Alfred's acting chops: Alan Napier before Batman

By: H&I Staff     Posted: June 20, 2023, 11:22AM    Tags: Alan Napier, Batman

You know, it's not all spandex and grappling hooks that kept Batman going. Someone in Gotham needed to be trusted with the more practical aspects of the Caped Crusader's work. While the Dynamic Duo leaps into action, there needs to be someone who can handle the dry cleaning. Alfred Pennyworth is just the fellow for the job. And the only résumé more impressive than the one belonging to this fictional butler is that of the man portraying him.

In 1966, Batman premiered. The show starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin—two costumed heroes trying to make Gotham City a safer place. Batman was a stylistic, vibrant action program with larger-than-life masked villains plotting world-conquering plans. It was over the top. It was campy. But most importantly, it was tethered by some great performances, allowing the exaggerated events to take place in a reality that resembled our own. Specifically, Alan Napier, Batman's Alfred Pennyworth, grounds the show with his believable British butler.

According to a 1967 article in The Reporter-Times, Napier received his training as an actor at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After his instruction, Napier joined the legendary Oxford Players, where his first significant acting work occurred. Napier had the unique experience of performing in a "Heartbreak House" production as directed by the play's author, George Bernard Shaw.

A stroke of luck led to Napier's first serious role: His contemporary, Tyrone Guthrie, was deemed too tall for a part, and so the role was handed along to Napier. It's interesting to note that the once-and-future Alfred Pennyworth stood at 6'5". When probed about the height disparity, Napier noted, "I was seated at the time." Regardless of any height-related controversies, Napier was thrilled to have his first important role, taking to the stage as, in his words, "a rather tall coal miner." He would spend ten years on London stages before moving to Hollywood to further pursue his acting career.

Between his 1939 arrival in Hollywood and the 1966 premiere of Batman, Alan Napier starred in no less than 60 movies. Among his credits were notable features such as The Uninvited, Song of Bernadette, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and The Loved One.

In between film roles, Napier maintained a steady stream of stage work, treading the boards in Broadway, Chicago, and the West End, while adding more variety to his extensive portfolio.

Oddly enough, for an actor with so many credits before Batman, Napier hardly ever appeared on TV. His only regular role on the tube was as Genera Steele in NBC's Don't Call Me Charlie

What did this accomplished star of stage and screen think of Batman? "I love it," said Napier. "I find the comic book approach funnier on film than it ever was on paper—and it's the first time in my life that I've played a butler."