Robin actor Burt Ward says the set of the original Batman show was a literal death trap

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Mar 29, 2018

Holy interview, Batman! SYFY WIRE spoke with the legendary Burt Ward, the actor who portrayed Robin on the original Batman TV show of the mid-1960s. Known for its campy style, iconic "na na na na na" theme music, spinning transitions, and onscreen action graphics, Batman only ran for three seasons between 1966 and 1968, but it entirely changed the landscape of comic book properties forever.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the show's series finale, so we decided to ring up Ward and ask him a few questions on what it was like to work on the show and act alongside the incomparable Adam West. He answered those questions and also told us just how dangerous the show's set was. The first week alone left him with a dislocated finger and second-degree burns. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic and fond way in which he talks about the series makes it sound as if he just finished filming it last week.

Ward was only 20 when production began; he had to go to court to have his contract approved because he was so young. Nowadays, he runs a non-profit with his wife called Gentle Giants, which saves dogs by putting them up for adoption while also producing affordable and healthy dog food. According to Ward, the Gentle Giants regimen can help double a pet's lifespan.

Now, quick, Robin! To the interview!

So, the original Batman TV show ended 50 years ago this month. What was the highlight of getting to play Robin on it?

Burt Ward: I think surviving, in a one-word answer. It was a very dangerous show to make. I was in the emergency hospital the first four of the six days of filming. [I had] second-degree burns, my nose [got] broken by a two-by-four landing on it from explosions. Let me tell you something, it was a lot of fun, it's really very simple. It was a fantastic show to do, everything was as great doing as you see it on television. The only two horrible things: It was very dangerous and [I had] a costume that was not a lot of fun to wear.

Man was not built for tights. [The costume] was just very heavy. But riding in the Batmobile, working with Adam West — he was such a fun guy, such a nice man — and the comedy. We used to say that we put on our tights to put on the world. That's what made, in my opinion, Batman such a huge success.

It wasn't just another cop show and you sat there in your living room [watching a cop] chase after somebody or a medical show and they're trying to help somebody get well. This is where we almost reached through that television and we went right after our audience. For the kids, [there was] the hero worship and all the derring-do that every kid in the world would've loved. And for the teenagers and college kids, it was the double meanings and the insinuations and the very suggestive stuff that we did. At that time, getting a college kid or a high school student to watch anything was very hard. It was that kind of period in time where everybody [said], "Why would we wanna be inside watching television when we could go out and do things?"

To capture those people, you had to capture a whole campy style with double meanings and I'm telling ya, the ratings on our first show when it came out was a 55 share. That's more than you have [for the] Super Bowl. That means that of all the televisions on in North America, 55 percent were watching Batman and all the other national, local, regional stations were sharing the other 45 percent.

When Batman was sold for re-runs, instead of being sold for one or two seasons, they were sold in blocks of 25 years.

What is one of the hottest things in movies today? Superhero films. You've got Black Panther out now and every Marvel [hero] got all of their [own films]. Hey, they came about because of Batman. They never would've been made without the success of Batman because once somebody makes something and it works, everybody wants to copy you. It's a bigger effect than you might think. All of these things [like Wonder Woman], they all came back to Batman. We were the ones that took it from a comic book that, at the time, was not even really popular. It was popular, but it wasn't the hottest thing.

Courtesy of Burt Ward

I'm glad you brought up the campy element. The show is considered campy compared to today's darker interpretations of the superhero genre. So, it was intentional to go the sillier route?

We don't use the word silly. It really wasn't silly, it was stylized comedy. Silly, I look at that word and that is a degrading word because this was the No. 1 and No. 2 show in the entire world when we came on. We were on twice a week in primetime, it was gigantic. You [had] women having their hair cut with the Batman style hairdo. The merchandise was greater than any other television or film in history. More than Star Wars, more than Superman, more than Lord of the Rings, more than Harry Potter, more than anything. The Batmobile is the most famous car in the world, it was auctioned off. Here you [have] a car that's 52 years old, it runs, but not great and certainly doesn't even have the inside finished because they had all the cameras in it — but for $4.6 million? It's incredible.

What were your expectations going into the role and did you realize just how big and iconic the series would become?

First of all, nobody told me these [were] comic book characters. I had no idea when I did that screen test. I thought it might be some Shakespearean thing; I didn't know what it was.

I was the youngest person on that set at 20. The next youngest person was Adam who was 37 and everybody else was in their 50s because they [were] the old pros, the best lighting guys, the best sound guys, the best camera guys. So, I never saw anything until I saw the symbols on the first night [it aired]. I didn't know anything about the tremendous Batman theme music [by Neal Hefti] that made everybody crazy. I never even looked into the camera. I was only working and saw things in the most amazing color and then the fight scenes with the POW!s and the ZAP!s and the graphics I had never seen and the sound effects to go with them.

When I watched that first episode, I said, "Gee, this is really good." I didn't think anything about a hit and it turned out that it became so gigantic. My very first personal appearance was about three months later by myself in Tacoma, Washington, at a mall and they had over 310,000 people show up. All the streets right around the mall were blocked off, people had to park blocks away and walk. People were camping on the streets, just to get to me. It was a terrific experience.

Were the "Holy ___ Batman!" lines written or improvised?

I would say probably 90% were written. I had the flexibility if something didn't make sense, that I could change it. We [were] shooting back-to-back episodes, sometimes simultaneous episodes. We had 32 different directors on Batman for three-and-a-half years, but because it [was] twice a week, it's like six years of programming. Not every director got the style that we had created and we wanted to maintain a consistency and the studio basically let me do whatever I wanted. They saw how it worked, they saw the chemistry of Adam and I. It's because they didn't try to say, "Well, say it this way or do this," they let us go and we just fun with it. And Adam, being the natural comedian that he was, it just worked.

Kids [were] jumping off their couches, running around getting bath towels with clothespins to hold it around their neck, [while] the adults are sitting there laughing so hard. So many times adults come up to me now and say, "I used to get so mad at my mom and dad. They're there laughing while you and Batman were getting hurt and tortured by those villains. And I [would] ask them, 'Mom, why are you laughing? Batman is getting hurt!'" It was a whole different world.

Since you were the first person to play Robin in a mainstream live-action format, what do you think is your biggest contribution to the character?

The creation of taking something that was two-dimensional and making it three-dimensional. The only other portrayals [of Robin are] these old Columbia serials that go back before I was alive that were of very low production quality because they didn't have quality productions in those days. The only thing other than that would've been the fact of Chris O'Donnell portrayed Robin [in both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin] and it was received okay, but it wasn't great. [There were] all kinds of issues with the costumes where Joel [Schumacher] had nipples on the bat suits, but I thought Chris O'Donnell did a good job, he's a fine actor.

I had a great story done years and years ago by The New York Post where they had come out and said "the greatest Robin ever was Burt Ward," so I think I defined the character in terms of bringing it to life.

When I was hired, there were 1,100 young actors that tried out for this part. That is huge and they told me when they hired me, they said "Burt, would you like to know why we selected you from 1,100 young actors?" I said "Yes, I would like to know." And executive producer William Dozier said, "Because in ours minds, forgetting television for a minute, if there really was a Robin, we think you personally would be it. So, we don't want you to quote/unquote act, we want you to be yourself, Burt Ward. We want you to be yourself and be enthusiastic. That's all we want."

And that's what they got. If you ever see me jump over the door to get into the Batmobile or jump over the door to get out, [or] hitting my fist into my palm, I was doing whatever I felt was right. Nobody ever directed me. The reason we were left to do them is because this was such a tough show to make. First of all, we had a double-sized crew, there were 80 guys on the crew and the cost in those days was at like four or five times [the] normal television show. Everybody was so concerned with the effects, to get this working and the giant cake and the quicksand. Every week, [with] these tremendous effects they had to do, the whole focus was trying to make those effects work. Other than [directing] Adam and I [and saying], "Well, you're supposed to be in the Batmobile when you say this or you're supposed to be here in the Batcave," they let us do what we wanted.

It was Adam's incredible comedic style. In today's world, it's kinda sad because the only way [stand-up comedians] get any laughs is by swearing whereas a real comedian can make you laugh without having to use nasty words and Adam was a master at comedy. His stilted style of very grander, bigger-than-life, all that kind of stuff. I mean, people just went nuts. They just absolutely went nuts.

Credit: 20th Century Fox Television

What was it like getting to work with Adam West?

Such a creative guy. He had a sense of humor that was so natural and amazing. We would go out and sign autographs and I'm telling you, the lines would be hours and hours and hours [long]. People would come with their kids and by the time they got up to where we were, their kids were asleep in their arms. Just to give you an idea of Adam's style, let's say some cute young ladies came up and he said very strange things [to them]. Like, for example, he'd say "I have an itch, would you mind scratching my ear?" and he's talking about the cowl, so he'd lean over and all they're doing is touching a cowl, and he said, "Ah! That feels good. Looking at you, you are incredibly beautiful and in fact," he says, "I'm beginning to feel strange stirrings in my utility belt." There is the style; it is highly suggestive and yet there's not a single dirty word, but it really paints a picture.

Adam could never get in trouble, but I could always get in trouble. For example, we [would] drive the Batmobile out of the Batcave. One time, they had the car steered wrong and I accidentally hit the set a little bit with the Batmobile. I got yelled at for a week, whereas he could crack it up and everybody would think it's funny.

Do you have a favorite scene from the show or a favorite behind-the-scenes moment?

No, and I'll tell you why. Think of it this way: If you made 120 episodes [and it takes] six days to make one and every week you're working with some phenomenal star. I remember we had this Egghead [episode] with Vincent Price. He was a scary character [and] when he came on the set, I had that moment when I first saw him where your heart flutters a little bit, you can feel a little hollow in the stomach. He was an incredibly nice man, but every week I got to work with somebody that I grew up either watching on television or seeing in a movie theater. How can anybody [choose one moment?] Too much great stuff!

***In the following section, Mr. Ward goes on to describe several instances of the show's production that either left him badly injured or came close to ending his life***

There's [an episode] where Catwoman captures Robin, puts me on a plank where I'm tied up with my arms tied down to my sides. I'm on my stomach with my head hanging over the end of the plank facing down and I'm 10 feet above three live, wild Bengal Tigers. These cats can jump, they said, 16 feet. I'm only 10 feet above them. And then, there's four [crew members] in a steel cage 10 feet above me out of the range of the tigers. [The tigers] were halfway up to reaching me, just standing on their hind legs. They stand up looking at me, kind of pawing. The director says "Oh, no no no. I need more than that. I want them jumping up." [The handler said] "The only thing we could do is we have their food here. We could hang meat over Burt Ward's head." And they did it and [the tigers] jumped up in my face. I pulled against my bonds and after the shot, which they ended up doing three or four of versions of it, the director said to me, "Burt, that was terrific, you were so realistic!" [I said], "What do you mean realistic? I really was trying to get away from them, they were trying to kill me!"

They thought I was acting; I wasn't acting!

In the very first episode, this was with Frank Gorshin, the Riddler, where we're tied to these things that are spinning 'round and 'round. We really were tied to it and it really spun around and I'm telling you something: I was dizzy for a week.

First episode, first day, first shot [we were shooting at] Bronson Canyon, coming out of the Batcave with the Batmobile. I had to be on the set [at] 6AM for a 7:30 on-camera shoot, in make-up, in costume. [They said], "Ok, Burt, go over to the cave" — it's huge — "we got the Batmobile parked in there, get in the car, you're gonna be coming out in about 55 miles an hour, straight at the camera and we're gonna have the Batmobile make a sharp left turn. I get in the Batmobile and it's dark, it's in a cave. I look over and I think it's Adam West as Batman in the costume. But as I looked a little closer, my eyes started to adjust, I could see it wasn't Adam.

I couldn't figure out who it was, I said, "Who are you?" He said, "My name's Hubey." I said, "Oh yeah? Well, nice to meet you, Hubey. What are you doing in a Batman costume?" He says, "Well, this is a very dangerous shot and they don't wanna take a chance of Adam West getting hurt, so I'm doing the shot." I said, "Oh, okay." And I start thinking about it.

I said, "Is this really dangerous?" He said, "Absolutely. In fact, the more broken bones I get, the more money I get paid." I said, "Wait a minute. I'm Burt Ward, I play Robin. Do I have a stuntman?" [Hubey replied], "Oh yeah, you have a stuntman." "Oh, thank goodness. Where is he?" "Last time I saw him, he was [getting] coffee with Adam West."

Now I hear the studio say, "Okay, roll it up."That means they're gonna start filming. I said, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute!"

I call over the second assistant director [Sam Strangis]. He says, "Burt, what's the matter?" I said, "I'm talking to this stuntman, he's telling me this is a very dangerous shot." He says, "Yes, he's right." I said, "Yeah, but I'm here. If it's so dangerous, aren't you worried about me getting hurt? Why isn't [my stuntman] doing this shot instead of me?" [Strangis said], "Because we can't use him." "Well, why not?" "Because he doesn't look like you."

"Oh my god, why would you hire somebody to be my stuntman if he doesn't look like me?!" "Well, we couldn't find anybody else. Your face is gonna be right in front of the camera, we can't use the stuntman, he's got a nose that looks like Cyrano de Bergerac." So I said, "okay, okay."

And by the way, there are no seat belts in the car. We come out [of the cave] at 55 miles an hour, straight at the camera, make a sharp left turn, my door flies [open] unexpectedly, not supposed to happen. It knocked the cameraman off his camera truck, knocked him over, knocked the camera truck over, knocked a whole camera over, and knocked an arc lamp over. You could get killed if one of those things landed on you. Because of the centrifugal force, it was throwing me out the door and just [by] pure luck, my hand reached around [and] I luckily got my little finger around the gearshift knob and it just pulled my finger right out of the socket.

You can't imagine how painful something like that is. When they rushed over and said, "Burt, are you ok?" I said, "Yeah, but my hand is hurting." Even with my glove on, my little finger was twice the size. They said, "Oh my God, Burt. Your finger's outta joint, we gotta get you to a doctor." I said, "Okay, where is the car you're gonna get me to?" "Oh, we can't do that now. We gotta get this shot first. We got 80 men on the crew, this is like $60,000 a half hour."

This is at 7:30 in the morning, I left for the emergency hospital at noon. Can you imagine that many hours in incredible pain and having to ride in that thing again and again till I got the shot right?

Credit: 20th Century Fox Television

The second day: Robin is in a burning car with the Riddler. Jill St. John is the villain's girlfriend and they shoot me with a dart and make a death mask of me. They take my costume and they're gonna try to capture Batman by [making him think] he's coming to save me and it's really Jill St. John in my Robin outfit. I'm in a burning car and Frank Gorshin is above me, he's supposed to climb up through the driver's window, stand on the edge of the car, and jump down to the ground. I'm underneath him, I'm supposed to climb up through the window and also jump down onto the ground. I came out and I was just up to where I was about to jump [when] the car blew up. Just imagine the ground coming at your face like 100-200 miles an hour because that's what it looked like. [I suffered] second-degree burns at the back of my neck. Off to the hospital.

Day three: I told you they were making this death mask of me and day three, we shot that when I'm tied down to a table. There's supposed to be a small charge. What they use in the movie industry is magnesium; it is very hot and makes a big bang and a very bright [light], but it doesn't do a lot of damage. They were supposed to have built a breakaway set — that means Balsa wood. It looks just like a regular [set] but when you have a little charge, it looks like the whole thing blew up. Here, we've got a crew of 80 [people at] incredible expense and we're on the set and they set the charges and nothing happened. Nothing moved because the studio [had] a foul-up and the set builders built a real set, not a breakaway set. There was no time to spend another three weeks to build a breakaway set, so what did the special effects guys do? They used two half sticks of dynamite. It nearly blew the entire soundstage up. I couldn't hear properly for over a week. I was tied down on this table and when they blew that thing up, a two-by-four came down and hit me on the bridge of my nose and broke my nose.

I got to be friendly with this doctor at the emergency hospital. I got to know him because I was there all the time. Fourth day, [a] famous scene, we pull up to this Whiskey a-go-go type of thing and Batman gets out and goes into this nightclub and I'm sitting in the car because I'm too young to go into a place where they serve liquor. And then I get shot in the arm by the Riddler with a dart and I'm supposed to get knocked unconscious. The studio said to me, "Burt, this is a quarter of a million dollar shot. It's a one-shot, period. We've got 10 cameras on this. When you get shot with that dart, no matter what, no matter what, you don't dare move."

And then the Riddler comes in and he sees me knocked out and he gets in the Batmobile and he pushes the start button, and it's the fake start button that Batman had set up and these big tubes that are on the back of the Batmobile [that are angled] straight up, they shoot off these fireworks. Real fireworks, 300-feet into the sky. I'm not moving, the shot is already happening. Guess what? Those fireworks are coming down and they're burning through my skin, burning through my tights, burning through my shorts, burning through my scalp. I never moved because it would've ruined the shot. Then, I had second and third-degree burns.

Four days. I swear, I didn't think I was gonna survive.

Let me tell you what the studio did, they were very smart. They went out and took a multi, multi-million-dollar life insurance policy on me. By the end of that series, the last couple of episodes, I could swear they were trying to collect on that policy.

Courtesy of Burt Ward

Who do you think should play the next live-action iteration of Robin? Do you have a dream casting in mind?

Yes, I do: me!

When Star Trek [the series] ended, unlike Batman, Paramount hired Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner to make newer movies and this went on for 10, maybe 15 years. Let me tell you something that I observed [about that]. Even though they were older in this movies, these were incredibly successful because the people who went to the movies loved the actors. And it didn't matter that they were older, it didn't matter that maybe they had aches and pains to do the same kinds of things. It made them more endearing to the people that loved them and that's the way people have treated Adam and I, with that kind of respect and with that kind of love and interest. So, I look at it a little differently than maybe somebody else does.

It's not just a job, you built something that launched the entire superhero craze. Look at the box office of Black Panther, it's huge! It never would've happened if Batman hadn't brought superheroes to the screen. It never would've happened for any of them, probably. Very unlikely and it's because we found a way to make it work on television and with the success that it had, that was it. Hollywood is not known for doing lots of really great, new things. They tend to do things over and over and over. They make new remakes.

Has Warner Brothers ever approached you for a cameo in the live-action movies currently being made?

No. I only attribute it to the fact [that] our show reached so many people because of it was comedy [and] they don't wanna have anything that could even remotely [be associated with that tone]. At least that's in the past, who knows what the future holds? I think it was because of the comic nature of what we did, such strong comedy that if you're trying to do something that's dark, you're not gonna have anything that might counteract that.

Is there something from the Batman universe that you'd like to see on screen?

I think it's coming. I think you're gonna see Nightwing, which is the evolution of Robin's character when he grew up. The nice thing is that Warner Bros. really does a first class job in everything they do and they're gonna bring it out over time. They're not gonna throw it all out at one time. It will continue for many, many years into the future because it has been proven and is successful and it's dependable for them.