, Alfred … where are you? I need a double martini at once!

Lorenzo Semple Jr. is the award-winning screenwriter of such films as “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Papillon.”