Aside from being a sublimely ridiculous TV series, Batman (the 1960’s version) was the prime destination for actors who would often be cast as villains. Enticed by the chance to ham it up and be a part of pop culture, serious actors such as Anne Baxter, Ida Lupino, Tallulah Bankhead, Victor Buono, Rudy Vallee, Burgess Meredith and Maurice Evans all appeared on the show.
Even though everything about the show was, by all accounts, absurd, there were still many famous actors who appeared on the show and seemed absurd even by the standards of the show. With that in mind, we present the top 10 great actors who made awful Batman villains.
10. Joan Collins as The Siren
Originally paired with the Riddler, Collins made enough out of the part that she wasn’t an altogether unwelcome choice to return to her role in the 3rd season. Even though cheesy villains were the norm on the show, Collin’s Siren pushed the boundaries of cheesiness. The Siren was a singer who could immobilize everyone by singing 3 octaves above middle C and her henchman Andante and Allegro wore earmuffs while she sang. The main problem was that Collins’ singing was clearly a sound effect. It might have helped if they put a musical star in the role so her singing could have been highlighted. After all, the show never shied away from shamelessly building villains around musical celebrity personas to boost ratings (see examples 6 and 1). Interestingly enough, the world record holder for highest voice, Georgia Brown, sang an octave above the siren and never resorted to supervillainy.
9. Carolyn Jones as Marsha, Queen of Diamonds
Although some of the more attractive or seductive female guest stars (Jill St. John, Terry Moore, Joan Collins) might have made a better love goddess, there was nothing particularly wrong about The Addams Family star Carolyn Jones’ approach to the part of love goddess Marsha. Like the Siren, Marsha’s character was ridiculous, even by the standards of the show. Marsha used love darts to put people under her spell and her big scheme was to marry Batman so he would be legally obliged to show her the location of the bat cave.
8. John Astin as the Riddler
Frank Gorshin was unavailable for the second season of Batman, (the official Batman website reports he wanted a pay raise after being nominated for a BAFTA for the role) prompting production to replace him with character actor John Astin. In contrast to other TV shows who usually take great care to make a casting change for the same role as subtle as possible, the Gorshin-Astin transition was pretty sloppy. Astin was significantly heavier and not as diabolical sounding as Gorshin; which had a lot of 10 year-olds scratching their heads.
7. Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagne
While the shrill Ethel Merman seems like an absolute last resort to cast on Batman, I have to concede that one good thing about Lola Lasagne was that she came with a surprisingly detailed backstory: Lola was the childhood friend of The Penguin who teamed up with him back in the day to steal from neighborhood kids. She resumed her life of crime after having been wiped clean by her divorce from pasta magnate Luigi Lasagne (except for a horse named Parasol, which is why she was seen walking around with parasols to match). If the writers were capable of writing a back story like that, why didn’t they ever explain why The Riddler felt inclined to give away the answers to his crimes or why The Egghead liked to make such horrible puns?
6. Liberace as Chandell
The flamboyant piano player had a one-episode stint in a dual role as acclaimed pianist Chandell (named after his trademark chandelier) and his more evil brother Harry. The episode’s plot involved Chandell being pressured by his brother to marry Aunt Harriett and subsequently murder her and Bruce Wayne so he could repay his debts. West said in his biography that Liberace was a very sweet man but came off ridiculously as a villain. One perk of Liberace’s guest star stint was that he performed for the cast and crew during breaks and even took requests.
5. Shelley Winters as Ma Parker
Double Oscar winner Shelley Winter played a villainous grandmother figure who played off the fact that she was a sweet old lady (ironically, Winters was just 47 but her graying hair sold the whole Granny angle) to lull her marks into a false sense of security. Even worse than her MO is how she gets in trouble in the first place – raiding the Gotham’s Ladies Axillary Mother of the Year awards. Ma Parker was likely not brought back for a second episode because the writers couldn’t think of any other mom-related crimes to commit. Winters was reportedly dissatisfied with the experience and complained on set quite a bit.
4. David Wayne as the Madhatter
David Wayne inherited the fairly popular part of the Mad Hatter and his two episodes were based on story-lines straight from the comics. Wayne was an accomplished and versatile actor with a long list of credits (i.e. Three Faces of Eve, M, and Adam’s Rib), but his interpretation of the Mad Hatter was more flamboyant than even Liberace. Maybe it was his interest in hats and fashion that drove Wayne to that interpretation, but Wayne’s Madhatter seemed like a guy who’d rather be shopping and attending fashion shows than being a super villain.
3. Zsa Zsa Gabor as Minerva
When I say great actresses, I’m stretching the definition a little here. If you’re thinking of the Green Acres star when you hear the name “Gabor,” you’re confusing her with her sister, Eva. Zsa Zsa was famous for her many husbands (one more marriage than Liz Taylor although they had one husband in common), lavish lifestyle, and her famous Hungarian accent (“Vat Vas that Daawlink?”). She did act but the first thing associated with her when you look her up on imdb was her role playing herself in Naked Gun 2 1/2. So as you can guess, she didn’t leave the viewer with any impression that what you were watching onscreen was anything other than Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor’s episode was the last of the series.
2. Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze
The Austrian-born Preminger was primarily known as a director. Wanting to please his kids, he asked William Dozier, executive producer and narrator on Batman, who was a long-time acquaintance, to oblige him with a villain role. Preminger played the part fine but he alienated the cast and crew heavily. Many members in the cast had no problem discussing Preminger’s impossible behavior publicly including Alan Naiper (Alfred) and Adam West who wrote in his biography: “The man insisted on enhancing his reputation as one of the meanest bastards who ever walked a soundstage.” Preminger was not invited back and the role of Mr. Freeze was recast again (Preminger was already the second actor to play Freeze) with Eli Wallach. Although he was paid $2500 for the role, he ended up losing money because he was fined heavily by the Screen Actors Guild for not properly registering with them for his sporadic acting gigs.
1. Van Johnson as the Minstrel
Johnson ascended to fame during World War II as MGM’s new golden boy with leads in war films, romantic films, and musicals. Ironically, it was his ineligibility for the military (a car crash left him with dislodged medal in his head) that led to him being available to do those pictures in the first place.
Johnson’s turn on the series takes the top spot because he was the worst of both worlds. He inherited one of the more ridiculous villains the series offered and made him even more ridiculous through his interpretation. The character was dressed up as Robin Hood and went around playing the lute and singing which made no sense in the context of his super villain specialty which was being an electronics mastermind capable of upending the stock market. Worse, Johnson’s amicable charm which might be ideal in romantic comedies, completely nullifies any pretense of evil that a Batman super villain is supposed to possess.