Burt Ward and Julie Newmar, Robin and Catwoman in the 1960s “Batman” television show, made up for the absent Adam West with a raucous panel touching upon risque costumes, near-death experiences, and a touch of Bruce Lee at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo Saturday afternoon. West was scheduled to appear, but could not make it because of a back injury sustained walking his dog, according to the panel’s moderator.
“You should have a cat,” said Newmar. “You don’t have to walk a cat.” Shortly thereafter, in response to an audience request, she added one of her patented, sexy purrs followed by a kiss.
The appreciative crowd, many dressed as Batman, Robin or Catwoman (though most appeared to have been born well after the series aired), asked the panel questions about the show and the experience its actors. The crowd was thrilled to learn that the television version of the characters will return in the form of a new DC Comics digital first comic book this coming summer. “Finally they came out with the real thing — the original,” said Newmar.
Throughout the panel, Newmar returned time and again to her Catwoman costume. The pattern began with the first audience question about uncomfortable costumes. “Mine wasn’t,” said Newmar. “Mine has a zipper in it. Well, that’s one way to get in and out of it.” She later asked if the audience noticed that the most recent Catwoman, portrayed by Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “looks suspiciously like mine.” Newmar’s original costume, she reminded the audience, now sits on exhibit in the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington, DC.
Because the costume is black, it “immediately takes 10 pounds off of your body,” said Newmar. The heels take off even more weight, “so it’s the perfect costume to have a good time in.”
Ward said his Robin outfit remains in his closet and he “only wear[s] it for special events like trick or treating and moments with my wife.”
“I can’t top that — special moments with my wife,” said Newmar. “‘Hey Trixie, you’re going to see this film later on.'”
The Robin costume added to what Ward called a very dangerous taping environment. Wearing a mask so that he could barely see and trailing a cape behind him accentuated the risk of injury — a risk that too often actually resulted in trips to the hospital.
“In the first episode, which was six days, I had never been in the emergency hospital, and I was in four of the first six days.” Sitting in the Batmobile for the first time, he said, he looked over expecting to see Adam West and instead saw West’s stuntman.
“Why are you here?” Ward asked. He was told that the Batmobile had to race out of the Batcave at 55 miles per hour, then make a sharp turn for a very dangerous shot. “Do you think I have a stuntman?” he asked, only to be told, “You do. He’s over there drinking coffee with West.”
Ward asked the assistant director why his stunt double was not in the car, only to be told, “Well, the problem is your stuntman does not look like you.” The shot, as it turned out, was as dangerous as advertised. When the Batmobile hit its sharp curve, Robin’s door flew open and Ward was nearly thrown out. He grabbed the gear shift with his pinky, he said, and managed to stay in the car but “took my finger out of joint.”
That was just the beginning, the first scene at 7:30 in the morning. “They had a policy on ‘Batman’: whenever there was anything really dangerous, always use Burt,” he said.
He described one trap in which he was dangled over a group of three real Bengal tigers while the director and film crew were 10 feet above him in a steel cage. Someone had the brilliant idea of tying a hunk of raw meat over his head. The director told him how realistic the scene, and Ward’s fear, looked on camera. “I am lucky those tigers didn’t scratch my face off,” said Ward.
Often, the plot featured explosions. On one occasion a magnesium charge was supposed to blow up a breakaway set made of balsa wood. The problem was that the production team forgot to construct the breakaway set. “It was a real set. It was two by fours,” he said, “and there was no time and no money to reshoot it. … The special effects guys used two half sticks of dynamite and nearly blew the sound stage down. And because I was tied to a table and couldn’t move, when the two by fours were landing, one of them landed on my nose and broke my nose.”
“Do you think they wanted to get rid of you?” asked Newmar.
Ward was prepared for the rigors of filming because he came to the show as a martial artist. In fact, he lived in the same condominium complex as Bruce Lee. “I used to spar with Bruce Lee in a much more animated way than on television,” he said. “I knew Bruce quite well. I knew his wife Linda, and Brandon his son was six months old and we used to go down into China Town in downtown LA and he would order all the most authentic foods and stuff.”
Bruce Lee and Van Williams appeared in a “Batman” episode as the Green Hornet and Cato because producer William Dozier wanted to introduce the characters on the very popular “Batman” program.
“Just a piece of trivia,” said Ward, “Bruce Lee’s very first cinematic fight scene was fighting me. He was a great martial artist, and we sparred a lot.”
Both Newmar and Ward recalled guest stars all over Hollywood wanted an appearance on the show due to its popularity. According to Newmar, Frank Sinatra wanted to be the Joker but Cesar Romero was fully established in that role. To allow even more guest appearances, the show came up with the window cameos.
“There were so many celebrities that wanted to be on the show,” said Ward. Often, Batman and Robin would climb up the side of a building and Hollywood stars would stick their heads out the window to look at the Dynamic Duo and comment. Stars included Sammy Davis, Jr., Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark and others.
Despite the show’s success, it lasted only two and a half seasons. Both stars said the shows expense probably caused its cancellation. A full and enthusiastic crowd some 45 years later, even with the main star absent, is testimony to the show’s continuing impact.