The Adam West sitcom that should have been
I’ve been going down the Adam West rabbit-hole on the web since his passing … a world without West really makes you realize how unique he was, what a treasure he was … that voice … that timing … that self-deprecating humor …
Anyway, I recalled he’d done a hilarious sitcom pilot titled “Lookwell” (1991). The premise, script and especially West’s performance are comedy gold. It’s no wonder, as the script was co-written by Conan O’Brien (pre-“Late Night”) and Robert Smigel (pre-“TV Funhouse”). The pilot was produced by Lorne Michaels. So “Lookwell” has heavyweight comedy pedigree. And there is our hero at the center of it.
In a role I can’t imagine anyone else playing, West is Ty Lookwell, an actor who starred in a ’70s TV cop drama, “Bannigan.” Lookwell is desperately trying to reignite his career, and cling to his leading-man looks. (We often see Lookwell checking under his chin for neck flange.)
Meta alert: Obviously, there are sidelong references to “Batman” here — a faded onetime TV crimefighter struggling to find work. Except that in real life, West never had to remind anyone of who he “was” on TV; he walked down the street, and people said, “Hi, Batman!” Lookwell must do so constantly.
From the pilot:
Onlooker No. 1: Aren’t you Ty Lookwell? … I remember watching “Banacek.” That was a great show.
Lookwell: No, I wasn’t “Banacek.” That was George Peppard. I was “Bannigan.”
Onlooker No. 2: “Brannigan”?
Lookwell: No, that was Hugh O’Brien. I was “Bannigan.”
Onlooker No. 1: Right, right. You had the black secretary.
Lookwell: No, that was “Mannix.” I had a sheep dog.
Both onlookers: Right!
When kicking back at home, Lookwell pops in old VHS tapes of “Bannigan,” and enjoys a “Firm-Pop,” the “frozen treat that tightens your skin.” I love the “old” footage from “Bannigan” episodes, in which West wears a lustrous wig.
Lacking work, Lookwell goes off the rails a bit, believing that having played a cop on TV, he can actually solve crimes in real life. (His chief justification: At the height of his “Bannigan” fame, he was once made an honorary member of the LAPD “at a formal ceremony in Television City.”)
A clever plot device has Lookwell teaching an acting class. As he “fights crime,” he can draw from a pool of young talent — would-be actors who are struggling to get a break, and will do the dirty work for their addled mentor.
Lookwell also has a Sherlockian penchant for disguise. We see him as 1950s delinquent Buzz McCool at a “Happy Days: The Next Generation” audition; as a car painter (who looks more like the Good Humor man); as a race car driver (circa the 1920s); and a homeless person (complete with loud colorful patches on his clothing, and his possessions wrapped in a rag hanging from a stick.)
Lookwell’s exit line, after “helping” to clear up a car-theft caper: “If you need me, here’s my head shot.”
The “Lookwell” pilot aired in 1991 and West promoted it, famously during a “surprise” appearance on David Letterman’s show. When I spoke to West about “Lookwell” in 1998, he had a theory as to why the show wasn’t picked up.
Said West: “It was very funny, and you know what happened with that thing? Brandon Tartikoff, who was chairman of NBC Entertainment, loved it. He said in the Washington Post, two days running, the New York Times, etc., that it was his favorite pilot of all time. And guess what? Our timing was so impeccable. He went to Paramount five minutes later. He moved to Paramount as production head over there, just when our pilot was maybe going to make the schedule, because he loved it. Now the people coming in — Warren Littlefield, et al. — afterward weren’t going to put on what Brandon recommends that highly, I don’t think. In other words, I don’t think we had a chance after Brandon left.”
That’s a shame. But I’m very grateful for the existence of the “Lookwell” pilot. It proves that West was not a one-trick pony — that he had the chops to stay in the game.
VIDEO: The “Lookwell” pilot
VIDEO: West promotes “Lookwell” on Letterman’s show. You have to wade through a lot of time-wasting Letterman nonsense. West finally appears at 4:10, first as a walk-on, later as a full-fledged guest.