Friday, January 8, 2016

A Book From Batman’s Butler

For Comfort TV fans, the casts of favorite shows are as familiar as close friends. But in so many instances, particularly among the supporting players, we know actors almost exclusively from a single role. They are the television equivalent of one-hit wonders.

You may already be thinking of some that qualify – Marion Lorne, so wonderful as Aunt Clara on Bewitched; David Schramm as the blustery Roy Biggins on Wings; Francis Bavier on The Andy Griffith Show; Milburn Stone on Gunsmoke; Gordon Thomson on Dynasty.

Many of these actors have a number of other significant credits, from stage to feature film – but a successful television series, particularly back in the Comfort TV era when such shows were viewed by tens of millions of people every week – almost always becomes their primary claim to fame, whether they like it or not.

I pondered this topic as I read Alan Napier’s autobiography, Not Just Batman’s Butler. His most famous role was Alfred, faithful servant to millionaire Bruce Wayne (and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson) on Batman (1966-1968). Napier seemed ideally cast as the ever-proper British gentleman’s gentleman, whose duties occasionally required him to take on special assignments that Sebastian Cabot never had to worry about on Family Affair

With his snow white hair, gaunt physique and thick, oversized spectacles, Napier looked about 90 when he appeared on Batman (he was actually 63) so I always figured he had other jobs before this, and I probably saw a few of them even if I never made the connection. In the days before IMDB such information was more difficult to come by.

As it turns out, he had appeared in nearly 100 films before arriving at stately Wayne Manor, and was a fixture on the London stage for decades. His remarkably prolific career includes such eminent credits as a production of Heartbreak House supervised by the play’s author, George Bernard Shaw, alongside equally lowbrow projects, such as his portrayal of a mad scientist in a Bowery Boys movie.

These tales and many more can be found in his new book. Which technically isn’t really new. McFarland published it last year but most of the text was completed in the early 1970s, not long after Napier finished his “It’s the Bat Phone, Sir” days. 

In 1975 he shared the manuscript with writer James Bigwood, who was then researching the actor’s career for a magazine article. After reconnecting with the Napier family, Bigwood was allowed to update and edit the manuscript, inserting additional information where needed. Now, 41 years after the book was started, you can finally read the results.

And I thought I waited a long time to get some of my books out.

Why wasn’t it published earlier? Napier once quipped it was because “I’ve never committed a major crime and I’m not known to have slept with any famous actresses.”

I’m not sure if that’s the case, but the delay certainly had nothing to do with quality. Napier is a remarkably engaging writer – clever, candid, self-effacing – and his memoirs are not merely another show business biography, but a window inside English aristocracy in the early 20th century (one of his cousins was Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain). How ironic that a man who achieved fame playing a butler has a blue-blood ancestry dating back to Shakespeare’s time.

Napier enjoyed a wonderfully prolific career and traveled in some fascinating company, from Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier to Noel Coward and Alfred Hitchcock. But for those of my generation, he’s the guy at the beginning of every Batman episode who opens up the cake platter cover, picks up the beeping red phone and says, “I’ll summon him, sir.” 

Did that bother him? Not really – he loved the fame the show brought and all of the young fans that recognized Alfred wherever he went. Unfortunately we don’t get as many Batman memories as some readers might wish, though Bigwood does his best to fill in some of these gaps.

The surprising thing is, as much as you might want some inside scoop on Napier’s favorite Catwoman, or working with the likes of Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero, or how many women Burt Ward smuggled into his trailer in an average week, you won’t really miss it. Or you can just read Burt Ward’s book.

I’m glad I read Not Just Batman’s Butlerit’s available here if you want to check it out.


  1. Sounds like a fun read! I'm consistently surprised by how many movies and TV series he appeared in. In fact, I just watched SIGNPOST TO MURDER with Joanne Woodward last week and he popped up in an amusing scene.

  2. Mr. Napier played the doctor in what is still the best ghost story ever put on film, 1943's The Uninvited.

    1. One of his favorite screen roles and one of the very rare times he got the girl.