'Batman' at 25: Hirings, Firings and Other Last-Minute Changes Behind the Animated Classic
Many actors have worn the cape and cowl — but for fans of Batman: The Animated Series, there is only one true Batman: Kevin Conroy.
Batman: The Animated Series is considered the greatest comic book cartoon of the '90s, and many consider it the greatest of all time. Animator and writer Bruce Timm had a vision for a noir-heavy take on the DC character, one that would depart from Adam West's 1960s campiness and inject a dose of Tim Burton's gothic-tinged Batman films.
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Running from 1992-95, the series won four Emmys, including outstanding animated program (1993), and launched a 25-year (and counting) reign for Conroy's Batman. It gave Star Wars star Mark Hamill a second iconic role, and introduced the world to Harley Quinn (voiced by Arleen Sorkin), who has gone on to become one of DC's most popular characters after starting as a co-dependent girlfriend to the Joker.
Now, 25 years after its Sept. 5, 1992, debut on Fox Kids, series stars including Conroy, Hamill, Sorkin, Loren Lester (Robin), John Glover (the Riddler) and Diane Pershing (Poison Ivy) look back at creating the near impossible in the comic book world — a universally beloved take on Gotham City's cast of characters.
Conroy initially pushed for two distinct voices for Batman and Bruce Wayne. (It didn't work out.)
"Early on, I said, 'This is the most famous and powerful guy in Gotham. Are you telling me he just puts on a mask and no one knows it's him? Seriously? There's got to be more to the disguise,' " recalls Conroy, who was a 30-something Juilliard-trained actor when cast. "My template for the two voices was the 1930s film The Scarlet Pimpernel. I played Bruce Wayne as sort of a humorous playboy to counteract the brooding nature of Batman."
But after the first few episodes were produced, it became apparent Bruce Wayne's humorous voice didn't work with the dark artwork for the series.
"It was too much. So Bruce had me re-record the first few episodes and tone it down. They liked my idea of two voices; they just wanted it to be more subtle," says Conroy.
Early on, Conroy also had to wrap his head around a vision of Batman that was very different from the little he knew about the character going in.
"As a kid, I had a very conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing. So when Bruce Timm asked me what I knew about Batman, I immediately mentioned the TV show and he screamed, 'No, no, no! That's not what we're doing. Erase that!' " says Conroy. "He explained the dark, noir story and Bruce's vow to his parents which leads to the dual identities. It was sort of Shakespearean tragedy, so I approached it like you would Hamlet or Edgar in King Lear."
That doesn't mean that the 1966 live-action Batman didn't influence The Animated Series. Lester took plenty from Burt Ward — TV's original Robin —for his own take on Dick Grayson.
"I was obsessed with that show when I was a kid. I was very little and I took the show very seriously. I didn't realize it was tongue-in-cheek," says Lester. "I was definitely influenced by Burt's voice, his energy, his pitch. I was absolutely not doing an impersonation of him, but I couldn't help but be tremendously influenced."
As for Poison Ivy, Pershing drew upon her experience doing commercials and found the voice after studying the script and the Ivy action figure.
"I looked at her and thought she was very sexy, so I could use my sexy voice I used on my perfume commercials. She was also doctor Pamela Isley, which means she was a Ph.D. or an actual doctor. That means she's very smart, she's very bright, she's got a really good brain," says Pershing. "So I put the two together."
Hamill thought there was no way they'd cast him as the Joker.
Tim Curry was originally hired for the Joker, but was fired after coming down with bronchitis, the actor said recently. So the hunt was on for someone new. Among those who auditioned? Glover and Hamill.
Nearly a decade had passed since Hamill completed what he thought would be his last film in the Star Wars franchise. When it came to animation, he really wasn't on anybody's radar. But he had read articles in Comic Buyer's Guide that Batman: The Animated Series hoped to emulate the classic 1940s Superman cartoons of Max Fleischer, a Hamill favorite.
"I called my agent and said, 'I really want to get on this, but I'd like to play a villain that's never been done before… Clayface, Hugo Strange, Two Face.' So my agent reached out and they wanted me for an episode," says Hamill, who was cast as Mr. Freeze's boss, Ferris Boyle, in "Heart of Ice," an episode that won a writing Emmy. "I modeled Ferris after Phil Hartman, a guy with a smooth public persona and a different one behind the scenes."
While he didn't have to audition for his first role, he did have to read for the Joker. He was given one note: "Don't think Jack Nicholson."
"I remember going in and they gave me the Nicholson note, which wasn't anything I wanted to do. I wanted to deliver an old school comic book interpretation of the Joker. He's a theatrical guy who really has fun; the joy has to come across in his battle with Batman," says Hamill.
Even though he went all out for the role, he thought his Star Wars past would doom him, particularly since he'd just seen the rough reaction Michael Keaton received when he was cast in Burton's 1989 film.
"I figured there was no way they'd hire Luke Skywalker as the Joker. So, in a way it was very freeing. I had great confidence at the audition because I thought there was no way I could get it. I thought, 'I'm going to give them the best damn Joker they've ever heard and they're really going to regret not being able to cast me,' " recalls Hamill.
As it turns out, he was wrong. Casting and voice director Andrea Romano later told Hamill it was his laugh that sealed the deal.
"I had been playing Amadeus for almost a year on the road. On those shows, you can't change the words, but I would play around with the laugh. Because of the play, I had an arsenal of laughs for the Joker," he says.
Hamill was surprised to find that he was the biggest Batman fan in the cast
“The fans know that I’m a fan, but a lot of the cast didn’t know much about Batman. Diane Pershing has never read a comic!” Hamill says. “Kevin Conroy has never read a Batman comic in his life," he adds with a big laugh.
John Glover freely admits his lack of exposure. “Growing up, if I were going to read a comic, it would have been Archie, or Betty and Veronica. Not Batman.”
Danny Elfman scored both of Tim Burton's Batman films, as well as the Animated Series' opening titles. And Elfman credits a rumor that he hired ghostwriters with late series composer Shirley Walker landing Batman the Animated Series.
"On Batman Returns, I wrote the score and Steve Bartek orchestrated all the music. Shirley was hired to be a conductor on the film. In those days, most people thought I didn't write my music," Elfman says. "It took almost 15 years to dispel that rumor, and Batman was around year four. Almost everyone I met was under the assumption that I hired ghostwriters."
Elfman also composed 1992's Batman Returns, but he speculates people thought Walker was a ghostwriter on the film.
"That stigma was something I had to live with all the time. Shirley was really talented and I'm glad she got the opportunity to do the series, but I think a lot of people assumed that she had a hand in writing the film score," says Elfman. "The studio came to me to write the theme, and then I was told Shirley was doing the score. I was like, 'Oh, good for her.' You know, people do get jobs by association. … I think her association with [Batman Returns] as the conductor probably helped."
Walker's score is immediately recognizable, and so important that Conroy calls it "like another character in the show."
"It was so brilliant, and they spent a lot of money on those episodes. They had a full symphony score," says Conroy.
When the show was first starting, the voice cast recorded their tracks several months before knowing what the show would look or sound like.
"I remember Mark and I were at the WB sound studio to do ADR work and we got to watch the opening credits," says Conroy. "We hear the opening theme with the strings and the lush colors. It was incredibly dramatic. And I looked at Mark and said, 'Did you have a clue this is what we were doing?' He said, 'No, I'm blown away!' We both felt we were a part of something really special."
Conroy considers "Perchance to Dream" the series' finest episode.
The series hit a homerun with season one's "Perchance to Dream," in which Bruce Wayne awakens into a world engineered by the Madhatter. Bruce's parents Thomas and Martha never died, and he is engaged to Selina Kyle. It gave Conroy the chance to explore new emotional territory and showed off just how twisted the show's villains could be.
"I got to create Thomas Wayne's voice, which was a really fun challenge in addition to bringing the episode's incredible story to life," says Conroy. "The wonderful thing about playing a character like Bruce Wayne is that you get to explore his damaged psychology. I love the scripts that examine his internal makeup. 'Perchance to Dream,' the movie Mask of the Phantasm, they really dig into this man and what led him to become Batman."
Glover, meanwhile, would end up playing the Riddler in three memorable episodes, and his favorite of the Edward Nygma trilogy is his origin story: "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?"
In the episode, Nygma's boss steals his ideas and kicks him to the curb. Nygma sets out to destroy and ultimately end his boss' life. Although the boss survives the kidnapping with Batman's help, he lives in constant terror that the Riddler will come for him. The show ends with the ex-boss clutching a shotgun and locking six different deadbolts on his bedroom door.
"That ending is something you don't see in cartoons, ever. I loved the psychological destruction of this greedy guy who wronged Nygma and gave birth to the Riddler," says Glover.
For Hamill, he's got a handful of favorites.
"The Joker never gets tiresome because he’s insane, and that makes him unpredictable, which is never boring. I love that he has the emotional maturity of a 9-year-old and he can turn on a dime. I loved 'The Laughing Fish,' which was a story taken out of the comics, 'Joker’s Favor,' and 'The Man Who Killed Batman,' which has the best Joker monologue of all time," says Hamill.
But perhaps the series' greatest achievement was its 1993 film Mask of the Phantasm. Directed by Timm and Eric Radomski, it got a theatrical release and centers on Batman's pursuit of a mystery figure who is murdering Gotham's criminals.
"Mask of the Phantasm is possibly the best Batman movie ever made; it certainly has the best story. We got Mark [Hamill], Kevin [Conroy] and Dana [Delany] together for a 20th anniversary screening a couple years ago," says Michael Uslan, who was instrumental in bringing Batman to the big screen with the 1989 film and has been a producer on the subsequent films.
"We brought it back on the big screen in Santa Monica. It was an amazing thing, the place was packed," says Uslan. "The film just came out on Blu-ray. When that was announced, I got over a million likes on Facebook. That movie will always stand up against time and it's a testament to the quality of the show that Bruce launched in 1992."
Voice director Andrea Romano was the show's secret weapon.
The legendary voice and casting director, who recently retired after 30 years in the business, helped set the stage for DC's domination in the world of animation.
"She staged every recording like it was a play. You weren't there to just do your lines," says Glover. "She'd play your previous episode so you could see how you attacked the character. Then we'd do a read-through and Andrea would give us notes. Then we'd record the episode. It was an incredibly joyous experience."
Those who worked with her say Romano created an environment in which you were safe to explore your craft.
"We were all working off of each other and most of the people involved had a big theater background, so it was kind of like doing a mini play every day, which was exciting," says Lester.
"She always goes to bat for the actors, even though she's working for the studios. She had an enormous loyalty to her actor. She could coax performances out of people," says Conroy.
Conroy recalls one time where Romano deftly handled an actor who was having trouble.
"I remember one day we had an actor who kept giving the same line reading no matter what direction Andrea gave him. She tried several different prompts and he just couldn't do it. Finally she said, 'Perfect, let's keep going,' " says Conroy. "At the end of the session, Andrea said, 'OK, great work, thanks everyone. Kevin, could you stay after a minute?' I said, 'Sure.' So, I stay after and Andrea asks, 'Is your afternoon free?' I told her that it was and she said, 'Ok good, there's another actor coming in to re-record the guy's part.' Andrea didn't want to embarrass him in front of everyone in the recording session. It was really professional."
Hamill calls Romano his "dance partner" when it came to figuring out the Joker.
We developed a shorthand for laughs and line deliveries," he says. "On Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, part of the element of the script was that the audience has to doubt that this is the real Joker because it’s set so far in the future. So Andrea’s note was to play it slightly off with the voice, so people wouldn’t be sure if it he was a clone, or an android, or someone impersonating the Joker. She wanted to keep people in doubt."
The series tackled feminist issues —something unheard of for a kids' series of the era.
The creation of the Joker's girlfriend, Harley Quinn, remains the series' biggest contribution to the Batman mythos. The character soon moved to comic books, and with Margot Robbie's version in Suicide Squad and its planned spin-offs, she's a bona fide big screen star. In her early days, she grew from being a henchman to being a complex character who questioned her relationship with the Joker.
"I knew when Harley totally hit was when I started seeing Halloween characters. I said, 'It's a Halloween costume?' " recalls Sorkin. "I said, 'Oh my God it did make an impression.'"
Adds Hamill: "It was so wonderful to see how Harley Quinn emerged, because originally she didn’t have a name. She was called 'Joker’s Hench-wench' or something like that. Arleen opened her mouth with this Judy Holiday, hair-brained voice and we fell off our chairs."
The series explored the psychological abuse Harley faced at the hands of the Joker, culminating in the 1993 episode "Harley and Ivy," which sees Harley break free of the Joker's control and go on a crime spree with Poison Ivy.
"It was groundbreaking back then. Now they have more strong female characters on cartoons," says Pershing.
Episodes like that helped Harley and Ivy become icons for young girls who watched the show. Today at comic conventions, Pershing has met a number of women who were inspired by Ivy's strength.
"One girl came up and said she was sexually abused — and when Poison Ivy spoke up and told Harley she couldn't let any man do that to her again, it turned something in her head and she was crying when she told me," says Pershing. "I'm listening to this and I'm overwhelmed to think something I did 25 years ago had such a strong impact and I unwittingly was able to help people."
That inspiration extended to many others in the audience as well. Lester recently met a man who has been in a wheelchair his whole life, and used to play Batman and Robin with his brother every day after school.
"He said, 'It was because of that show I could fly.'"
Haven't had enough from Gotham City? We have oral histories on Batman Forever as well as Harley Quinn. Here's an in-depth look back at Batman Returns as well as Batman & Robin. And here's what it took to rehab the Dark Knight for a post-Schumacher world.
by Aaron Couch, Graeme McMillan