Despite the mega-success of the bleak and brutal Dark Knight Batman movies, it’s worth recalling that the Batman franchise wasn’t always so unrelievedly brooding and intense. Sure, Frank Miller’s graphic novels in the late 1980s—re-inventing Gotham’s troubled crime fighter as a humorless, vengeful sociopath—certainly sparked renewed fanboy interest in Bob Kane’s and Bill Finger’s amazing creation, and the early comic books themselves had their macabre moments.
But for many years in the middle part of the 20th century, the Batman of the popular collective imagination was not the hyper-violent vigilante of Miller’s riveting novels, or of Christoper Nolan’s often-overwrought movies. Instead, he was a wry, approachable, comically self-aware Good Guy.
In fact, in the minds of millions of men, women and kids who spent any time watching TV between, say, 1966 and 1989—when Tim Burton’s caped-crusader movies came on the scene—Batman was Adam West, and Adam West was Batman.
Along with Burt Ward as Robin and a slew of showbiz notables (Frank Gorshin, Eartha Kitt, Burgess Meredith, et al.), West starred in more than 100 episodes of Batman on ABC, and very few TV shows in the history of the medium can touch the series for sheer, unapologetic goofiness.
Here, LIFE.com offers a series of photos from the set of the classic old show, in fond celebration of a lighter side of Gotham’s masked avenger.
We’ll end here by reprinting LIFE’s priceless observations about Batman when he and his cohorts were entertaining TV audiences for the very first time:
It’s all over the place. Madness! Supermadness! The entertainment world offers it on all sides, and the public gobbles it up. Batman conquers TV. Kids swing Batman capes in the back yard, and Bat products are everywhere. . . .
Batman swooped from the comic books to the TV screen only a few weeks ago and is already among the top 10 shows, one of the great sudden successes in entertainment history. The hero is still his spooky but saintly self, a Dracula with a halo who pops out of his Bat lair to foil enemies with mysterious weapons. Adults can take it as a joke or lap it up like kids. Either way, Batman wins.
The boom in bedlam springs, of course, from man’s old love of the bizarre and the fantastic. But it also reflects today’s restless, volatile spirit. Pop art and the cult of camp have turned Superman and Batman into members of the intellectual community, and what the kids used to devour in comic books has become a staple in avant-garde art. Any way you slice it, the new supermadness is breaking the laws both of gravity and logic and providing a useful escape hatch from the booby hatch. In a world that often looms confused and loony, it helps clear the air to see it portrayed that way.
Does it ever.