Lorenzo Semple Jr., Creator of TV's 'Batman,' Dies at 91
Lorenzo Semple Jr., the creator of the campily classic Batman TV series who went on to craft such big-screen paranoid thrillers as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor -- though he would be replaced on both films -- has died. He turned 91 on Thursday.
The screenwriter died Friday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, his daughter Maria Semple -- the novelist and Emmy-nominated comedy writer-producer who has worked on such series as Mad About You, Suddenly Susan and Arrested Development -- told Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter.
Semple’s résumé also includes the Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman escape tale Papillon (1973); Paul Newman’s Harper sequel The Drowning Pool (1975); Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong (1976) starring Jessica Lange; and the rogue James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983).
Most recently, Semple and Marcia Nasatir, a former studio executive, producer and agent, teamed for Reel Geezers, an R-rated YouTube series that saw the Hollywood octogenarians bicker as they reviewed movies.
“We had such fun doing it,” Nasatir said. “He was a wonderful, smart, funny guy and a great friend.”
Semple, who was hired by producer (and eventual Batman narrator) William Dozier to create the superhero show for 20th Century Fox Television and ABC, said he always envisioned the series as a comedy, albeit one played with a straight face.
Semple wrote only the first four episodes, but he served as a script or story consultant on every other installment. He also penned the show’s “bible” for the other writers. (One rule: Batman should never break the law, not even to park in a no-parking zone during a crime-fighting emergency.)
Semple came up with the idea for interspersing the show’s fight scenes with exploding and colorful Pow! Zap! and Kapow! graphics; found the Riddler’s riddles in books popular with third-graders; and named every device the Bat-this or the Bat-that. For Robin’s “Holy (Fill in the Blank!),” he riffed off a similar phrase used by an elderly character in the Tom Swift books.
Batman, which starred the perfectly cast Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as Robin the Boy Wonder, aired on consecutive days each week during its first two seasons, with the first episode climaxing with a cliff-hanger. A huge ratings and merchandising smash at the start, it quickly flamed out.
“I think Batman was the best thing I ever wrote, including those big movies,” Semple said in a September 2008 interview with the Archive of American Television. “As a whole work, it came out the way that I wanted it to, and I was excited by it.
“I once went down to a fancy wine-tasting benefit in Princeton. When people found out I wrote Batman, they mobbed me! I was astounded.”
Semple also penned the Batman movie that was released in July 1966 between seasons one and two; that took him two weeks.
He was born Lorenzo Semple III on March 27, 1923, in New Rochelle, N.Y., the oldest of four children. His uncle was the dramatist Philip Barry, and the mother of a high-school classmate was writer Ursula Parrott. She encouraged him to write, and he sold what he described as a “light love story” to The Saturday Evening Post.
Semple enrolled at Yale but soon left school for France in 1941 to drive an ambulance for the Free French Forces. He earned a Croix de Guerre after surviving a battle in the Libyan desert, returned to the U.S., was drafted into the Army and given a Bronze Star. A contrived story about military intelligence he wrote made it into Time magazine.
Out of the service, Semple took drama writing classes at Columbia with the goal of becoming a playwright. He penned Tonight in Samarkand, an adaptation of a French play about a circus that played briefly on Broadway and starred Theodore Bikel.
In the late 1950s, MGM paid him $100,000 for the rights to Golden Fleecing, his comedy set in a hotel in Venice, Italy, that had yet to open on Broadway. Directed by Abe Burrows (the father of Cheers co-creator James Burrows), the play debuted in October 1959 starring Tom Poston and Suzanne Pleshette but lasted a scant nine weeks.
MGM remade the play as The Honeymoon Machine (1961). “It was the only Steve McQueen film that ever lost money,” Semple quipped.
He moved to Los Angeles and had scripts accepted for such TV shows as The Rogues, starring Charles Boyer and David Niven, and the Aaron Spelling-produced Burke’s Law, starring Gene Barry. And he wrote the first episode of the action series The Rat Patrol, drawing on his experience in Libya.
When Dozier had an idea to do an hour show called Number One Son, about the offspring of the great fictional detective Charlie Chan, he asked Semple to write the pilot.
“I did the job, ABC liked it,” Semple recalled in the TV Archive interview. “Then Bill got a call from ABC. They said, ‘This is very embarrassing, but it has been decided that we don’t want any stories with an ethnic hero. Period. That’s the end of it. Number One Son is dead.’ But, they said, ‘We owe you and Lorenzo one. We treated you very badly.’”
Semple left to live in Spain with his wife and two young children to concentrate on writing a play. Soon, he got a cable from Dozier (the writer didn’t have a phone) asking to him to meet him in Madrid.
“Bill shamefacedly pulled out of his coat pocket a comic, Batman,” Semple said. “He said, ‘ABC has proposed doing a series on Batman. You and I can do it.’ I said, ‘It’s a terrific idea; go home and I’ll write it.’”
ABC loved Semple’s pop-art sensibility and scheduled the series in midseason without a pilot. During Batman’s first season, he worked from Spain via mail, never met any of the actors and said he received not one critical note from an executive at ABC or Fox.
Semple also didn’t make a lot of money; he said he earned just a few hundred dollars for working on each Batman episode he didn’t write. It didn’t seem to bother him.
“If I had been with a big agency, I presumably could have parlayed [Batman] into a very good overall deal at some point,” he said. “I didn’t do that at all. In those days, the goal was always to get into features.”
Semple eventually had to relocate to the States to work more closely on Batman, moving first to Westport, Conn., and then to Los Angeles, where he eventually rented Boris Karloff’s house and co-wrote Fathom (1967), starring a skydiving Raquel Welch.
His screenplay for the devilish comedy Pretty Poison (1968), starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, earned him a New York Film Critics Circle prize.
Semple wrote a screenplay on spec for Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), a thriller that starred Warren Beatty as an ambitious reporter who investigates a senator’s assassination. Semple’s lead character was a baseball player; he wasn’t interested in how the story was changing and quit to work on Papillon.
But soon after Hoffman joined the cast of that Franklin J. Schaffner film, Semple was replaced by the Oscar-winning Dalton Trumbo.
“He did not do as much work as one would think,” Semple said in the TV Archive interview. “Dalton Trumbo was a famous letter writer; he wrote me a string of letters saying I shouldn’t get any credit, that he should have sole credit. I threw them all away, I never answered any of them.”
On Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), starring Robert Redford, Semple said he was not surprised when he was eventually let go from that picture. “David Rayfiel wrote all of Redford’s movies, credited or not … Everybody knew they were going to bring in David Rayfiel at some point.”
Semple met with Sean Connery in Marbella, Spain and sold him on his 70-page treatment for Never Say Never Again, which saw the aging actor return as 007 in the much-litigated Warner Bros. film based on Thunderball. But when some action scenes were cut as a cost-saving measure, the producers pacified an angry Connery by blaming -- and then booting -- Semple.
“I was quite relieved; I really didn’t want to go on with it,” he said. “I also agree a human sacrifice is required when a project goes wrong; it makes all the survivors feel very good.”
Semple later wrote the screenplays for the silly Flash Gordon (1980), the Tanya Roberts-starring Sheena (1984) and several telefilms.
In addition to his daughter Maria, survivors include his wife Joyce, children Johanna and Lorenzo and six grandchildren.
A longtime WGA board member, Semple taught screenwriting at New York University’s NYU Tisch School of the Arts from 1984-90. In the TV Archive interview, he expressed disdain for the “self-pitying” scribe.
“I’ve heard many writers say, ‘We’re the only ones that face the agony of the blank page’ … I say, actually, you’re idiotic,” he said. “The blank page is the greatest moment of writing a script. It could be the greatest script in the world. It’s going to go downhill from here as you write it. But be happy that you have the privilege of facing it.”