Image: The Everett Collection
Holy Raisin Bran, Batman, have we got some scoops for you!
Earlier this year, we had a long and lovely phone conversation with Burt Ward. You know him best as the Boy Wonder, Robin, a.k.a. Dick Grayson. For three seasons, from 1966–68, the California native portrayed the iconic DC sidekick on Batman.
Half a century later, Ward has returned to the role, voicing Robin in the 2016 animated reunion film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. A sequel is on the way. As a side note: Our chat occurred before the passing of Adam West. Ward told People magazine, "Adam and I had a special friendship for more than 50 years. We shared some of the most fun times of our lives together; our families have deep love and respect for each other. This is a terribly unexpected loss of my lifelong friend, I will forever miss him."
Ward is filled with fascinating stories. Thus, we figured we'd let him tell his side of his story. To celebrate his birthday, here are some things you might not know about Burt Ward, as told to us by the man himself.
He was just as surprised and dazzled by 'Batman' as we were when it first premiered.
"On the day Batman premiered, I worked all day at the studio. It was a weekday, Wednesday, January 12, 1966. Because the show was coming on, they let us off work to go home to be able to see the show. You gotta understand, when you're working as an actor, you’re making little tiny pieces of things. You have no idea what it’s going to look like when it's assembled. So, when I went home, I didn’t know what to expect. We would have a dialogue like, 'Ok, Robin, let’s go!'… 'Right, Batman!' It would take 45 minutes to light that and shoot those two sentences. You don’t really know! When Batman came on, first of all, I had never heard the music. I had never seen the opening. And I was blown away. This is really good! Neal Hefti’s music! That theme! I saw my name and my caricature and I was blown away. And then the color. You have to understand, not everybody had a color TV. Color was pretty new. And here our color was bright and bold. And then of course, you had the dialogue and the costumes and the Batmobile and villains that were shot at an angle. I thought, 'There must be something wrong with our camera crew. They can’t even keep the damn camera straight!' I found out later, they did it on purpose. I asked, 'Why would you turn the camera on an angle?' They said, 'Because the villains are crooked!'
He beat out 1,100 actors to win the role of Robin.
"There were 1,100 young actors that tried out for this role. That’s pretty big competition. When they selected me. They first asked me, 'Would you like to know why we selected you out of 1,100 people?' Yeah, I’d love to know. They said, 'The reason we selected you, Burt, was in our minds, forgetting television for a minute, if there was really, in real life, a Robin, in our mind, you personally would be it. We don’t want you to go out and act. What you are is exactly what we want. The only things we want you to do is be yourself and be enthusiastic.' Well, there’s no shortage of enthusiasm with me! Everything you saw that I did, whether it be hitting my fist into my palm, jumping over the car door into the Batmobile… all of these things were mine and nobody told me to do them. They were all concerned with the lighting. They basically left me alone. The direction was basically just, 'Be here when you say that.'"
He broke a wooden board with his hand in his Robin audition.
"You can see it online. I broke a board with my hand. Karate came to the U.S. in 1959. Nobody at the time I was doing auditions and screen testing had heard of karate. That was a treat."
He took a lot of eggs to the head when taking on Egghead.
"There was a scene near the end of the two-parter ["The Yegg Foes in Gotham"], in fact it was the climatic scene, the fight scene, where Egghead had grabbed me around the neck and was breaking eggs on my head. Batman breaks into the room. Batman smacks Egghead and he lets me go, and then I was suppose to pick up eggs and throw it at him. Anyway, you have Adam and Vincent [Price]. These guys never make mistakes. Well, rarely. Well, they goofed up ten takes. And all the while, it’s starting off with Vincent breaking eggs on my head. Well, I had 20 eggs broken on my head. It actually stings a little bit. There’s nothing worse than sticky egg yolk going down under your cape, down your shirt and down into your tights. By the time they stopped goofing off, I was so mad. I was dizzy. So I picked up the dozen eggs to throw at Vincent Price, I picked up those eggs and I smashed him so hard that it moved his egg head off-kilter. 'Oh my god, this kid is so violent!,' they said!"
In fact, 'Batman' was a rather physically demanding show overall.
"I had a great time, other than the fact that it was a dangerous show — a really dangerous show. I was in the hospital four out of the first five days. I had never even been to an emergency room. It was really dangerous. Put it this way. You’re tied down to a table, okay? Like in the first episode, with Frank Gorshin and Jill St. John, the special effects guys are setting explosions around you and it’s 7:30 in the morning, and as they pass you, you smell liquor on their breath. You know that’s a bad sign."
Bruce Lee was his neighbor and buddy.
"I was a black belt when I did the part. Bruce Lee and I knew each other because we lived in the same condominium building. He and I used to spar together. Bruce Lee, his very first fight scene of his career that was filmed, was fighting me. We were friends! He and his wife and I would go into Chinatown for dinner. Bruce, because he had lived in Hong Kong, knew all the best food. Let me tell you, he trained eight hours a day, every day. I’ve never seen anybody in such condition."
Shelley Winters gave him an interesting book.
"Everyone had warned me, 'Watch out, she loves young guys. Watch out, Burt.' It’s not going to bother me. For that scene, I had to be tied to an electric chair. Here I am, first scene, I can’t move. She never was forward. However, on the lunch break, she handed me a book. 'Take a look at this book,' she said. 'You might want to read it.' The book was The Delights of Older Women."
Jerry Lewis did not make friends on the Batman set.
"He came on the show and he was fine. He had one little thing — he came out of the window. He had to tell the director to move away, that he was going to direct himself. He told the cameramen to get off the camera truck so he could sit there and decide the angle and the frame. And he told the lighting people how to light. Everybody got very quiet. We were all very glad when he left."
He was no fan of the budget cuts in season three.
"During the third season, they were losing so much money, from what I understand, something like $300,000 a week. In those days, that was like $3 million a week. In the third season, a unit production manager [Sam Strangis], he told the producers, 'If you let me direct, I will bring everything in on budget.' He kept his promise, but he sacrificed the show. The jokes he had in there, he was the only one who laughed at them. Everything was cheapened down. And I complained about it. The guy became a bitter enemy of me, because I told what I believe to be the absolute truth about our show, which is that he ruined our show. He had no comedic sense at all. Everything was cheapened. It was sad. NBC was going to pick up Batman [for a fourth season], but producers had destroyed the Batcave, which cost $800,000 to make. And NBC didn’t want to spend that much to rebuild the Batcave."
He recorded music with Frank Zappa.
"Yeah, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. They are the totally opposite of me. I’m all-American, apple pie, and these guys have long beards and scraggly hair. It was hilarious. Frank Zappa was a brilliant musician — brilliant. I recorded a song called 'Orange Colored Sky,' which… ugh… I don’t even want to go there. I also recorded a song where I took a series of fan letters I had received and combined them. Zappa put music to it, called 'Boy Wonder, I Love You.' It got to No. 6 in Chicago!"
However, censors completely misunderstood the song.
"…and the censors pulled the song! Because, here I am reading letters from young girls, 'Oh, can you come over to my house and stay for a month or two? I’ll make you breakfast in bed!' So innocent, you understand? But, oh no! To the censors, 'Make you breakfast in bed? Ooh…!' It was such an innocent and sweet thing."
He was a noted speed reader.
"I was considered the fastest reader in the world. The average reader reads 240 words a minute with 40% comprehension. I had one of the most prominent speed-reading teachers in the country. He had me test in front of the American Medical Society in Beverly Hills, and I was tested at 30,000 words a minute with 90% comprehension."
He was a pioneer of comic book conventions.
"I was the one who started with the sales of photographs. Nobody had ever done it. My tour manager came to me and said, 'Hey, why don’t we charge 50¢ a picture?' I said, 'Nobody would pay that!' Because what would happen is, when you gave out free pictures, you’d see a crunched up one over here, a torn up one over there. But once we started selling them, you never saw one on the floor. Today, the fee is $80 to $100, but at the time I couldn’t believe anyone would pay 50 cents."
He created a game show with Adam West.
"It was just the opposite of every game show. Because, you know, with a game show, you start off little and you keep trying to get that bigger prize. The whole concept of this show was, in the beginning, you win everything. You win everything! The trip to Europe! The new car! The fur coat for your wife! You win it all. The whole question is, can you hold on to it for 30 minutes? And you're playing against the house expert. Instead of having a regular person you play against who always knows the answers, we wanted to make it where nobody could think we were fixing the contest for the contestants to lose. So our house expert was none other than C.J. the orangutan from the Clint Eastwood movie [Any Which Way You Can, the sequel to Any Which Way But Loose]."
Gordon Gecko was modeled after his father-in-law.
"In 1989, I met my wife, when her father, one of America’s most feared corporate raiders, sent his daughter out to buy $10 million in controlling interest in my publicly traded company. She and I fell in love. She asked her dad to not acquire my company. I married Tracy Posner. Her father was Victor Posner. There were movies modeled after my father-in-law. Wall Street, and the character Gordon Gecko. Well, my father-in-law was the basis for that film."
Image: Courtesy of Burt Ward
His father-in-law didn't want his daughter to get married.
"He called me up and offered me $10 million to send his daughter back. I said, 'Sir, it’s a very kind offer, but I love your daughter and I’d rather have your daughter than the money.'"
These days, he saving dogs, not Gotham.
"I was the Caped Crusader; now I’m the Canine Crusader. My wife and I for the last 22 years, for total charity, we've rescued thousands of dogs. Every one of which would have been dead if we had not saved them. We pay for their food, their shelter, their medical. We've found every one a safe, loving home. We vowed about to help these magnificent gentle giants to live longer. We created a Special Feeding and Care Program that had increased the life span of every dog in the program by three years — from 6-8 years for our breeds up to around 11 or 12 years — but we wanted to do more, and fifteen years ago, we thought, well, if we can make the best food possible… So we came up with Gentle Giants Dog Food. Right now, we have more than 50 dogs here. And 24 of the dogs we have — these are giant breeds — are 14 to 26 years of age. Every one of the 24 has already lived twice their average lifespan. We don't take a dime. This is all about charity."
Image: Gentle Giants / Chewy
If he had to pick one favorite "Holy!" exclamation…
"You mean like… 'Holy strawberries, Batman, are we in a jam!'? You can use that one. That’s a pretty good one! I had 387 or 370 holies or something like that.'