Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Holy Interview! Joel Eisner: The Batscholar

When we chose Batman for our next daily blog, we immediately set out to contact Joel Eisner, author of The Official Batman Batbook. We were extremely thrilled when Joel agreed to come on board To The Batpoles, as he will be able to provide insight and a historical context to the show to balance our commentary, which will be based on our revisiting of the show, and any historical context we can recall from our original exposure to it. We thought it would be appropriate to launch the blog with an interview with Joel to understand how he came to be a leading authority on this popular show.

What were the circumstances surrounding your first exposure to the Batman TV show?

JE: I was about 6 1/2 at the time. I had no idea the series existed. I was a Lost in Space fan, The show was on for about five months before Batman turned up. I was living in a large apartment building at the time and I had a friend who lived in the same building and he had a color TV set. I was at his place when his older brother turned on the show. I believe it was the Mr Freeze episode, because I remember watching the rest of the Lost in Space episode "Ghost in Space" at my home in black and white. The airdates for Mr Freeze and "Ghost in Space" were on the same date. I recall seeing the Catwoman episode in color as well, but the rest of the time I would switch between Batman and Lost in Space and since Space was an hour, watch the rest of Space. Other than that I really have no memories about the show until it went into reruns a few years later.

Were you a fan of the comics?

JE: I collected comics but not anything steady. I bought mostly Gold Key TV comics, I remember having several of the 80 page DC giants of Superman, and Batman. I had some Marvel, mostly the monster comics, I was a fan of DC's Metal Men. I really didn't get into the comics until after the series was finished. 

What led you to write the original Batbook?

JE: I co-wrote my first book with a friend in 1982 (it was published in 1984). It was a reference book entitled Television Comedy Series: An episode guide to 153 Situation Comedies in Syndication (it is long out of print, but the publisher McFarland & Co. is bringing it back as a paperback  sometime this Winter).  We included Batman as one of the sitcoms, which to me it is and will always be an action sitcom. I actually wanted to write a Lost in Space book not a Batman book. I had been running the International Irwin Allen Fan Club (for those who don't know he produced the TV series), it started out as the LIS Club but I increased it to cover all of Irwin's other shows, in particular Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. I wrote to 20th Century Fox to see about getting permission to write the book and while I was at it I asked about Batman. I received a letter from the Fox legal department informing me that they had no rights to either show anymore. This was in 1984. At this time, there was rumors of a new Batman movie and multiple versions of the script floating around the fan market. I felt that I had a better chance to sell a Batman book than Lost in Space, as the movie could be a great tie in. Also I should point out that Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) passed away in the Fall of 1984. I felt that if I wanted to get to talk to many of the people involved I couldn't wait. Madge Blake (Mrs Cooper) and Stafford Repp (Chief O'Hara) had died years earlier. Also Michael Rennie, Talulah Bankhead, Walter Slezak and several other actors involved with the show were already gone as well.

Well, to keep the story short, I had already contacted William Dozier and he did not have the licensing rights to the show. I went to DC Comics, and learned they were planning to make this new Batman movie and had no idea who had the rights to the TV series. It was almost twenty years later and there was no one left at the company who would know. They agreed to research their files (nothing from the 60's was on computer, only paper files). They came back to me and said their contracts were with the ABC Network. (DC—then National Periodical Publications—gave the rights to ABC who gave them to William Dozier, who shared them with  20th Century Fox.) I contacted ABC and went through several offices before I found the right one, but there was a big problem. All of ABC's records were on paper, and back in the 1970's, there was a great warehouse fire at ABC and all of their records were destroyed. They had no way of knowing if they still owned it or not. However, they gave me a permission letter anyway, which I gave to DC and they gave me permission to use the Batman name and other Bat related items as long as I stuck with the TV show (which they did not own) and the original movie. It took me almost a year to track down the rights, only to find that no one kept the licensing rights. When the show was canceled, there were no further need for show products, and you couldn't go back and do it after the show stopped production. So many of the series back in the 60's, all of Fox's Shows, Star Trek, many others never foresaw the coming of reruns. Usually a series went into returns for a couple of years and disappeared. But the shows from the 60's, unlike the shows from the fifties, had a longer lasting appeal. That's why when some of these shows were brought back, they had to change them, (like Star Trek the costumes, the ship everything was not copyrighted until years later so they changed them because it was too late for the original versions).

Anyway, I had already lined up a publisher, so it was only a matter of writing the book. I had the episodes on tape off of tv at the time. I had secured most of the photos I needed. The actual writing only took about six weeks. I finished the book in November 1985, I worked with the book designer on the layout in Feb 1986, and the book was released at the end of June 1986.

It looks like you did a ton of interviews with many cast and crew in the making of the books, however Adam West and Burt Ward are noticeably absent. Both have written Batman related books since the first edition was published (Back to the Batcave and Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights, respectively), and I'm wondering if that was in part what prevented them from participating with the Batbook?

JE: Adam and Burt's books have nothing to do with their not appearing in the Batbook. At the time, and unknown to me, there were other people making the rounds claiming they were writing the Official Batman Book. I, however, was the only one who was going through the proper channels to line up the permission needed. Even though DC did not have the rights to the series, I still needed their okay to use the Batman name. As it turns out, the people at DC were big fans of the show and they wanted the book to help build hype for their new movie. I spoke with one of the editors at DC not long ago and the Batbook is used by the writers for reference. I knew that William Dozier was a former network executive, the head of Columbia Pictures TV, etc. so I had to get things right, he in fact wanted copies of all my permission letters before we met. He told me that he had been approached by thirteen other people all wanting to do the book but he only agreed to grant me the interview, because I had gone through the proper channels, We stayed in touch until his death. (In fact, in the Fall of 1987, I was approached by the host/producer of a local cable tv show, called the Trivia Show, if I would co-host and appear on a Batman episode of the program. It was a live call-in show, viewers were shown clips from the show and then a question would be asked and they could call in and answer the question to win prizes. Well, I got both Julie Newmar and Alan Napier to provide  live voice-overs (done by phone) asking the trivia questions. I also got William Dozier to provide a running narration (like he did on Batman) for the show, which included, why I don't know, two local NY  comedians dressed up as the Joker and Riddler, acting out a small scene. It was the last time Dozier did his famed narration and it was shortly before Napier's stroke that limited his appearances in later years. The producer gave me a copy of the show but to this day I haven't watched it more than once.

Anyway, one of the people claiming to be writing the official book was calling up everyone from the show and trying to set up interviews at the same time I was. For obvious reasons I won't mention his name. He is not famous, but from what I learned he was not playing with a full deck. He claimed he had exclusive interviews with Adam, Burt and Yvonne and Cesar. He later called me, after he learned I was doing the official book and tried to sell me his interviews. He claimed they were done on spec for Starlog Magazine, but I was friends with the editor of Starlog at the time and he had never heard of this person and had never seen his interviews. I turned him down. and that was the last I heard from him. However, the damage was done. Adam wasn't sure who to deal with and he needed proof. Now, I had been in contact with Adam, Alan Napier and Yvonne as well as Dozier. Burt was not acting at the time and did not have an agent. Adam was still living in Los Angeles at the time (he has since moved to Idaho), but I wasn't able to reach him while I was conducting interviews. When I returned home to New York, I tracked down Burt's commercial agent, but he was no longer a client. The agent gave me Burt's manager's number, but it was no longer in service. I learned that Adam was out of the country, so I sent him another letter informing him that I had the official permission from DC plus Dozier and the rest of the cast, thinking this would convince him I was the one to deal with. Burt's former agent must have smelled money and found Burt's manager's number and called him. It was over Labor Day Weekend 1985. Out of the blue, Burt's manager (who shall remain nameless) called me, claiming he represented both Burt and Adam (he didn't), we did a three way call between Adam, myself and the manager. Adam had been in England and had just returned home and got my letter. He was going to call me but Burt's manager beat him to it. To make it short, Adam and Burt wanted money to do an interview. I offered them a small percentage of the profits of the book, which was more than fair. I was supposed to receive a letter of intent on behalf of Adam and Burt, but I never received it. I called the manager, and he claimed he would send another copy. Still nothing. I wrote to Adam offering to pay him both his cut and Burt's to do the book but I never heard from him again, until after the book came out. I sent him a copy and I received a two page letter and a personalized photo from Adam. He blamed Burt's manager for getting too greedy, saying he would have been happy with the percentage I offered him. Burt's manager did not represent him but he figured that since at the time he was making most of his money from public appearances with Burt, that he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize it. (Also, I think he figured maybe he could get more money out of me too). I later met him face to face not long after when he came to New York for a comic convention. We sort of hit it off and stayed friendly. In fact, I was doing a show in Boston and Adam was the guest. His agent at the time wasn't able to make it, so I sort of hung out with him before his appearance and he told me he liked having me there because I did not take all this Batman stuff too seriously. It was a job, a TV show, and that was it to him. A way to make a living.

Not long after, I did the big comic con in New York and both Burt and Julie Newmar were there (in fact I arranged for the con people to invite Julie). Burt was on stage telling the audience a pack of lies about his work on the show. Julie and I were backstage and we both heard his comments. We both knew he was making stuff up. So, she being as playful as the Catwoman, grabbed a microphone and from backstage heckled Burt. Burt had been telling everyone that the Batmobile was travelling at about 60 mph when he fell out. The Batmobile looked nice but wasn't built very well. It broke down all the time. The car was so overloaded with stuff it could not travel faster than 40 mph. Most of the time it barely reached 20 mph. Julie told the audience that he was lying to them, that the car could not travel as fast as he claimed. He also told the story about being tied over the pit of tigers in the "Purrfect Crime" episode. That was Julie's first episode. He told the audience about the director and the crew in a cage while they hung a slab of meat over his head so the tigers would jump up at him.  Julie again straightened him and the audience out. As anyone can see, since the scene was done in wide shot there was no meat over his head. The tigers were not real, they were stock footage lifted from an old Fox film. The only tiger was the one that Adam dealt with in the cliffhanger.  Burt quickly got off stage and Julie won over the audience.  Afterwards Burt went off to sign autographs. I approached him and asked him what was the reason he didn't cooperate on the Batbook. I mentioned that Adam thought the manager got too greedy but Burt claimed it was because they wanted creative control of the book and I wouldn't give it to them. Again, that was a lie, they never asked for any creative control. They could have had control over anything they said, but no writer would give up total control over content to an interviewee. It is my belief that Burt was afraid of what everyone else would say about him. Adam got along with everyone but Burt was a problem. The great egg fight on the Egghead episode was to put Burt in his place. The crew couldn't stand him. It was his first acting job and they thought he was acting like a big star, so full of himself.

Adam called me about a year or so after the book came out, and told me jokingly that he was tired of having to sign copies of the Batbook and not make any money on it. So, he asked me to help him  write his autobiography. His one condition was that he get an advance from the publisher for one hundred thousand dollars. I spoke with a executive I knew at a big publisher and he laughed at the cash advance Adam wanted. He wasn't that big a name to justify it. Adam had trouble with DC over permission and to this day has to pay DC everytime he appears in costume at a function. I could have used the Batbook to sell his story as Part two of the Batbook and not have to worry about permission or photo use. I could have told his story from relative unknown to overnight star to a has-been (it took him decades to rebuild his career after Batman) and we both could have been happy with the results. He went in a different direction. So much of the behind the scenes stuff and stories about the show were never covered. I don't think Adam got the money he was looking for, but who knows. As for Burt, his book was self published. It is full of errors and made up stories. In fact, he couldn't get his facts straight, he got the director of the Catwoman episode wrong, He claims it was Robert Butler when it fact it was James Sheldon.  I spoke to Adam not long after and mentioned it to him and he laughed and recalled it was Sheldon not Butler. He seemed somewhat embarrassed by the book, as some of the stories involved him, were not true.

One might think that everything to be said would have been in the original Batbook. How did the Revised Bat Edition come about?

JE: In June of 2000, I decided to try one more time to interest Adam into doing a book with me. The Batbook had gone out of print in 1993. The rights had reverted back to me, so I was free to shop it around to other publishers. Adam had never told his memories of each villain of the show. I proposed to have him take the Batbook and add his comments about each episode, villains etc. I offered him a fifty-fifty split on the profits, right from the start. Adam and his new agent (who will remain nameless) agreed, I had an agent lined up who needed a letter of intent from Adam before we could pursue a publisher. They promised me a letter but I never got it. The agent who had been friendly before avoided my calls. I wrote to Adam explaining the situation, but all that did was get the agent to bad mouth me behind my back (I found out about it) at comic cons. I have learned that he has done this to many other people, he talks a big deal and never delivers and then bad mouths everyone, why I don't know. So, I gave up the idea of the book. A few years later, I started selling off my Batman photo collection (I had negatives made of everything). Through these sales I was contacted by John Stacks, who ran a model kit business, some of which were Batman TV reproductions of the villains as well as the cast. He had been in contact with William Dozier's daughter and was working with her on going through her father's papers (which were donated the University of Nebraska) to track down who owned the rights to the show. It turns out the rights were shared with Fox—Dozier had the rights to the show and Fox the rights to the film prints and distribution. He told Dozier's daughter about me and she was interested in having me work on the project which was to release the series to DVD. I was to assist with the commentary and the booklet that would be included with the set. Anyway, she sued Fox for back payments from the reruns and them per an out of court settlement, bought out the rights to the prints from Fox. From what I heard, Warner Brothers has no rights to the series and is not stopping the release of the series. It has something to do with Dozier's daughter, after she got the money from Fox, she lost interest in the project. It may require more legal hassles that she doesn't want to bother with. As far as I am concerned, if they are released (especially by Fox) they will be butchered. They have already chopped of the "Batman in Color" logo from the TV prints and the clips to next weeks villains, and even the third season scenes to the next episodes are either missing or edited. The market for the show is dropping and so is the DVD market. They have one chance to get it right and if what Fox did to the Irwin Allen shows is proof, they won't.

Anyway, Dozier's daughter gave me access to Batman production info, so I now had a great deal more info including cast salaries and proposed guest actors. I made one mistake and used a self publisher. I should have shopped it around, but I have been told by many editors that a reprint book needed at least forty percent new material and there really needed to be a market for it. The new Batman movie was no where in sight. So, I did it myself. I never intended to replace the original book, only add to it. The original publisher wanted a Batman book but never knew quite how to market it. It really became a big hit after the Tim Burton film came out. But when the 2nd film came out, the publisher never pushed the book. So, I have had my ups and downs with Batman.

Why do you think the show is still appealing to audiences, 45 years later?

JE: Actually, I don't know. It was well written, directed and acted. It was a living comic book and sitcom. People always like to remember favorite shows from their past. This is just one of them. It reminds me of what Bela Lugosi once said during an interview later in life. He was returning from England where he had been touring in a road company of the play Dracula. The interviewer mentioned if Dracula was still popular after all those years and Lugosi replied, 'Dracula survives, it never dies.' He couldn't run from his Dracula image any more than Adam West could avoid Batman. It's something that survives. It will live on as long as there are reruns.

You've also co-written books on TV sitcoms and Lost in Space. Are there other shows you have a similar passion for?

JE: I have a wide variety of show interests. I had the support of producer Sherwood Schwartz to do a Gilligan's Island book, but no publishers wanted it. There are so few shows that I would write an entire book about. Articles maybe, but not a book. I liked Batman but I liked Lost in Space more. Batman changed the direction of most of the shows back in the sixties but it affected Space most of all. They were both on at the same time, the same studio, and their soundstages were right next door to each other. The casting people worked on both shows and many of the guest stars worked on both shows. Space became a funnier show because of Batman. Some say it ruined it, but I think it it improved it. It was too dark a show when it started. I would like to redo the Space book because I used a small publisher and didn't get the distribution it needed.

What can you tell us about your forthcoming authorized biography of Vincent Price?

JE: The Price of Fear: The film Career of Vincent Price, in his own words is the full (tentative) title. I had a plan. I wrote the Batbook to get to Vincent Price, to get him to write his biography with me. Vincent loved the Batbook. I got him interested in the project, but his wife was ill and later died, followed by his own declining health. We decided that I would put the project together and he would add his stories to the book about each film, thus taking the burden of the project off him. But it never came to be. He died. Fortunately, I obtained numerous stories about his films from him during our many conversations, and from other source materials. The book is with my agent making the rounds at potential publishers, so I have high hopes to seeing it in print next year.

How about Attack of the Rubber-Suit Monsters? That sounds like fun even without knowing any details...

JE: Attack of the Rubber Suit Monsters is a pet project I have been working on for years. I have always loved the low budget monster films. I plan to take a fun look at all of these films going back to the silent film days. It encompasses Rubber Monsters like Godzilla, She Creature, Saucermen, It The Terror From Beyond Space. All of the 50's films. Also Robots like Robby, Tobor, Gort and Gorillas like Konga, White Gorilla, Gorilla at Large. Any film featuring an actor/stuntman in a full body monster, robot or gorlla suit. There are hundreds. They are still making them like Star Wars, E.T., King Kong, Alien. I plan this as a series, like Son of Rubber Suit Monsters. Invasion, Revolt, Return of... etc.

What are you looking forward to most with the blog?

JE: I always wanted to take a different look at the show and point out the plot holes and goofs made during the show. I never wanted to alienate the fans, but there are some episodes I just can't stand watching. Some that I disliked years ago I have grown to like, and others I used to like but not any more.

What's your favorite episode:

JE: That's hard because I have quite a few. I will point them out as I review the episodes.
 
Who's your favorite Super Villain:

JE: Again, quite a few. but I have a special place for Vincent Price's Egghead.
 
Who's your favorite supporting character:

JE: I liked Alfred. I knew Alan Napier, he was just as nice as the parts he played.

What's your favorite Bat-gadget:

JE: I liked the car, the bat shield... the standard ones.

What's your favorite onscreen Bat-Word:

JE: Nothing comes to mind. Pow Zap, they are all about the same.
 

What's your favorite "Holy" exclamation:

JE: I listed all of them in the book, but I never really cared for them. They became almost an intrusion into the show.

Tomorrow we're pleased to present Joel's overview of Batman's first season. You'll find it right here on To The Batpoles—Same Bat Time, Same Bat URL!


TV Historian Joel Eisner received a B.A. in Media Arts and an MBA in Marketing from Long Island University. 

He has published numerous interviews and articles in such magazines as Starlog, Starblazer, SFTV, and Collecting Hollywood. He has been quoted and his works have been sited in numerous publications.

Fans interested in picking up a copy of The Official Batman Batbook can order it on Amazon, or if you'd like an autographed copy, you can purchase it directly from Joel on eBay under his username Batscholar!


3 comments:

  1. Great interview! It was interesting to hear about all the work it took to get the Batbook made. Too bad a book with Adam West never worked out.

    It sounds like Batman won't get the DVD release it deserves, but thankfully we'll have Joel's commentary here. It would be nice to see crispy clean episodes with all those colorful cartoonish characters, but not at the expense of having the show mutilated.

    Look forward to hearing about the plot holes and goofs on the show. I think you're in good company for that here, Joel. No worries.

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  2. my friend and I have this dialogue along the lines of "where were you when... as in 'how much did adam west charge you when you first got his autograph..." for me it was 25 dollars and that was 10 years ago. but dont get me wrong, i think he is a classy nice guy and no matter what he charges it is worth every penny to meet the REAL batman.....

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  3. Incredible story of getting the first Batbook out. I snatched it off the shelf of the local Waldenbooks the second I saw it - and later managed to get Frank Gorshin to sign his picture on the the interior - Mr. Eisner put a lot of work in - far more than I ever imagined - this fan says thank you - your book filled in for a lot of years when the show was completely unavailable to me. Cheers!

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