The Gray Ghost Enters Bruce Wayne's World
Kids clearly don't have much of an investment in nostalgia, nor were they likely to pick up on the meta-references and allusions to decades-old entertainment seen in "Beware the Gray Ghost." Their interest in heroes is usually pretty straightforward, and likely most of the children watching this installment enjoyed it as a nicely animated action piece. Adults are in for a very different experience watching the episode. Not only does the story stir up memories of early mornings or late afternoons glued to the adventures of your favorite hero, dreading the approaching school bus or warnings about bedtime, but the portrayal of lost youth, of feeling forgotten, and never escaping the past speak to common adult anxieties.
How perfect was the casting of Adam West in this part? This was a man who experienced the same typecasting that killed the career of the fictional Simon Trent, and while he never descended into the poverty we see in this episode, he surely felt the sting of unanswered phone calls and lost roles. In a way, West was almost too good as Batman -- who could ever hear that voice, that quirky delivery, and not be reminded of that role?
While West's hammy delivery became legendary over the years (and worshiped by comedy writers like Conan O'Brien), "Beware the Gray Ghost" shows legitimate range in West's voice acting. After the destitute Simon Trent receives one more rejection note from his agent, one more demand from his landlord to pay the rent, he snaps, wrecking his display of Gray Ghost memorabilia. He cleans up the mess and sells off the final pieces of merchandise for a quick buck, and while holding back tears, tells a shattered reflection of his alter ego that he's paid the rent for the last time. Merely having Adam West, years away from his pop culture resurgence, voice these lines naturally adds resonance to the words. But the sadness in his voice, the vulnerability, shows that there was more to West than just camp.
The closing of the episode, which has Simon Trent donning his old costume and regaining his celebrity after helping Batman defeat the bomber, is about as upbeat an ending as the series ever presented. While this might be viewed as a stretch, considering the darker tone of Simon's introduction in the episode (and you've really got to wonder how the senior citizen is able to crash through windows and somersault on top of bad guys), it's honestly touching.
Adam West didn't share the exact fate as the nearly homeless Simon Trent, but he was viewed as a relic from an embarrassing era for many years, in addition to being unfairly dismissed as a bad actor. (West's delivery of those lines on Batman was very intentional, and he was never truly given credit for the wit he brought to the role.) The producers were providing their childhood hero more than just a pity job, they gave him a happy ending and another opportunity to add to the legacy of this character.
While the Gray Ghost doesn't have any more official appearances in the animated series, the character was due a return in the pages of Batman Adventures. The closing run of the comic was a continuity-rich farewell to the canon, and in issue #14, creators Dan Slott and Rick Burchett gave readers the final Gray Ghost tale in "Real to Reel."