Unless you’ve been away from all media for the past week or two, you know that Adam West passed away. West was well-known and well-loved for his performance as Batman in the 60s TV series of the same name, the movie spun off from the series, and numerous animated appearances of the Caped Crusader. Plenty of writers have already covered what made West’s Batman so iconic, but I want to focus on another one of his contributions to the Bat mythos – the first time West was on a Batman series and didn’t play Batman.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” is one of the best episodes of the landmark Batman: The Animated Series. (The fact that it didn’t make the cut for our Batmonth posts says less about the quality of this particular episode and more about how hard it is to pick just four from every standout in the series.) It’s a love song to West and his contributions to the fiction, but it keeps the tribute subtle. Rather than being about the more lighthearted, comedic version of Batman that West helped to popularize, it’s about West himself.
The episode begins with Batman investigating a mysterious bombing and a ransom note promising more explosions to come if the city doesn’t pay up. Batman realizes that the crime is almost identical to one from an episode of the old “Gray Ghost” TV series, which happened to be young Bruce Wayne’s favorite show. Since he can’t remember the whole episode, Batman tries to find a copy and ends up tracking down the actor who played the Gray Ghost, Simon Trent.
Simon Trent, voiced by West, is out of work and struggling to make ends meet. Any fame and fortune he enjoyed as the Gray Ghost is long past, but Trent remains associated with the role and has gone from being typecast to not being cast at all. He has been reduced to selling off his old props and memorabilia to pay the rent. When Batman comes to call, seeking information about the Mad Bomber episode, Trent just wants to be left alone.
Trent’s story is a familiar one and (aside from the costumed vigilante looking for assistance) true for many actors who became so closely associated with one role that the public couldn’t seem them as anyone else. While West might not have suffered this fate to the extreme that some of his fellow actors did, it was a real problem for him at one time. So much so that the show’s creators didn’t want to do the episode without West’s participation and blessing, for fear that he might be offended. Happily, West was completely on board.
Adam West wasn’t known for his dramatic acting, so hearing him go through a range of realistic emotions as the down and out Trent is a real treat. West’s voice was always a pleasure to listen to and much of his later career consisted of voice work. But we also get to hear him flex his acting muscles, going though Trent’s desperation and despair without ever sounding over the top.
Perhaps the second best creative decision in the episode (after casting West in the title role) was not making the Gray Ghost TV series a copy of the 60s Batman. It helps that Batman: The Animated Series takes place in a nonspecific era, where technology and aesthetics of varying decades live side by side. So Bruce Wayne’s childhood hero doesn’t have to conform to the media of any set year. Rather than being an homage to the campier Batman of the 1960s, the Gray Ghost is based on Batman’s pulp predecessors, like the Shadow and the Golden Age Sandman. The parallel between the real and fictional TV shows is less about the content and more about what they meant to their fans. As he watches the Mad Bomber episode, Bruce Wayne has a rare happy flashback to many hours spent in a kid-sized Gray Ghost costume, a Gray Ghost toy clutched tightly in his hand, watching his hero fight crime.
Bruce repeatedly mentions that he used to watch the Gray Ghost with his father, suggesting that Trent provided more for him than a role model. Many fans of the 60s Batman have similar memories of watching the show with their parents. While the live action series wasn’t a staple around our house, my dad frequently joined my sister and me when we sat down to catch the latest episode of Batman: TAS. The Gray Ghost TV series and its impact on Bruce represent what we can get from the best TV shows of our childhood: cherished memories from the past and inspiration for the future.
While Simon Trent and Batman eventually team up and stop the copycat mad bomber, the episode’s real climax is an emotional one. Batman shows Trent his collection of Gray Ghost memorabilia stored in a place of honor in the Batcave and talks about how much the Gray Ghost meant to him. Trent realizes that the role he has been blaming for killing his career is still loved and remembered. Any similar resentment that Adam West may have felt towards Batman didn’t last, and he was well aware of how many people appreciated his time as the Caped Crusader.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” was West’s first time playing another character in an animated Batman TV show, but it was far from the last. He had a recurring role as the mayor of Gotham City in The Batman, and two single-episode roles on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, once as the oversized, eager to please Protobot and once in a flashback as Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father. He also provided voices on countless other shows, often spoofing his role as Batman. But “Beware the Gray Ghost” remains one of his best performances. It’s easily his most touching and a fitting addition to any Adam West tribute binge watch.