Feature

Lorenzo Semple Jr., 1923–2014

The writer who made Batman funny

In the 1970s, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters. He wrote and collaborated on a raft of critically acclaimed movies, including 1973’s prison escape drama Papillion and the following year’s conspiracy thriller The Parallax View. But Semple’s favorite project was far less serious. He was the creator of the wacky Batman TV series, which debuted in 1966. Semple turned a comic-book icon into a kitschy action figure whose earnestness appealed to kids while simultaneously signaling to adults that it was all an absurd send-up of the genre. “I mean, golly gee,” said Semple, “how else can one view a character who enters a nightclub in full Bat garb and mask” before asking the maître d’ for a seat away from the band, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to appear conspicuous.’”

Semple, born in New Rochelle, N.Y., had a successful career writing Broadway plays and television episodes when ABC executives asked him to adapt the Batman comic for TV. While the network had a drama in mind, Semple “saw the absurdity of a wealthy bachelor who enjoyed dressing up as a bat to fight crime,” said The New York Times. He wrote playfully camp dialogue for Batman and his loyal sidekick, Robin, whose frequent fistfights with villains were accompanied by comic-book-like exclamations printed on the screen: “Krunch! Kapow! Zowie!”

“With the show’s runaway success, Semple leaped into films,” said the Los Angeles Times, co-writing the Paul Newman–starring crime drama The Drowning Pool and the Robert Redford CIA thriller Three Days of the Condor. Semple’s career slowed in the 1980s, but he continued to be celebrated for his early work. “I once went down to a fancy wine-tasting benefit in Princeton,” he recalled in 2008. “When people found out I wrote Batman, they mobbed me. I was astounded. But that was the way it was.”

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