Whether you knew him then from the first full-length theatrical adaptation of the DC Comics‘ most famous superhero of all time, Batman, or more recently as the cooky mayor of Quahog whose delusions led to some hilarious hijinks at the expense of the town, Adam West’s film career was colorfully decorated in comedy and action much to the enjoyment of millions.
Sadly, the iconic actor and Walla Walla native Adam West passed away in 2017, yet his legacy lives on in the laughter and films he’s left behind.
Early Life of Walla Walla Native Adam West
Born William West Anderson on September 18, 1928, he was the child of farmer Otto Anderson of Scania descendent and his wife Audrey Volenne, an opera singer and concert pianist who had left behind the bright lights of her Hollywood dreams to care for her family. While growing up on the wheat farm in Walla Walla, young Adam dreamed of the bright lights his mother left behind and shared with his father that he had plans to chase his own Hollywood dreams once he completed school.
West attended Walla Walla High School during his freshman and sophomore years before his parents divorced. His mom remarried Dr. Paul Flothow, took Adam and his younger brother, John, to Seattle, and enrolled him in Lakeside School. From there, he attended Whitman College, earning a bachelor’s degree in literature with a minor in psychology. While attending school, he excelled socially, participating on the speech and debate team and becoming a member of the Gamma Zeta Chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. During his last year of college, he married his first wife and college sweetheart, Billie Lou Yeager.
Eventually, West was drafted into the army. He would spend the next two years starting military television stations in California and New Jersey and serving as the announcer on American Forces Network Television. After his discharge, he moved to Hawaii and joined his childhood and college buddy, Carl Hebenstreit. Hebenstreit was already starring in the kiddie program “The Kini Pop Show,” with West joining him to pursue his own career in television.
Adam’s Early Career on the Road to Stardom and Becoming Adam West
West quickly got cast as the sidekick for the local TV program his friend Hebenstreit was starring in upon arriving in Hawaii. This would be just the kickstart the young West would need to make his way into the Hollywood fame he dreamt of as a child. Eventually, he took over the show once Herbensteit left, continuing to star alongside Peaches the Chimp.
During his time in Hawaii, he divorced his first wife and remarried Cook Island dancer Ngatokorua Frisbie Dawson in 1956. They had two children together, Jonelle and Hunter, before moving to Hollywood in 1959, where he took up the stage name Adam West.
Upon his arrival in Hollywood, West found himself in several guest-star roles, primarily in television Westerns, including “Sugarfoot,” “Colt .45,” and most notably, his portrayal of Doc Holliday in “Lawman.” Soon he became a regular on the television series “Robert Taylor’s Detectives” during its third season. From then on until 1965, he continued on his forward trajectory, landing more roles on more prominent television shows such as “Petticoat Junction” and “Bewitched” until eventually being cast in the comedy Western “The Outlaws Is Coming” which was the last feature film to star The Three Stooges.
Adam West Lands the Star Role in the 1966 Adaptation of the Batman TV Series
After seven years of hard work, West finally made it big and achieved his initial dream of fame after being cast for his signature role as Bruce Wayne and his hero alter-ego Batman on the wildly popular ABC-TV series “Batman” first airing in 1966. It was a fitting role for the young actor as West was an avid comic book collector as a child, with Batman making the biggest impression on him upon his debut in Detective Comics in 1939.
West beat his competition Lyle Waggoner and won the role after producer William Dozier saw West perform as the James Bond-like spy Captain Q in a Nestlé Quik commercial and felt the up-and-coming actor would make a perfect Batman.
The series lasted three seasons, making him not only nationally but also internationally famous as well during that time. The movie version, “Batman,” released in 1966, earned West the “Most Promising New Star” award in 1967.
As in most cases, West’s newfound fame did come at a cost. While he was gaining popularity, his second marriage began to crumble and end. Also, West became so popular as Batman that it resulted in him being typecast, making it difficult for him to find other work as Hollywood and the world began to only see him as Batman. For almost two years after the series ended, he did nothing but personal appearances dressed as the iconic hero.
Despite the sudden stagnation in his career, West took it all in stride and was more than happy to reprise his role as Batman/Bruce Wayne over the years. After all, Batman was his favorite as a child. He returned as Batman for a number of animated series, including “The New Adventures of Batman,” “The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour,” “Super Friends,” and more. DC Comics even recognized West for his dedicated work as the dark knight by naming him one of the honorees in the company’s 50th-anniversary publication “Fifty Who Made DC Great” for his work in the “Batman” series in 1985.
West Becomes a Pop Culture Icon and Regular Star as the Mayor in Family Guy
By the 1990s, West’s continued dedication to the Batman name and continued guest appearances on popular television series earned him the status of a pop culture icon. This led to him landing a role in the film “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” playing himself, as well as several TV series, including “Murphy Brown,” “The Ben Stiller Show,” and “The Drew Carey Show.”
By this point, it was hard to miss the now iconic actor. With his distinctive voice that had captivated a nation, West built a career doing voice-over work on several animated series, where he also often played the role of himself. He graced our screens with his presence on cartoon classics like “Rugrats,” “Kim Possible,” “Johnny Bravo,” “Futurama,” and paying a visit to the city of Springfield in “The Simpsons.”
Of course, it would be West’s regular role as Adam West, the lunatic Mayor of Quahog, in “Family Guy” that would further skyrocket his fame, bringing forth a new wave of popularity for the actor post-Batman. His first appearance was during the show’s second season in 2000, and he remained a recurring character until the 17th season in 2017.
Creator Seth MacFarlane had actually worked with West previously in the cartoon series “Johnny Bravo,” for which MacFarlane had written several episodes. MacFarlane found West’s character and performance in the show so funny that he created a similar character for his show “Family Guy,” made special for the actor.
West went on to really create his own version of the beloved character, set as an “alternate-universe” Adam West of sorts, as the show deliberately avoided making any references to the “Batman” franchise that made the actor famous. All this was done to prevent further typecasting for the real-life Adam, allowing him to truly enjoy the character.
The role led to many fun adventures and psychotic whims for the Mayor of Quahog, ultimately leading to a half-hour of delightful entertainment for old and new fans alike. Mayor West became a character of chaos for the show as his often childish and immature crackpot nature, coupled with his delusions, often came at great expense and subsequent danger to the citizens of Quahog. One could never tell if the man was completely insane or so entirely sane that his bizarre antics were just merely a smokescreen to throw people off and cover up his dark side. Perhaps they never will.
The “Family Guy” character of Adam West was revealed to have died offscreen in the episode “Adam West High.” It aired shortly after the actor’s death on June 9, 2017, with West passing from leukemia at 88.
West was mourned by the Hollywood he dreamed of as a boy, with Los Angeles projecting the Bat-Signal on the City Hall on June 15 as a tribute to the cape-wearing hero of an actor. As a native of the Columbia Basin community, his hometown of Walla Walla paid tribute to the local star in a similar manner, projecting their own Bat-Signal on the landmark Whitman Tower.
Adam West was cast in over 60 movies and over 80 television series, with guest appearance credits throughout his film career. Today, his legacy lives on in those that continue to celebrate these beloved fandoms and the laughter he still brings when he lights up TV screens like the Hollywood star he indeed was.