Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Batscholar on Episodes 1 & 2

by Joel Eisner

Pilot Episode

Of all the villains to choose from, I have often been asked why the producers chose the Riddler for the pilot episode. After all, Joker, Penguin and Catwoman were by far the more famous of the comic book villains. In fact, Batman Creator Bob Kane, actually complained that they weren't using the Joker, whom he believed to be Batman's number one foe more often. The Riddler was indeed a secondary villain at least prior to the tv series. He had only made a handful of appearances and that was because of a legal dispute between the creator of the Joker and the comic book publishers. Riddler was created as substitute Joker until rights problems were ironed out. Not unlike the second season when they converted a script intended for the Riddler into the script for the Puzzler.

To solve the problem of which villain to choose for the pilot episode, the producers found they had to balance insanity of the entire project (by network standards at the time) to please the audience and satisify the conservative network executives. They needed a villain that could be wild and crazy but at the same time not be so bizzare in appearance that it would frighten the network brass. Riddler fit the bill, no wild makeup or costumes. Just a pair of green tights and that wonderful question mark suit complete with derby hat and gloves. It was Frank Gorshin's manic behavior that sold the character. I truly believe that Penguin or Joker would have been too much for the network to handle. Once the series sold, then there would be no holding back. They needed to sell the show and Riddler was the way to go-go!

Frank Gorshin once recalled how he became involved with the series. “I had worked for a guy called Bill Gerringer on Naked City. He told me he had this project and asked me I’d consider this part. I’d absolutely loved the Batman comics as a kid and especially The Riddler, who was a genius; he just got away with pranks all the time. There was nothing he couldn’t do. To suddenly be asked whether I wanted to bring him to life was just amazing. I didn’t have to audition or anything. The key had to be his laugh. Life was such fun for him and I tried all sorts of laughs. But it had to be an honest laugh. I was really anxious to do this part it was just bizarre: the outfits, the tights, everything. Adam West had to be careful not to be ridiculous, but I knew what I had to do and that was to haven lot of fun. I really looked forward to every new episode. I would do one show then I wouldn’t do a show for another eight weeks, but I always looked forward to appearing again.”

“The first overnight ratings back in 1966 were phenomenal, and we kind of knew then that it was going to be something special. None of us knew or could anticipate just how long it was going to last. I certainly enjoyed the success and the exposure but it has been a cross to bear. I was nominated for an Emmy for playing The Riddler in that first episode, I didn’t win, but. I was so thrilled just to have been nominated. However, people identified me as that character for a long while. I had a tough time being considered again as a straight actor.”

I do recall a couple of incidents that happened during the filming of the pilot. I got stuck in the automobile once. I was in the Batmobile and just couldn’t get out; there were no handles, inside or outside. They had to call a crew member in to get me out. I was stuck there for a long time. There was also one sequence where I had to slide down a chute and come out standing up in a crowd of people. Believe me, it took quite a few takes to get that right.”

As for the rest of the guest cast. most were character people, the type you would recognize by face and not necessarily by name. In fact, in an odd twist, Producer William Dozier, who was already narrating the show, dubbed in the voice for the actor playing the maitre'd at the disco.

I would like to point out that this episode (and several in the future) have a direct connection to the George Reeves Superman tv series. Actor Dick Reeves, in one of his last roles (he would pass away not long after) who had the part of the doorman at the disco, was a regular henchman to many of the villains on the Superman show. While Michael Fox, who portrayed, what I believe was supposed to be a recurring character, Inspector Basch, was the lead villain in what is considered by many to one of the better Superman episodes, The Perils of Superman (the villains all wore lead masks, and its the one where Clark Kent is lowered into a vat of acid, Penguin might have gotten the idea for his acid trap in Hizzoner the Penguin, from watching Superman reruns) Fox returned but not as Basch but for a bit part as a radio station manager in the Falseface episode. Also of note is, series Director of Photography Howard Schwartz used to be one of the cameramen on the Superman show.

It has been noted that it was amazing that Batman did not notice Molly beneath the Robin costume, considering her ample proportions. Only that he noticed the defect in the mask caused by the straws they gave Robin to breathe through. But has anyone considered the bigger problem with the mask. Riddler never removed Robin's mask, so when he made the mold, Robin's mask became part of the face. No way would it look like a real mask Robin was wearing, Of course, if Riddler removed the mask, the secret identity premise would have been blown away. The other thing is Molly wasn't exactly bald, it would have taken a large effort to stuff her red hair under the mask to keep it from peeking out or distorting Robin's Head.

Another interesting thing, Riddler had an exact Robin costume made for Molly except for the belt, which he takes from Robin, to give to her. I would have thought the belt would have been the easiest thing to duplicate.

The Giant mammoth which appears to have been made out some type of plaster was filled with used postage stamps, which flew everywhere when Batman and Robin broke free of it, but how did they manage to get inside it without spilling a stamp. Secondly, how could Riddler steal the mammoth even if he could get it down the hole in the floor. As we saw, the whole area was loaded with pipes and equipment, there wasn't any room to move it anywhere.

It was mentioned else where about the off camera explosion of Riddler's car. It was done for a very good reason, according to Adam West “On the first day we were working on a corner of the Fox Century City lot, near the almost completed Century Plaza Hotel. I wasn’t in the shot but I wanted to be there anyway. I had the costume on except the cape and cowl. I sat in my chair to watch the special effects crew set fire to the Riddler’s overturned car. When The Riddler and Molly were safely out of range, the charges were detonated and the car started to burn. But then the car exploded, smoke filled the air and rubber shrapnel spun toward me. I hit the dirt and covered my head with my hands. I later learned that the air in the tires had superheated faster than expected and had blown up, causing a pair of giant arc lamps (used to block out unwanted sunlight in outdoor shots) to explode as well. While still lying on the floor, I noticed that the burning pieces of tires had blown towards the hotel and that the 30 stories of burlap that had been hung to cure the cement walls had caught fire. Soon, the sirens were sounding and crew members were rushing hoses to wall which separated the movie lot from the hotel.” So, it would have been impossible to reshoot the scene, as the car exploded, and it was too dangerous to attempt again even if they could get another car.

Speaking of cars, Robin did not get his drivers license until the third season of the series. He is obviously too young to enter the disco, and yet Batman allowed him to drive the Batmobile into the parking lot by himself. It may have been a short distance, but he was still too young to drive.

The pilot was filmed over a period of two weeks during the middle of October 1965. It was the hopes that the series would sell and be on the Fall 1966 schedule. The producers planned to shoot the Batman feature film, in the Spring of 1966, and thus use the larger budget to pay for the all of the additional props and equipment, the boat, copter and cycle. for the series without having to tap into their smaller tv budget. However, ABC's Fall 1965 schedule fell apart very quickly and they ordered the series to be ready for a January 1966 premiere. Not wanting to lose the sale of the program, the producers put the film on hold until after the first season ended, and rushed the series into production in Mid November. In order to save time, two episodes were filmed simultaneously at different studios, with the cast racing between the two to stay on time.

In order to save additional money, props from Irwin Allen's Lost in Space, also filming at the Fox studios at the time, were used to fill the Batcave. The force field projector, sits atop a rock just to the left of the power core and right of the batpoles. It was there for only a couple of episodes before it was returned to the Robinson family, but the scenes of Batman and Robin racing the batmobile for the balance of the first season were from the pilot so the projector appears to vanish and reappear many times over the episodes. Fox was known to reuse many of its props, sets and costumes, Even one of the Lost in Space monsters made its way into Batman's third season (How to Hatch A Dinosaur).

Next up, The Penguin.


  1. Thanks, Joel, for the deep background. It's always great to read the comments from those you interviewed. A few thoughts: (1) Do I correctly remember that Frank Gorshin, a top-drawer impressionist, created the Riddler's laugh out of Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo in "Kiss of Death" (1947)? (2) The notion that the Riddler was the "safest" villain to pilot the series—the one least likely to scare away ABC's suits—is fascinating. Even so, if Bill Dozier had not been willing to lay his prestige on the line, it's hard to imagine any other Suit following suit. (3) Allen Jaffe was the actor who played the maitre'd; his distinctive face could also be seen in January '66 on The Wild Wild West ("The Night of the Steel Assassin") and again in '67 ("The Night of the Brain"). (4) Another important link with the Adventures of Superman: according to Gary Germani's "Fantastic Television," Superman's producer Whitney Ellsworth, who had been employed by National Periodicals (DC), visited the Batman set and was amazed by how many people were executing the different functions he had performed out of a single office. (5) The logical inconsistencies you point out are, for me, part of the show's charm: It's comic-book logic. (No one recognizes Clark Kent as Superman even when he removes his glasses!) (6) For all the chaos that ensued, it's too bad the camera didn't catch the original explosion of the Riddler's getaway car. That would have been something to see.

  2. Good point about the "it's so bad it's good" camp approach enabling mistakes, omissions, or total illogic to sorta play. Molly-as-Robin was a fearless absurdity that epitomized the show's wacky, innovative sense of self-parody. Even the off-screen crash of Riddler's car could be interpreted as a deliberate nod to cheesy movies that couldn't afford to go all the way with an actual crash (Lugosi getting hit by an off-camera vehicle in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE comes to mind). Given the half-camp, half-straight tone of Season One BATMAN, a number of these "look how phony this looks!" set-ups proved somewhat perplexing to younger viewers, who resented having their sense of reality broken for the sake of some self-humiliating laughs. Consider how one of the best cliffhangers in one of the better episodes ("A Riddle a Day...," the second Riddler appearance) is almost ruined by the apparently deliberate choice to use obvious dummies for some of the 'spinning wheel' shots, as a nod to crummy special effects in old serials, I would guess. These and a handful of similar "Let's show the strings!"-type set-pieces never worked for me on BATMAN, probably because the show's colorful sets, costumes and production design in general were all state-of-the-art for TV in 1966. This was an expensive 20th Century-Fox series for a major network, not an Ed Wood quickie, and every dollar Dozier and company spent was right up there on the screen. As all of us Batfans know, maintaining that delicate balance between straight-enough stories and camp flavoring became the biggest creative challenge on BATMAN. Turning production mistakes into "parody assets," or intentionally making things look cheap and corny to satirize potboilers, was never really the show at its best... at least, that's the way a 12 year-old me felt about it. 46 years later, having re-watched a number of episodes, my opinion is pretty much unchanged.

  3. Howdy Bat Fans! For any of you arriving late, be sure to read all three of today's posts, including our original review, Joel Eisner's thoughts,and Gary Gerani's spotlight article!

    Enfantino & Scoleri:



  4. Gary: My apologies for misspelling your last name. I was working from memory, which is something no one my age should attempt. I should tell you that I purchased "Fantastic Television" at B. Dalton's the year it was published, and since then have nearly worn it out. Two concessions to reality that Bob Butler made to the Molly-Robin switcheroo was to unfold the cape across Burt's and Jill's shoulders, and to shoot her medium close-ups so that the bottom of the frame cut above her bust. A young man, as I once was, pays attention to such things.

  5. i would like to add a correction to Clifton's comment. Allen Jaffe portrayed Riddler's Henchman, Harry who doubled as the bartender at the disco. The part of the maitre'd was actor Carl Christie. It took me a long time to find out who this was since he was never credited on the show. As to why Wm Dozier overdubbed his voice is a mystery. They only thing that makes any real sense is there was too much noise during the club scene and he had to redub his part in the studio at a later date and he wasn't available, so since it was a small part and to save time, Dozier who was dubbing his narration, dubbed in the part.

  6. Batscholar: Thanks for the correction. You're quite right that I confused my bartender with the matitre' d, who solicitously offered to seat Our Hero ringside. As to the dubbed voice: Never noticed it and, truth to tell, I still can't hear the difference!

  7. Hey, no problem about the spelling error, Clifton. My aging eye just danced right over it! Glad FT brought you pleasure, seriously. As for Molly as Robin, I'm sure we were all looking in the same place, and still are. Interesting how, in a very roundabout way, this bit-of-business anticipated a real female Robin in DC comics (Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS). Last but not least, notice how Butler has Robin's cape draped over the Boy Wonder in the kidnap scene. Double benefit: Sets up the idea of this cape covering its wearer, which will also be the case with Molly, and also avoids censor problems. I think a dart actually embedded in Robin's arm flesh would cross the line creatively and break the agreeable unreality Butler, Semple Jr. and Dozier were so carefully nurturing, especially since the pilot was a little more "real" to begin with. I also think this is why our heroes are always rendered unconscious with knockout gas in the series, and never by chloroform in the kind of classic "grab from behind" attack that TV's Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl would frequently endure (and look great while enduring). Somehow, that would be too real for BATMAN, but just about right for a campy comic book TV show produced a decade later...

  8. Mr. Gerani, it should be noted that we were not all looking in the same place on Molly, though I won't embarrass myself by admitting where my eyes traveled. I can say pretty certainly that Molly did not use the Derek Smalls enhancement technique.

    Speaking of the classic "grab from behind," you can note that in the fight sequence after jumping out of the elephant, 2 henchman grab Batman from behind, and one goes for Batman's "jewels," so to speak. Look for it after the blue WHAMM!! appears. You guys are so lucky to have me around to point out these important details. (Where is Lisa when we need her to add some smart comments?)

  9. The maitre'd having the narrator's voice was long obvious to me, since that clip turned up on the soundtrack LP.