The Earlybird Gets the Robin as Burt Ward, Batman's Ex-Pal, Tries to Save Kids with School Videos
updated 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
Ward, 43, doesn't dislike comparisons with his old role. "I can make a major contribution and it would be a crime not to," he says. "I believe children should be taught self-esteem, self-reliance, sharing, caring and the difference between right and wrong." His videos are for kids aged 2 to 8, and they star Earlybird—a big bird reminiscent of another feathered TV hero. Designed for use in schools, the 52-part video series, which was revamped after testing in classrooms, comes with lesson plans and art projects—but no Batphones, Batsignals or other signs of the Dynamic Duo.
The younger member of that tongue-in-cheek team grew up Bert Gervis Jr., in what he laughingly calls "the slums of Beverly Hills." He toddled into showbiz at the age of 2 in his father's traveling ice show, where he was billed as "the world's youngest professional skater." But his dad hung up his own skates for real estate, and although Burt had the performing bug, he didn't get his second break until age 21 when, just married and an acting student at UCLA, he and 1,100 others auditioned for Batman. A producer worried that Ward, at 5'8", was already too tall. "You're sure you're not going to grow?" he was asked.
From their first leap into the Batmobile, Ward and Adam West, in the title role, were hits. From 1966 to 1968 the show gave Ward "all the adulation and thrills anyone could ever want," as well as some thrills he didn't want. "I was hurt four or five times shooting the first show," he recalls. "The first day I'm in the Batmobile with a stuntman driving. We come out of the Batcave at 55 mph and the door flies open. I grabbed the gearshift and hung on." During the same auto-erratic episode, he had to climb out of a burning car. "Just as I get out, the car explodes, which it wasn't supposed to do."
Despite the risks of the show's ZAP! POW! BAM! approach, what Ward remembers most are the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. "We were always trying to sneak double entendres past the censors." He also claims that Batman showed an unseemly tendency to grab the spotlight. "I didn't know about upstaging," Burt says, "and I'd say, 'Gee, Adam, why'd you lift your cape in front of me?' " The two remain friends anyway, and West has invested in Earlybird. "Burt has tremendous drive," he says, lowering his voice to Batman level. "Besides, he's a super salesman and wouldn't leave me alone."
Ward's marriage produced a daughter, Lisa, now 21, but the union ended before Batman got on the air. A second marriage, to an actress, didn't last the run of the show, and Ward barely survived it as a performer: After 120 of the twice-weekly episodes, he and West found it all but impossible to get other roles. Ward headed for malls and county fairs, often with West, to make personal appearances as Robin. "I carried the costume myself," he says. "If the airline had lost my suitcase, I would have been out of work." Despite its rigors, the road proved more lucrative than the series. The most Ward was paid for Batman was $600 a week, and since that was before the days of big residuals, he hasn't seen a penny from the show in years.
Ward eventually had his fill of batting around. After a mid-'70s stint as the voice of a cartoon Robin, in 1978 he moved into merchandise management of such rock groups as Abba and the Little River Band. In 1985 he married model Mariana Torchia, 23, and the next year bought Pinnacle. One of his first creative efforts was a short-lived game show called What Have You Got to Lose? featuring West as emcee—and an orangutan as contestant. Monkey business aside, Ward believes his latest enterprise and his marriage have rounded out his life. Says he: "I have the essentials of happiness."
Ward has not given up on performing, although he is not in the currently filming Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton. Instead, he will make his screen debut in a low-budget item called Kill Crazy, about a group of Vietnam vets whose camping trip is interrupted by bloodthirsty white supremacists. Ward himself doesn't count it as a major effort. "I know where my heart is," he says. "With Early-bird." In fact, he sees the new bird and Robin as part of a continuum. "I wasn't playing a role back then," he insists. "It was me. I don't do drugs or smoke. I live a clean life. Typecasting." Just then he's taken by an odd-looking truck on the street below. "Look at that!" he exclaims. "Holy cow!" Typecasting indeed.
—Tim Allis, and David Lustig in Los Angeles