Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Batscholar on Episodes 29 & 30

By Joel Eisner

A lot can be said about the Bookworm, but most of if goes to Roddy McDowall. He was a long time Fox contract player, going back to when he was a child actor in the 1940's. Whatever part he played he was still Roddy. He gave he is own personality to every character, sort of bemused, aloof, annoyed, intelligent and childlike. You can see this best not just in this episode but in his roles on Twilight Zone, Fantastic Journey, Planet of the Apes the films and TV series, and both Fright Night films.

The character while not conceived for him in particular, did fit him rather well, but between the hat with the built in lamp and his radio glasses, he was almost unrecognizable.

I had the chance to speak with him about Bookworm and this is what he recalled “It was a show that everyone wanted to do at that period. It was such fun. They were larger-than-life cartoon characters, which are very interesting to play. I loved being part of the whole series. The costume, though, was very hot to wear. It was a wonderful part. I think there was talk about doing three episodes, but I don’t know what happened, because there was only one segment. I don’t know whether they changed their minds about the Bookworm or whether I was doing other things.”

I found the following producer William Dozier's papers it was the original thank you note Roddy McDowall sent producer William Dozier after his appearance on Batman:

“Hey, it was one of the best times; I have ever had, working on that nutty show. I enjoyed it so much that I can’t wait to get back into my Bookworm costume and that is really saying something, as wearing the bloody thing is like being captured in a Sauna bath. Everybody was so wonderfully kind to me and I really cannot wait for the joy of the next experience with them all. I really am most grateful to you for rearranging the schedules so that I could play the part. I would not have missed it for the world.”

The costume made to look like old leather book bindings was actually made out of vinyl plastic, which is why everytime he moved he sounded liked he just sat down on his grandmother's plastic covered couch. To noisy to be real leather, and too expensive. I wonder what became of that costume. Since Roddy was rather skinny, I doubt anyone else could have taken over the role. The same way John Astin could not use Gorshin's full dress Riddler suit, as Gorshin was rather petite and Astin wasn't.

The reason Bookworm was unable to return was that Roddy was off doing other projects, including a rather bizzare version of the The Golem (shot in England), entitled It!. It sort of mixed elements of The Golem with Psycho. It had Roddy as museum worker who borrows rare jewelry to let the corpse of his dead mother wear as he moves her around his mansion and the original Golem story. Roddy finds the secret of the living statue (sort of a cross between a shriveled prune, a dead tree and a pencil, and uses it to take over the country. Roddy was his usual self but the film was lacking in many ways.

By the end of the first season (only two more stories to go and both recurring villains) Bookworm was the last of the new villains and based on the change in the series the following year, it would have interesting to see how they would have handled him.

Since Batman was still new to television, Dozier hired many different types of writers, later he would keep a few regulars to take over most of the writing.

Writer Rik Vollaerts remembered “It was very hard to make a presentation to the producers, because they didn’t really know what they were going to do. There were people involved that didn’t know what it meant when you said, ‘tongue- in-cheek.’ There were people there that didn’t know what the word camp meant. But there were a sufficient number of intelligent writers who saw what they had. You’ll find a lot of variations. You will find some that took themselves seriously and some that didn’t. The only thing that I did that was even partially different was to develop an intelligent super-criminal. I had a hell of a hard time trying to sell it because the number of people who read books in Hollywood is rather limited. “The series was interesting because it was funny. Even the comic books were never intended to be serious. “The only surprise I had in the series at all was the inability to do good special effects. By that I mean constructing artifacts that really do things.”

While Vollaerts was not happy with the special effects Art Director Serge Krizman was “We shot that episode at Warner Brothers at New York Square. I had to build this 18-foot-high, 12-foot- wide and three-foot-thick book and it had to open in half, like a real book. They had to walk inside and the book closed on them, the special effects department did excellent work on that. When you have two parts of a thirty-foot book open and close and not see the guide wires, it was engineered quite well.. The belfry well was forty feet high and had to be built from scratch. I couldn’t find a bronze bell that was eight-feet high; so it had to be made all out of plastics.”

Francine York, a former Vegas showgirl turned actress who would take on the role of an alien Amazon on the Lost in Space episode entitled the Colonists, portrayed Bookworm's aid, Miss Limpet. She was one of the few villians/aids to make it into the Batcave. but as Francine recalled, it wasn't easy. “One of the funniest things that happened during the show was when they took me into the Batcave and they had to give me gas. Well, every time they said ‘Let’s give her some Bat-Gas,’ the three of us broke up. It must have taken us about a half an hour to get that scene started. It was so funny; we couldn’t do it with a straight face.”

“One of the things that I contributed to the show was this large book that I used as a purse. In reality it was the box from a package of Swedish cookies that happened to look like a book. It was my idea to make it look like a purse. I brought it in and they loved it.”

“It’s too bad that they didn’t bring his character back. Roddy was so wonderful, I loved watching him work. I remember Roddy was being interviewed on some talk show and they asked him what did you like best about doing the show and he said, ‘My partner, Francine York who played Miss Limpet.’ We worked together so beautifully, especially in the scene where we stole the Batmobile, he kept complimenting me.”
There were a few interesting errors or mistakes in filming such as when the Bookworm attempted to hit Miss Limpet with a large book entitled ‘The Secret of Success…Self-Control.”. On closer examination you will find that the book is a poorly disguised phone book. No attempt was made to hide this fact when Bookworm is seen scanning the pages with his hands. You can clearly see the columns of names on the pages as he reads the book.

The other involves actor John Crawford, a frequent Fox player thanks to his friend and Fox casting director, later the resident director for the Buck Rogers tv series, Larry Stewart. Crawford later the Time Merchant on Lost in Space (and a guest star on the Superman show) portrayed the henchman named Printer's Devil. He is the one who shoots the fake Gordon at the beginning of the episode. It has been said that this has nothing to do with the rest of the episode. It doesn't at least not in the filmed version, but it makes sense in the original script.

During the final batfight in the alley behind the library, if you look closely, you will notice that Printer’s Devil is missing. He was last heard talking to the Bookworm (via Bookworm’s tricky receiver in his glasses) and he was also present when the gang was hustled into Gordon’s office after the fight. But during the fight he was noticeably missing. His omission was due to a last minute change in the script. As the show was originally written, Bookworm and his gang were to meet up with Batman and Robin in the alley behind the library, that is all but Printer’s Devil, who was supposed to just outside the alley atop the bookmobile with a rifle (like he was at the beginning of the show).

Prior to the fight, he was supposed to have gunned down Bookworm and the remaining members of the gang. Believing the villains have all been murdered by an unknown assailant, the Dynamic Duo turns their backs and head out of the alley in search of the sniper. It is then that Bookworm and his gang rises from the dead and attacks the dynamic duo. Like the opening scene on the bridge, Printer’s Devil was firing blank cartridges. Believing the scene was too gruesome, it was hastily rewritten to eliminate the shooting sequence, but in doing so, they forgot to restore Printer’s Devil to the alley for the final batfight.

Jerry Lewis was the first and only window pop out of the season. It was done to accommodate the number of stars who wanted to appear on the show but having little room, the window cameo was created. Lewis pushed to get on the show to sort of cross promote his variety series currently on ABC. Later Phyllis Diller and Milton Berle (prior to Louie the Lilac) did the same thing to promote their tv shows.

Next Gorshin returns one more time (before asking for a pay raise and not getting it) and Neil Hamilton meets up with rival silent screen matinee idol Francis X Bushman.


  1. Joel, I share your admiration and fondness for the late, great Roddy McDowall. Our paths crossed twice: in the early 1970s, when we were both under investigation by a Grand Jury because we collected 16mm prints of classic movies, and in the 1990s, when I worked with him on an unsold TV movie called H.G. AND ME. That tale involved a genius kid who invents a funky time machine, goes back into the past to fetch his ideal, H.G. Wells (Roddy), and the two of them take on modern-day corporate bad guys in an attempt to save Earth's rainforests. Unfortunately, the corporate bad guys who ran Hollywood's film studios back then said "no" to our project. But Roddy was always a total professional, and we had fun chatting about our bouts with the FBI over 16mm film collecting in an age of innocence... long before owning your favorite movie became a God-given right!

  2. Rik Vollaerts: "I had a hell of a hard time trying to sell it because the number of people who read books in Hollywood is rather limited."

    If he hadn't told us, we never would have guessed.