by Joel Eisner
It has been mentioned many times that the first season of Batman was quite different than the rest of the series. It was darker, more intense, you might say even more dramatic than later episodes and you would be right. After the pilot was filmed in October 1965, it was quickly shown to the network who bought it for the Fall 1966 season. But, when the 1965 season collapsed, ABC immediately ordered Batman to start in January 1966. This was an almost ridiculous thing to do, when you consider there weren't any scripts ready to be filmed. Most of the regular sets were not constructed (Wayne Manor was in reality previous standing sets redressed) the way we later knew them. and the guest villains weren't even decided on and yet the series went into production in Mid-November.
20th Century-Fox at this time in 1965, was the busiest studio in Hollywood. It still had its vast backlot of craft shops and artisians that could create anything from spaceships and rayguns to submarines and sea monsters. Most of the studio was later sold to pay off the debt raised by Elizabeth Taylor's overpriced Cleopatra, and is now Century City, California, but at this time it was somethingI would have loved to seen in person. During the run of Batman, the studio was host to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Felony Squad, 12 O'Clock High, Daniel Boone, Green Hornet, plus feature films like Planet of the Apes, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, The James Coburn Flint films, etc. so when Batman was rushed into production, there was literally no room at the Inn. All of the soundstages that would have been theirs would not be available until next season. Having no place to go, Dozier rented additional soundstages at what was Desilu (formally RKO), and in fact the Batcave stood on the exact spot where they filmed the live action sequences for the 1933 film King Kong. The giant gates where Kong crashed through was now the center of the Batcave. The cave was later moved to Fox, when an available soundstage opened up.
Having so little time to create new scripts, the first few episodes were lifted directly (if not completely) from the comic books). This particular story was taken from a Feburary 1965 Penguin story. The only marked difference was that Penguin attempts to steal the giant jeweled meteorite that is only mentioned in the show. Dawn Robbins does not appear in the comic story. It was easier and cheaper to kidnap the girl than create a meteorite for television.
Time factors also affected the casting as well. Burgess Meredith, will always be the Penguin, at least the way it worked out. Burgess was not the first choice for the role. While Frank Gorshin was always the first and only choice for the Riddler, it was Mickey Rooney who was chosen to the portray the Penguin. However, he was involved in another project and wasn't able to adjust his schedule to take the part. According to Dozier's production notes, Rooney was actually broken up about losing the part. They settled on Burgess and he turned out to be William Dozier's favorite villain.
Getting back to what I said earlier about the first season being different, you have to keep in mind, that no one had seen the series when they were making it. Of the seventeen two part episodes filmed for the first season, about half were made before the series even hit the airwaves. No one had any idea what they were really creating. Which may have no been such a bad thing when the second season was filmed. Something I will touch on in the future.
Outside of his many Twilight Zone episodes, Burgess was primarily a stage and film actor. He wasn't all that known to prime time viewers and least of all the kids watching the show. When he dressed up as the Penguin, he became completely a different person.
As Makeup Artist Bruce Hutchinson recalled “The minute Burgess got that makeup on, he became the Penguin, and he was that character all day long, until all that came off. He was a laugh riot. He loved this character. He would kind of waddle around as the Penguin did on the show, with the umbrella, hat and monocle...He was another bizarre man. He had a razor-sharp sense of humor, and we had more fun with him. .I think it was the first character with which he could just kick back and have a wonderful time, because he had always been a pretty serious actor. And that was the difference on that show that really made it. Either you had to be a very bad actor, or you had to be brilliant, to pull that stuff off.”
Burgess was brilliant. He buried himself in the character. He was also unrecognizable at least for awhile, when he was out of costume. For this episode, he wore a black wig (his natural hair color was sort of a dirty blonde) but he later dyed his hair for each appearance when the wig proved to much a problem. He wore padding to fill out the suit, plus the monocle (which was glued to his face, with spirit gum, to keep it from falling off, plus the hat, the fake nose, and the white spats and gloves. add the umbrella and the waddle. Once the show aired, it didn't matter costume or not, he was recognized where ever he went.
As Burgess recalled a few years before his death “The villainous Penguin; It still pursues me. It was a deliberately overblown approach. It may have done me more harm than good, but it made an impact. I thought it had a Dickensian quality — or a spoof of one. It was fun to act. I was only one of many villains, as you know. I had an elaborate makeup — a huge nose and a great, extended stomach. It was as complete a disguise as you could get — but people recognized me in it. The interesting thing about the Penguin was that I made only a few episodes; maybe nine or ten. and the one feature film.”
"It’s amazing how many people equate me with that one brief role. When the new Batman feature came it ignited reruns of the series. It never stops. When I pass kids on the street they still quack at me! The Penguin stuck to me because the character was so vivid. When Eva Le Gallienne was presented with an award and I was one of the speakers, I told her the first part she had given me was that of the Duck in Alice in Wonderland, in which I had to strap roller skates on my knees, and I said I wanted to thank her because it defined my career:: I went from a Duck to a Penguin!. “
Speaking of ducks, Burgess also recalled the origin of his Penguin quack. ‘It was a riotous experience. Everyone had a good time working together. We got to do an awful lot of ad-libbing. Mine usually came when the Penguin would insult Batman by calling him ‘Batboob’ or ‘Bat-this’ or ‘Bat-that,’ which made acting in the show additionally enjoyable. One funny item involved the fact that during the middle sixties I had already given up smoking for twenty to twenty-five years—but I had to smoke all the time as the Penguin. The smoke would get caught in my throat. Since I didn’t want to constantly ruin takes by coughing out loud—which the smoke forced me to do—I developed the Penguin’s ‘quack, quack’ to cover it. Actually, it was a pretty unlikely noise for the Penguin to make. I sounded more like a duck! The quack got so famous, though, that whenever the writers couldn’t think of anything funny to put in their scripts, they’d write a ‘quack, quack’ for me. I also developed that little Penguin walk. It was an interesting challenge as the character is human but he moved and dressed as to look literally like a penguin. I tried to use the bird-like characteristics without being overly stylized. I even utilized a little of Charlie Chaplin’s movement. If you recall, he had a very penguin like waddle as the little tramp.”
Associate Producer William D’Angelo thought “Burgess Meredith was absolutely brilliant, Burgess brought so much on top of what was on the paper; it was incredible to see. He absolutely loved doing that part. He called us every week to ask when the Penguin was coming back. He would have done every episode if we had enough of them for him.”
As for the episode itself. it did have its share of plot holes. As it was pointed out that Batman's collection of Creepy Crawlers aka bugging devices were easily detected by Penguin's anti bugging device. So much for Batman's high tech devices. Also, Penguin having just got out of jail, manages to purchase/open an umbrella factory almost immediately and still has time to install a rooftop umbrella launcher complete with giant umbrella (which Director Robert Butler told me, had a handle that was too narrow for the rest of the umbrella, the craft department made the handle too wimpy).
Another one is that Penguin's Bat Umbrella is able to transmit from deep inside the Batcave, back to Penguin's radio receiver. When Catwoman is brought to the Batcave (second season) and Gordon tries to trace the Batphone, he has a device which deflects the call, but he doesn't have anything to block Penguin's tiny radio transmiter from giving away the location of the Batcave. Penguin could have easily traced the source of the signal since there was nothing to block it.
The biggest mistake was how Bruce gets out of the cliffhanger. He throws his cigarette lighter (with a life time supply of butane gas compressed inside)into the furnace causing an explosion which throws him off the conveyor belt and free of the netting. Besides the explosion probably killing him, and blowing up the entire building. Bruce didn't smoke. why did he carry a cigarette lighter?
Penguin then lets him get away thinking he was a spy from a rival umbrella factory, and was no threat to him. He wouldn't enounter Bruce Wayne as Bruce Wayne until later episodes, so maybe, he didn't recognize him.
This was the only time Penguin did not have a female companion of some sort. The only female character in the episode was Dawn Robbins. Played by the lovely Leslie Parrish )who would later return at the end of the second season as Glacia Glaze to Eli Wallach's Mr Freeze), had yet to appear on Star Trek as Scotty's girlfriend who becomes involved with the Greek God Apollo, in Whom Mourns for Adonis?
She in fact had gotten the part at the last minute, and came to work and as she recalled The first episode of Batman I did was just a lark. It was incredibly funny on the set. The Batman characters seemed to stay around and just kept everything crazy. However, one funny incident comes to mind. If you recall the scene when I was kidnapped by the Penguin and his men, I was supposed to be put to sleep (by Penguin gas) before they carried me away. I had just returned from doing another project, literally hours before we were to shoot the scene and had had very little sleep, Well, while I was lying there waiting to be carried off, I fell asleep for real. So, here was this poor stuntman carrying me, sound asleep and holding on to the giant umbrella as the cable carried us across the set to the other side.”
As for his henchmen, Lewis Charles aka Harkeye, later returned during the third season, to join Penguin once again for The Sport of Penguins, this time he played a character named Armband. He would later co star as one of the members of the Feather and Father Gang, a short lived comedy detective show starring Stephanie Powers and Harold Gould, and a number of former Fox staffers including former Post Production Coordinater (now producer) and writer of the Black Widow episode Robert Mintz.
Walter Burke, one of my favorite character actors, was known for his roles as comedy crooks such as on the Munsters or in The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze. He also appeared in several sci-fi fantasy productions such as Sorceror Torin Thatcher's evil assistant in Jack the Giant Killer and on tv as The Toymaker on Lost in Space and twin Leprechauns (one good one evil) on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
What I have alway's wanted to know is where do the villains go to get their henchman's outfits made. They are obvious custom made, as they all personalized with their names on them. Each villain has their own particular style. Penguin prefers the all black outfit with derby hats. Joker uses different colored shirts with color coordinated vests and caps. Catwoman has her men dressed in tiger stripes complete with cat eared skull caps (except when she went to college, then just college beanies). King Tut has a large collection of Strange Egyptian Garb. the list goes on and on. If Batman ever found their tailor, all he would have to do is stake out the factory and just arrest them as they came in for more clothes. Also, did you ever notice that the villains always found henchmen whose names fit the theme of the episode. Very interesting.
The most annoying part of this episode is Burt Ward's laugh at the end of the fight at the end of the second part. Something about the deep forced laugh, just gets under my skin.
NEXT THE JOKER!