Fond Memories of TV’s First Superheroine Turn Bittersweet as Palisadian Yvonne Craig Loses Her Battle With Cancer on Aug. 17.
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Pali Life Editor
Sure, it was always fun as a kid to watch Caped Crusaders Adam West (a former Pacific Palisades resident) and Burt Ward battle Cesar Romero’s Joker and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin in reruns of the 1966 “Batman” TV series.
However, those occasional episodes in which a drawing of Batgirl on her Bat-Cycle sped across those cheaply animated-yet-stylish opening titles produced an extra tinge of excitement.
That’s because it signaled that Yvonne Craig would appear as Batgirl, helping West’s Batman and Ward’s Robin the Boy Wonder kick super-villain butt.
Craig died in Pacific Palisades surrounded by family on Aug. 17 at the age of 78 after losing her battle to breast cancer, which had spread to her liver.
“Yvonne Craig was more than a talented actress and dancer, she was an equal rights pioneer,” said comics historian Michael Eury, a former DC Comics editor and the current editor-in-chief of “Back Issue” magazine. “As Batgirl, she empowered young girls who were looking for a heroine. But perhaps more importantly, she taught young boys that women can be, and should be, equal to men.”
“There was an energy and a joy and a positive nature about her when she was around,” said Scott Sebring, a friend of Craig’s. “She liked to laugh. She liked to laugh at herself as well.”
Steve Kriozere—creator of Cinemax’s “Femme Fatale” and a writer on the upcoming TNT show “Agent X”—grew up following Craig’s work…sometimes inadvertently.
“It was only later in life that I realized two of my early TV crushes were actually the same woman: Yvonne Craig, the 1960s Batgirl and Marta, the green Orion slave girl on ‘Star Trek.’ Now that’s ‘girl power!’”
Indeed, Craig had made an impression as the sexy yet crazed humanoid alien bent on killing Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in a third-season “Star Trek” episode.
In the mid-1960s, Craig starred opposite Elvis Presley, in “It Happened at the World’s Fair” and “Kissin’ Cousins,” during which time they briefly dated.
Craig’s filmography also includes “The Gene Krupa Story (1959)” and “Mars Needs Women” (1967). In 1961, she appeared in “Seven Women From Hell,” a B-movie co-starring fellow future “Batman” alumnus Romero.
Craig appeared on myriad TV series from “My Favorite Martian” and “My Three Sons” to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “Kojak” and “Fantasy Island.” In 2009, she voiced “Grandma” on Nickelodeon’s animated series, “Olivia.”
In 1972, Craig met venture capitalist Kenneth Aldrich at the Malibu Yacht Club. Craig’s sister, Meridel Carson, introduced Aldrich to her.
Aldrich had not seen the “Batman” series but he recognized the actress from the 1961 John Sturges film “By Love Possessed,” in which she played a hooker.
“As a college student with lots of testosterone running, I was quite taken by her,” Aldrich told the Palisadian-Post.
Aldrich feels blessed that he was able to work from home.
“So we got to spend a lot of good times together during the time of day when most couples don’t have time to be with each other,” he said.
Aldrich knew Craig as “a gorgeous woman. She was even more gorgeous on the inside.
“She was very proud of the work that she did,” he continued. “But she didn’t have any desire to be famous. She loved her fans. But it had nothing to do with the desire to be famous. She realized that she had a large fan following and she liked them and respected them.”
Craig, with sister Carson, were pioneers in the prepaid phone card business, creating promotional phone cards featuring Looney Tunes characters for Warner Bros. and another for Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy “Clueless,” which launched the career of Alicia Silverstone, her cinematic successor as Batgirl (in 1997’s “Batman & Robin”).
Yet despite Silverstone’s Batgirl, for many of certain generations, there will only be one true live-action Batgirl: Craig’s.
Comic book writer Paul Levitz, who served as president of DC Comics from 2002 through 2009 and has worked on the executive level at the Burbank-based publisher of Batman comics for more than 35 years, never met Craig in person but said her impact and influence on the pop culture landscape was undeniable.
“She was the first woman to play a superhero on TV or in film and managed a perfect blend of cute and courageous,” said Levitz, also the author of “75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking.” “I got a kick out of her as a 10-year-old viewer and still admire her as a graying old fan.”
Sebring chalks up the appeal of TV’s “Batman” to a well-needed salve on the American psyche following President John F. Kennedy’s death.
“It was the timing, it was escapism,” Sebring said. “You’ve got the 1960s, you’ve got a President assassinated. For the first time, the war is coming into your living room. So a realistic, gritty cop show, that just wouldn’t fly in the ’60s.
“Instead you’ve got ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ ‘The Munsters,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ ‘Batman’ was bright, it had color on it. It was exciting for the kids, fun for the parents,” he said.
Craig only appeared in 26 episodes of the iconic “Batman” TV series in a last-ditch effort to rescue the show, which was waning in popularity. As Barbara Gordon, Craig could be counted on to transform into her costume (the cowl had a redhead wig affixed to it to protect her brunette alter ego) and escape out of her home via a revolving section of brick wall, which cast her outside speeding away on her Bat-Cycle. As Batman fought the main villains, she and Robin usually provided each other with an assist to kick the villain’s henchmen.
Created by Batman co-creator Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff, the Batgirl character first saw publication in 1961. By 1967, when Craig appeared on TV in the third and final season of “Batman,” the character’s alter ego had been modified as Barbara Gordon, daughter of Batman ally Police Commissioner James Gordon.
“There’s always an effect of an actor’s portrayal on the comics, especially as the people who were viewers grew up to work on the comics,” Levitz said.
To this day, Batgirl continues to be a popular comic book character, recently revived by DC in a new title.
Sebring, a Fontana resident who dresses up as the Adam West Batman at conventions, had worked as Craig’s webmaster since 2007. He unfortunately had the dour task of posting her obituary on YvonneCraig.com last week after Carson notified him of her sister’s passing.
“We’d see each other at conventions, she was very personable,” Sebring said of Craig. “When she first met me, I was wearing the Batman costume. My wife was Batgirl, my buddy was Robin.”
Sebring, who first cosplayed as Batman at San Diego Comic-Con in 2004, originally met Craig at 2006’s Hollywood Collector’s Show in Burbank, where “Batman” cast members were reunited for a 40th anniversary celebration.
When Craig experienced computer problems the following year, a friend recommended Sebring, whom she knew from conventions.
Sebring remembers visiting Craig’s Sunset Mesa home for the first time.
“Yvonne kept her private life private,” Sebring said. “When I walked into her place, there was no trace whatsoever that she was Batgirl or that she was ever in a movie.
There was a lot of African folk art, very nice décor.”
By all accounts, Craig was very close to her younger sister, who accompanied the actress at her appearances. They could complete each other’s sentences, Sebring said: “Meridel once said they each had half a mind and if they put their heads together, they’d share one mind.”
Ultimately, Craig imparted on several generations of “Batman” fans that a female could be sexy yet savvy, independent and mighty.
“By transforming the Dynamic Duo into the Terrific Trio, Craig taught me never to underestimate or undervalue women,” said Eury.
“I realized that girls could kick butt just like guys,” Craig once said in an interview.
As for Sebring, he will always remember Craig as a positive, unpretentious person who encouraged others to empower themselves.
“She treated her fans like family,” Sebring said. “She treated celebrities like regular people and she treated regular people like celebrities.”
In addition to husband Kenneth and sister Meridel, Craig is survived by nephews Christopher and Todd Carson.
Here in Pacific Palisades, as Aldrich laments her loss, he said that he has expressed to Craig’s sister how grateful he is that she introduced him to Craig some four decades ago.
“What I’ll miss about her is everything,” he said. “She was a wonderful wife, she was my best friend for 44 years.”
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