Kitt, who passed away on Christmas Day 2008, is one of the names mentioned in a new licensing deal that will see Warner Bros. Consumer Products hawking all manner of merchandise keyed to characters from the 1966 Batman TV series. Up to now, only vehicles and cartoon art from that classic show could be licensed out, but WB has made its peace with 20th Century Fox (which produced the series) and representatives of the featured actors. So expect to see plenty of kitschy vintage Bat-tchotchkes in stores starting next spring. (There’s still no word of a longed-for DVD release, although Adam West opined recently that the involved parties might be “coming closer” to an agreement.)
The licensing deal is great news for lead players like West and Burt Ward -- as well as for Kitt’s daughter, Kitt McDonald, and the estates of the many other now-deceased actors who played villains on the series. What’s curious is that Warner’s press release on the matter mentions Kitt instead of Julie Newmar, who was the first to play Catwoman on the show (and indeed anywhere). I can see why WB’s licensing arm would want to emphasize Kitt: As the sole black performer to fill a major role on Batman, she’s about their only option for marketing to our multicultural latter-day society. But if they’ve cut Newmar out of the picture entirely, that’s a mistake, given how fondly the latter is remembered for having introduced more Americans to puberty than a shelf full of personal-hygiene filmstrips.
Was coming to terms with a Kitt kitten easier than tangling with a live Newmar? Maybe, maybe not. Negotiating with an actor’s heirs can always go one of two ways. If those heirs decide the commercial viability of the deceased is an enduring quantity, they’ll hold out until the cash cow comes home. (Look at how long it took for Universal to come to an agreement with the children of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.) But if they decide the Old Man or Lady’s appeal is finite, they’ll jump at just about any offer they get. In fact, one might muse that the entire Batman deal -- which manufacturers have supposedly clamored for for years -- finally came about precisely so many of the actors involved have shuffled off this mortal coil. If you were Stafford Repp’s widow, how many more ships would you be expecting to come in?
Sure, it’s tempting to scoff -- or just shrug -- at the waxing and waning profitability of TV personalities from decades ago. The guest list to any halfway-decent autograph show is practically a cue for us hard-working types to roll our eyes and groan, “Jesus, where has that guy been?” But what we sometimes forget is that boob-tube stars didn’t always receive a Friends-sized pension. Once upon a time, they got paid for exactly two reruns of any show they appeared in; after that, it was up to them to find other paying work within an industry that had already typecast them. And whatever merchandising revenue they had earned from their trademark role was often criminally slow in coming. All of which is why Erin Moran, whom I saw a few years ago smiling amiably for the crowd at one of those FX expos, is now living in a trailer park and fighting for every last penny she may be owed from the sale of Happy Days lunchboxes. Joanie loves Chachi, but Momma gotta eat.
Ironically, the Batman cast didn’t even have that much to fight over the first time around. Though their series was one of the most heavily merchandised in TV history, most of the goods that made it to store shelves depicted the characters as they were traditionally seen in the comic books, not in live action. The excuse given was that manufacturers were worried the TV show would be an enormous bomb; if that happened, at least they could still shift some units based on lingering affinity for the classic cartoon images. The more cynical (read: correct) explanation is that using drawings instead of photos meant no pesky actors to pay.
So I hope Newmar and the younger Ms. Kitt both get every penny they’re entitled to. In fact, I’ll even throw in Lee Meriwether, just to be generous. Because nobody I know is really in the market for a Barnaby Jones incontinence pad.