The first time filmmaker James Tooley met Adam West, the “Batman” star was sunning himself on the balcony of his Ketchum, Idaho, home, covered in tanning oil and clad in a pair of boxer shorts.
Tooley described the encounter as “sort of intimidating.”
Luckily, he added, “It didn’t take long for him to win me over.”
West, best known these days for his role on the hit animated show “Family Guy,” is the focus of Tooley’s new documentary “Starring Adam West,” screening Wednesday in San Luis Obispo as part of the opening day festivities for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
Following the screening, West, 85, will participate in a question-and-answer session and receive the festival’s third annual Spotlight Award — which honors entertainment industry insiders – from Los Angeles radio personality Ralph Garman.
“It’s going to be so much fun,” said Wendy Eidson, the film festival’s artistic director.
In addition to documenting West’s life and career, “Starring Adam West” charts the campaign to win the pop culture icon a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The film includes interviews with Garman, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane and “Batman” co-stars Burt Ward and Lee Meriwether.
According to Tooley, who is also West’s son-in-law, “Starring Adam West” aims to reveal the man behind the myth.
“A lot of people see Adam as this iconic figure because of his role as Batman and I think he has struggled in many ways to present himself as that,” Tooley explained. “He’s a normal human being. He’s had struggles, and you see those struggles in the movie.”
Learning to work hard
Born William West Anderson, West credits his childhood in Walla Walla, Wash., with instilling him with an unshakeable work ethic.
“When you grow up on a hard-dirt wheat ranch and things are tough, you have to work,” West recalled.
Still, West realized early on that a farmer’s life was not for him.
“Going to the cowboy movies on Saturdays, you figure there’s a bigger world out there somewhere,” West explained. “I just had a hunch, a feeling, an ambition that I might do something in this business.”
After studying literature and psychology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, West enrolled in graduate studies at Stanford University — only to be drafted into the U.S. Army.
Stationed at Camp San Luis Obispo, where he worked as an announcer for American Forces Network television, West remembers “all the rocks and steep hills … I had to climb over with a full pack.”
He also has fond memories of reading classic literature to the five soldiers who shared his basic training hut.
Following stints in Fort Monmouth, N.J., and Hawaii, West arrived in Hollywood in 1959, appearing in a series of commercials, crime dramas (“The Detectives,” “Perry Mason”) and Westerns (“Gunsmoke,” “Maverick,” “The Relentless Four”).
West’s big break came when he was cast as wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne — and his superhero alter-ego, Batman — in a television series inspired by the DC Comics character.
“I had a feeling when I read that first script of ‘I really want to do this’ because … it was enormously funny and fresh and different,” he recalled.
Although West suspected that playing a costumed crime-fighter would lead to him being typecast, “I felt I could deal with it,” he said.
“Batman,” which ran from 1966 to 1969, made West a bona fide star. (He also starred in 1966’s “Batman: The Movie.”) But when budget cuts led to the show’s cancellation, the bottom fell out of his career.
Unable to shake his “Batman” persona, West was forced to seek out the most menial projects — regional theater, low-budget movies, “things I would never even watch,” he said — “just to keep working.”
He also struggled with alcohol abuse.
“Even when (things) were good, I just looked at alcohol as a reward,” he explained. “If I’d had a really good moment in a day, I’d reward myself with a few drinks. And when things were going badly, it seemed like a good idea to have a few drinks, too.”
Finally, after being told “Any time you screw up, you’re drinking,” West decided that “I didn’t want to screw up anymore.”
A move to Idaho in 1986 gave the actor a fresh perspective, West said, as well as “some mystery with Hollywood.”
“In other words, when I’d been gone for a while, I began to work more than in a long time,” he explained.
In his 60s, West began appearing regularly on late-night talk shows and animated series including “Animaniacs,” “Rugrats” and “The Fairly OddParents.” He met MacFarlane while appearing on a 1997 episode of “Johnny Bravo.”
When “Family Guy” premiered in 2000, MacFarlane picked West to play a highly fictionalized version of himself, Mayor Adam West.
Asked how he came up with his daffy double, West said, “You just have to take … some quirky part of your personality, something that’s made somebody laugh or yell at you … and magnify it.”
“I always figured… that if you can walk that tight(rope) (between fiction and reality) and have some fun with yourself, it can be fun and interesting,” he said. “I just accepted that challenge.”
Now back in the spotlight, West said he strives to be “friendly and funny” in his interactions with fans.
“The feeling is always, ‘Have I done the right thing? Have I made enough people happy?’ ” West said. “If they’ve had the loyalty to watch me for so many years in so many things, I feel I owe them a little.”