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Top Ten Villains from the 1960s Batman Television Show
To the Batcave!
On Wednesday, January 12, 1966, the world of television was changed forever. Adam West and Burt Ward starred as Batman and Robin, making their prime time debut in a series unlike anything else that had ever appeared on television. During the first two seasons, each story was shown as a two-part episode which aired on Wednesdays and Thursday nights. It was visually attractive with a wide variety of cool-looking equipment—the Batmobile and the Batcave were very stylish for the times. It was also unashamedly camp, with fight scenes emphasized through the use of comic-style sound effects. Each time Batman or Robin threw a punch, “KAPOW” or “SPLATT” or “BONK” appeared on the screen. At the end of Wednesday’s episodes, Batman was always caught in a deadly trap, and we were advised to “tune in tomorrow—same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”
Batman became an instant success because it appealed to audiences on several levels. It had the action and suspense any child who ever spent 12¢ on a comic loved, with several plots based on Batman and Detective comics from the 1950’s. Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman and Mr. Freeze all made the jump from comics to the small screen. They were joined by clever villains created especially for the series, including King Tut, Bookworm, Marsha the Queen of Diamonds and Egghead. Every villain’s diabolical plot incorporated a wildly imaginative trap for Batman and Robin. What kid wouldn’t be thrilled with seeing Batman escape from a 12,000 degree furnace, a slot machine wired to an electric chair, or a giant magnifying glass poised to capture the sun’s rays? How can we forget the threat of two chickens fed nothing but onions for two weeks? When their eggs were cracked open, tear gas was released!
It was also replete with manic, over-the-top performances from some of the finest character actors in Hollywood at the time. Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar and Vincent Price made regular appearances on the show. Joan Collins, Cliff Robertson, Van Johnson, Art Carney, and Carolyn Jones also were cast as villains. The main foes returned often, but a host of others appeared only once or twice, each offering something unique and quirky to this fun, special show. Even Sammy Davis Jr. and other celebrities in cameo roles frequently leaned out from windows for a quick chat with Batman and Robin, scaling the side of a building with their Batropes. Everyone wanted to guest star on Batman. It was a Hollywood status symbol.
These are my top ten Batman foes. Included in this list are my favorite one-shot villains—adversaries I always wanted to see return.
Heroes and Villains
Holy Houdini, Batman!
1. The Riddler (Frank Gorshin in five appearances, John Astin in one appearance). Frank Gorshin’s manic portrayal of the Riddler made him my favorite of Batman’s foes (his crazed laughter won me over). The Riddler inexplicably gave Batman a chance to thwart him by leaving riddles as clues to his crimes. His schemes included a search for the “lost treasure of the Incas,” the creation of a silent film about Batman, and criminal control of prize fighting in Gotham City.
2. The Joker (Cesar Romero in nine appearances). Romero made a convincing Joker, despite the fact you could see his moustache beneath the white face paint (Romero refused to shave for the role). Plots involving the Joker were among the weirdest of all. His criminal schemes included terrorizing Gotham City in a flying saucer; stealing the abilities of a surfing champion with a “Surfing Experience and Ability Transferometer and Vigor Reverser;” forming an art school for millionaires in order to kidnap them; creating a utility belt to equal Batman’s; and, initiating a counterfeit currency operation by planting robots as bank tellers!
3. The Catwoman (Julie Newmar in six appearances, Eartha Kitt in two appearances). The beautiful Julie Newmar fittingly gave Catwoman a lithe, graceful presence. Catwoman sought to steal the voices of pop singers Chad and Jeremy (remember them?); kidnapped a rich insomniac named J. Pauline Spaghetti; brainwashed Robin to help rob a mint (this episode guest-starred Leslie Gore as “Pussycat”); and, attended college to gain access to rare gems. Catwoman had a crush on Batman and once even proposed to him. “But what about Robin?” Batman asked. “We’ll kill him,” Catwoman replied with a shrug.
4. The Penguin (Burgess Meredith in seven appearances). Penguin had some pretty cool schemes; he ran for mayor of Gotham City, created a movie studio, opened a restaurant for the wealthy (they wrote their own menus, and Penguin forged their handwriting on checks); he tried to marry the Commissioner’s daughter (secretly Batgirl) to gain immunity from the law; and, he schemed to fix a horse race. Burgess Meredith didn’t smoke, and the Penguin’s odd quack came from Meredith’s efforts to keep from coughing on-camera while the Penguin smoked.
5. King Tut (Victor Buono in five appearances). I didn’t like King Tut as a kid, but when I saw the show in reruns, I realized what a fabulous, outrageous character he was! Tut tried to take over Gotham City because he thought it was a modern-day version of Ancient Thebes; he revived scarabs in amber beads to create a drug that paralyzed the will; he posed as a public servant to predict crimes; and, he drilled under Wayne Manor in search of the “Nilanium,” the hardest metal known to man.
6. Mr. Freeze (George Sanders/Otto Preminger/Eli Wallach in one appearance each). Each actor played Mr. Freeze in a different manner, but as a kid I preferred George Sanders. Freeze stole diamonds (ice) and kidnapped a baseball player named Paul Diamante (diamond in Spanish); he kidnapped Miss Iceland during a beauty pageant and intended her to be his bride; and, he kidnapped a scientist with a formula to create “instant ice” (uh…..frozen water, right?).
7. Egghead (Vincent Price in three appearances). His made up words “egg-cellent,” “egg-scruitiating,” etc. gave him a comic appeal I enjoyed. Egghead’s schemes were among the craziest of all! He took control of Gotham City by purchasing it from a Mohican Indian; he stole 500 pounds of caviar donated by the Czar of Samarkand; and, he attempted to hatch a fossilized dinosaur egg (Batman was hiding inside, cleverly disguised as a dinosaur).
8. Bookworm (Roddy McDowall in one appearance). McDowall played this deadly geek to perfection, complete with thick glasses and a reading lamp attached to his hat. Bookworm drove around in a “Bookmobile” and initiated book-themed crimes. Famous quotations offered clues to his schemes.
9. Colonel Gumm (Roger C. Carmel in one appearance). This guy was so bad it took Batman and the Green Hornet to stop him. Gumm ran a counterfeit stamp operation and when confronted, he turned the Green Hornet into a giant stamp! I must confess: a major reason this episode appealed to me was the appearance of the Green Hornet and Kato.
10. Chandell/Fingers (Liberace in one appearance). Liberace played Chandell, the world-famous concert pianist who led a second life as the nefarious Fingers. He hoped to marry Bruce Wayne’s Aunt Harriet, kill Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson and become sole heir to the Wayne fortune. As a rich man, he could pay off Harry, an evil twin brother who was blackmailing him. What parent would name their twin sons Chandell and Harry?
Tune in tomorrow...
The Batman television show lasted only three seasons. Ratings fell during the second season when suspense gave way to comedy (a formula that victimized Lost in Space, as well). The first season balanced action and intrigue with the show’s camp aspects to the delight of parents and kids alike. When suspense was sacrificed for jokes—no matter how clever—the episodes suffered. The third season introduced Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, but the lithe, beautiful actress was unable to save a series beset by a dwindling budget and lost viewers. This madcap show was still ingeniously clever, but no one was watching anymore. Minerva’s (Zsa Zsa Gabor) attempt to rob Gotham City millionaires using her Deepest Secret Extractor was the last plot the Caped Crusaders foiled on network television. The show ended March 14, 1968 and we would never again be encouraged to….
Tune in next week—same Bat-time, same Bat-Channel!
A deadly choice....
Who is the best Batman villain of all?
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