Top 10 Great Actors Who Made Awful Batman Villains

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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

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

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

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.


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18 Comments

  1. You are wrong. John Astin rocks. He may not have been the Frank Gorshin Riddler; but, if we’d never seen it, it would’ve been pretty good…

    And, let’s see Gorshin do a one-man play on Edgar Allen Poe…

    • I remember being conflicted as a kid seeing Astin take over the role. I loved both Gorshin and Astin for who they were. Gorshin was the man to me. Didn’t see Astin on Broadway, – would’ve loved to, and I’ve no doubt it was good, but did see Gorshin in a one man show about George Burns called “Say Goodnight Gracie”. It was pretty great in it’s own right.

      • My inlaws saw Frank Gorshin perform at a dinner theatre in Toronto. Not only was he the model of professionalism, but he was personable and welcoming to the audience.

    • I mean, what can I say to that? I’m sure no one sets out to invest in a TV show that’s intentioanlly bad. It’s a show that just doesn’t adapt well to modern tastes or can neatly be placed in a box (is it humorous, is it action-packed, is it designed to teach a lesson, is it dramatic), but that’s what I found fascinating about it. Adam West likened Batman to Andy Warhol pop-art in his biography.

  2. Of course the whole series was both ridiculous but that was what I prefer about this to the dark ominous somber take to batman later- that it took a crime-fighting series to comic. Archer, shame, Bookworm and dr. cassandra were fairly lame villains (like come on, a “fight” scene where the villains are invisible?!) but nora clavicle-barbara rush where batman-adam west is pied piper has to be the absolute worst along with marmaduke ffogg 3-part as a tie. there were some pretty bad joker-surf’s up, and penguin episodes which were pretty lame. A lot of times the first part of the episodes would be thrilling and the wrap-up episode would disappoint. Louie Lilac, Black Widow, and even catwoman. Zelda episodes were oddly the one adventure that did not disappoint. King Tut was another lame villain. False face was also entertaining. I actually didn’t mind the ma parker or the siren or mad hatter that much.
    Post comments as to best and worst episodes\adventures for each recurring villain. thnx

    • Orrin Konheim (article's author) on

      I liked Fogg. He was at least congruous with who he was supposed to be.
      I thought Bookworm was both spot-on for the poppy tongue-in-cheek nature of the show.
      I’d have to watch the Louie Lilac episode, it did sound pretty awful.

  3. The whole series was awful. The only way it could possibly be entertaining is to etch when stoned. Come to think of it, it was made in the late 60s… that may explain a lot.

    I much prefer the Nolan movies. Batman: The Animated Series is famtastic, too. It was much more faithful to the comics (the comics have always had a darker tone. It is not something that came afer the 1960s series, which was a departure from the way Batman is supposed to be). The amimated series is one of the greatest animated superhero series of all time. Perhaps the greatest. If they ever did a live action series similar ro the animated series it could be a hit. It would surely be better than that silly 60s camp.

    Batman Beyond, another animated series, is very good, too. Bruce Wayne is cranky old eccentric living alone in ramshackle Wayne manor, having given up crimefighting due to a bad heart and some myaterious history. He ends up taking on a young protogé who becomes the new batman, working together with Wayne who does the investigative work from home. The new commissioner Gorden is Barbara Gorden, former batgirl who also quit vigilante justice for some myaterious reason, possibly involving whatever caused Wayne to quit. She is not to thri;led with the new kid at first. I wiah they’d make a movie based on it. Warner Brothers almost did but abandoned it, the fools.

  4. @Jacob
    You are a fanboy with no taste and you cannot see beyond your nerd vision. 60’s Batman was the best.

  5. Once correction: Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor didn’t marry the same man. Zsa Zsa was married to hotel emperor Conrad Hilton and Elizabeth was married to his son, Conrad Hilton, Jr., nicknamed “Nicky”.

  6. I have to disagree on the assessment of Van Johnson. His character was intended to be a musical genius using sound as a weapon to blackmail the Stock Exchange, and to be Batman’s techno-villain counterpart. He and Batman essentially conducted their own chess match over who’d outwit whom. As the Minstrel, his role was not as a fighter but a clever crooner and charmer with a sophisticated scheme. You overlooked many truly cockamamie villains in this overview, some of which were already named.

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