If you were a kid growing up in the 1970s, you probably remember that the commercials were often as entertaining as the TV series. Remember the ads for products like Lite Brite, McDonald’s hamburgers, Battleship, Tootsie Pops, and Etch A Sketch? How about that old public service announcement with the characters from the 1966 Batman TV show? It’s an unusual commercial, if for no other reason than because it marked the last time that actress Yvonne Craig would play the red-haired superheroine, Batgirl.
In 1966, the Batman craze was sweeping the nation. With Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, the campy television show got huge ratings right from the start. The ABC series aired twice a week, with a suspenseful cliffhanger ensuring that viewers would return to see the next episode. Children loved the action and colors while adults enjoyed the clever underlying satire and double entendre.
By the end of season two, the fad was fading fast. Batman was barely renewed for a third year but was cut to one self-contained episode per week, eliminating the cliffhangers. The character of Batgirl (Craig) was introduced to try to boost ratings but viewers had already tired of the craze. The series’ last original installment, episode 120, aired on March 14, 1968. But, that wasn’t the last time we’d see the caped crusaders.
In 1972, the superheroes returned in a unique way. They appeared in a public service announcement (PSA) for U.S. Department of Labor that was aimed at educating viewers about the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” campaign. The Federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal for employers to pay men or women different wages if they performed jobs that required equal skill, effort, and responsibility. Though the legislation was passed almost 10 years earlier, many employers still weren’t following it.
The Batman spot was shot in a similar format style to the show and William Dozier, the Batman TV show’s creator and narrator, returned to do the voice-over. Ward and Craig reprised their roles as well but it wasn’t West beneath the cowl. At the time, West was trying to distance himself from the role and opted to pass. He later made peace with his typecasting and West reprised the role for public appearances, in two live-action specials and numerous cartoons.
Filling in for West on the PSA was Dick Gautier, best known for playing Hymie the robot on Get Smart and for having authoring numerous books on cartooning. Gautier recalls that doing the spot was a favor of sorts. He tells us, “They called me in, hoping I’d fit into the Batman costume. I could and did and then I imitated Adam’s peculiar cadence of delivery and they bought it. Let me rephrase that, as I said, there was no money.” Over the years, many viewers have recalled that it was West in the costume, a credit to Gautier’s performance. Craig noted that the actor “started his career as an impersonator and was brilliant at it.”
Craig was also glad to take part in the PSA. She tells us, “I loved the premise that, only when I got pay that was equal to theirs would I save them! It was a fun shoot and I thought Dick did a superb job.”
Her one caveat to reprising her role as Batgirl was that the production team would have to locate her original costume. That turned out to be a difficult feat but one was finally found, albeit in an unusual place. She tells us, “They were unable to find one that was intact (because I did my own stunts we only had three — one that had completely lost its shape, the one I was currently wearing [when the show ended] and one that was in the process of being made and was missing a front panel and sleeve when we shut down). Suddenly we heard that Burt had a ‘friend’ who might just have one. It was definitely the one I wore, complete with wig!”
She continues, “At the end of the day, Burt stood outside my dressing room door, waiting for me to hand him back the ‘friend’s’ Batgirl suit. In recent years after he’d been ‘outed’, and there was no one left at Fox to dispute it, he has taken to saying that he bought it from them. At the time we needed it, however, they said it had been pinched! Holy crimefighter theft!”
Costume trouble aside, the PSA was an enjoyable experience for Craig. She concludes, “The shoot took place three years after the series had ended and, yes, [it] was my final appearance as Batgirl. Fun times.” Stay tuned!