Actor Burt Ward loves his timeless superhero sidekick Robin. But even more so, he loves the fans who love Robin. "People come up to me and they say, 'We like the Batman movies, but we like what you did with Batman much better,'" he says. "And, in fact, when [Batman TV series star] Adam [West] is speaking to a crowd, he says, 'You know, when you go the movie theaters, you see the Dark Knight. But with Burt and me… we’re the Bright Knights.'"
As recently as June of this year, rabid Batman fans speculated over whether writer/director Christopher Nolan might be holding back a massive secret regarding his final comic book outing, The Dark Knight Rises: the inclusion of Robin, the Caped Crusader's faithful sidekick. The rumors arrived on the heels of a turbulent on-screen history for the character: Early scripts of the of original 1989 Batman saw the introduction of the Boy Wonder, but the idea was nixed by Tim Burton. Robin was eventually weaved into movie continuity, settling in perfectly with the campier, Joel Schumacher films Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Would Robin work in the grittier world of Nolan's Batman trilogy? Addressing the issue in a recent Hollywood.com interview, Dark Knight Rises producer Michael Ulsan recounted famed comic legend Stan Lee's take on sidekicks: "Stan said that the whole concept of having a kid around, that an adult would subject to this level of danger and violence and jeopardy and threat, makes no sense whatsoever. To him, it was always the easiest attack on the believability of the characters in his stories."
If Ward, who starred as Robin alongside Adam West's Caped Crusader on the popular 1966 TV show Batman, is to be believed, Hollywood's problem with Robin isn't that the character doesn't make sense, it's that the industry has never found a very good one. (Sorry, Chris O'Donnell.) When Ward, 21 at the time, was bestowed with the role by Batman producers, it was obvious to him they had not just cast Robin. "They said to me, 'Burt, we’re going to explain to you why we’re selecting you out of 1,100 people, why we’ve chosen you to play this role.' I said, 'Why’s that?' They said, 'Because in our minds, Burt ... if there was really a Robin, we believe that you, personally, would be closest to what Robin would be. We don’t want you to take on some characterization of the character. We really want you to be yourself, and to be enthusiastic.' That was what they required."
While the '60s era Batman played up the comedic elements, twentysomething Ward had all the makings of a real-life superhero. "I was a straight-A [student] at UCLA. I was in the top three percent of the country in math and science on the college level. My dean wanted me to be a nuclear physicist and not an actor. I was the world’s fastest reader. I could read 240 words a minute with 40 percent comprehension. I actually trained for years, and I was tested by the American Medical Society in Beverly Hills at 30,000 words a minute with 90 percent comprehension. I read the entire play of Macbeth in one minute. I read War and Peace, which is 1,440 pages, in 40 minutes." Ward had the brains, but he wasn't lacking in the physical department, either. By 1965, he was a black belt in karate — an even more impressive feat knowing the martial arts fighting style only made its way to the states around 1961. "I could break a board with my hand," he says. "I could do all kinds of stuff. The fight scenes were really good. I was very natural in the fight scenes. I was far better than the stunt man!"
By the time Robin was introduced in Batman Forever, the franchise was knee-deep in over-the-top plots and villains. Instead of introducing Robin as part of Batman's world, or allowing their relationship to evolve, the duo were thrust upon each other for a comic book adventure. Ward believes his Robin was so successful thanks to his natural rapport with West — an element lacking in the big-screen adventures. "Adam and I have a certain chemistry," he said. "I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m very athletic, and very 'Let’s go!', and very energetic, and he’s more a slob and debonair. But we’re always like Mutt and Jeff, or Abbott and Costello."
Under West's wing, slipping into the role was easier for Ward than he could have ever imagined. "I picked it up really quick, because they explained to me that Robin was the ward – isn’t that weird too? That my name is Burt Ward, and I was the ward of Bruce Wayne?"
For the actor, the psychology of Robin, of suiting up, was an asset to understanding the role. "Imagine yourself in a costume, and imagine you’re wearing a mask," says Ward. "Now think of yourself and that the mask is outside of you. You have people in front of you, and then you have this mask, so they all look like you’re looking through a doorway or something, a window, and imagine there’s you, on the inside. Well, the people can’t see you, because they see this mask. And they see this image, and yet you are like a psychologist looking through a window at a patient who doesn’t see you." Ward's philosophical musings on Robin helped him make sense of Batman's larger lapses in logic — as well as the fandom he experiences on a day-to-day basis.
"When they would have the scene with Adam and I as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson inside Commissioner Gordon’s office, and then we say we have to leave, and five minutes later there’s a call for Batman and Robin and there we are again, as Batman and Robin." Ward recalls complaining to producers that there was "nobody in the world who would believe that we’re not the same people." Running out of a room as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, while Batman and Robin ran in only moments later, was ludicrous. But after contemplating life behind the mask, and later, meeting fans at conventions, the actor came to an understanding. "I learned a heck of a lesson, because when I would go out and make personal appearances in costume, people would fight over my paper drinking cup as a souvenir. Four-and-a-half hours of people waiting in line. By the time parents got up there, their kids were asleep in their arms, and they would just go nuts. And after the appearance, I could go back and change, and come out 10 minutes later, and people were still milling around. And I can walk like I was invisible."
According to Ward, Robin fandom is as strong as ever. He's a regular at comic book conventions, where his panels with West draw crowds of thousands, and his impact on pop culture continues to show its face. Yes, even “Boy Wonder, I Love You,” the song he recorded with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. DJs in Los Angeles continue to play the odd tune, a true testament to Ward's staying power as the noble Robin. "We did this album, and I took these actual fan mails and pieced them together," says Ward. "Frank Zappa was very intellectual. He was a graduate of Columbia University in music. I’m all-American, apple pie, and these guys come out on stage and they tear up your equipment. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!" The song climbed instantly climbed the charts. "We were number six in Chicago. They said they definitely thought it would go on to number one if it hadn’t been pulled by the censors… It was such an innocent thing. And it was totally written by a six year old kid! It was so sweet and innocent, but oh boy, the censors got after that."
If Hollywood doesn't have a place for a dark, gritty, modern Robin, Ward has a solution: bring him and West back. "Look when they did the Star Trek movies. Instead of replacing them, like the replaced Adam and I, the Star Trek movies… you saw William Shatner from many different movies, and Leonard Nimoy. And who cared that they were older? You loved them all the more!" In recent years, Ward's acting career (which is as fruitful as ever: he and West will appear on an upcoming episode of Futurama) has become priority number two over his other passion: animal rescue. In his California home, Ward cares for animals of all shapes and sizes. A recent week spent with California's first police camel, "Deputy Bert" (see left), has even inspired him to produce his own reality show, which he hopes to have on TV soon. But no matter what other ventures come his way, Ward won't forget Robin or how important the character is to fans. If he was called back into action, he'd be there in a second. "I have to get back in shape, but so would Adam, in a minute. And let me tell you something, they would pull in an audience they don’t have."
For more on Ward's animal rescue efforts, visit his site Gentle Giants Rescue.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox, Burt Ward]