It’s difficult to think of a superhero who’s had a greater cultural impact than Batman. He’s redefined how Hollywood thinks about blockbusters, he’s the anchor of one of the best cartoons ever made, he was the first superhero to crack a billion dollars at the box office, and he’s the centerpiece of DC’s media empire. But none of it would exist without Batman, the live-action ABC series (and the resulting film which premiered 50 years ago on July 30) and saved the Caped Crusader from obscurity.
Prior to the 1960s, Batman’s presence was largely limited to comic books. Aside from two film serials and the occasional appearance on the Superman radio show, you only found Batman either in the funny pages or on the newstand. By the mid-1960s, Batman was so poorly off, DC’s long-forgotten books starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis outsold him.
In response, DC editor Julius Schwartz drastically revamped the book in 1964: He threw out the science fiction elements and put Carmine Infantino on art. Infantino had a cleaner, more realistic style than previous Batman artists such as Dick Sprang and he completely redefined the book. The result was an action series with a penchant for the ridiculous. Batman often solved mysteries that made little sense using solutions or tools that made even less sense, and often found himself stuck in elaborate death-traps. It is, to modern eyes, all a bit silly, but it sold: By 1965, Batman was back on the charts.
The idea of a Batman TV series had been in the works since 1961, but stalled repeatedly. It was saved by ABC executive Harve Bennett, who saw the potential of a series (in a nice bit of nerd symmetry, Bennett would go on to save Star Trek in the ’80s). Bennett saw the popularity of a roadshow of the old serials and hits like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and thought Batman would be perfect for the network.
William Dozier, the producer Bennett handed the job of making a Batman series, decided the only way to go was to play the comic books absolutely straight but, in his words, “with a certain elegance and style that it would be funny… that it would be so corny and so bad that it would be funny.” That choice manifested brilliantly with Adam West’s deadpan square act and Burt Ward’s boyish enthusiasm. He’d keep the deathtraps, the mysteries, the clichés, all of it, and do it in earnest, giving the kids something to enjoy while offering adults something a bit knowing. West and Ward in particular don’t get their due; West’s ability to say absolutely anything with a straight face leads to some of the funniest jokes on the show, and remains a huge part of its appeal.