Frank Gorshin

d. May 17, 2005

Frank Gorshin, 72, the actor, impressionist and comedian who soared to fame as the Riddler in the Batman TV series, died May 17 at a hospital in Burbank, Calif. He had lung cancer, emphysema and pneumonia.

He was a talented impressionist working in nightclubs and TV variety shows, and had a number of film and TV acting roles without finding a breakthrough part. The Riddler was actually a minor villain in Batman comics stories who hadn’t been seen since the 1940s when he was revived in a single 1965 issue. But that issue was one of the comic books studied by series producer William Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. when they were creating the TV show. Gorshin was perfectly cast as the manic, giggling “prince of puzzlers” in the series pilot. The show’s January 1966 debut made Gorshin and Batman overnight sensations.

Gorshin and the Riddler returned for three more comical adventures in Batman’s first season, and in the quickie movie released in July 1966. But though the role brought him an Emmy nomination and he credited his Batman fame with moving him up from lounge act to headliner in Las Vegas, Gorshin grew tired of the Riddler and refused to return in the show’s second season. John Astin then assumed the role in the season’s only Riddler story. Gorshin returned for the Riddler’s single appearance in the third season.

With his newfound fame, Gorshin went on to numerous variety show appearances and acting roles. He received another Emmy nomination for his guest shot in the 1969 Star Trek episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Gorshin and Lou Antonio played aliens who were stark white on one side of their bodies and solid black on the other in a ludicrously heavy-handed racial metaphor. In 1972, he joined fellow impressionists Rich Little, George Kirby, Charlie Callas and Marilyn Michaels as a troupe calling themselves “The Kopykats” for a half-season run on The ABC Comedy Hour.

In earlier days, Gorshin had small roles in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, General Electric Theatre, Have Gun Will Travel, Hennesey, Mr. Lucky, The Defenders, Combat, The Untouchables, Naked City, Empire and others. He filmed an episode of The Munsters that didn’t air until after Batman’s debut, putting it directly opposite the Thursday night conclusion of a Riddler story.

After Batman, Gorshin had featured guest roles in such series as The Virginian, The High Chapparal, The Name of the Game, Ironside, Hawaii Five-0, Police Woman, Buck Rogers, Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman. He even reprised the Riddler in a pair of 1979 NBC specials, “Legends of the Super-Heroes.”

His earliest movie roles were along the lines of “Hot Rod Girl” and “Invasion of the Saucer Men.” The films and roles improved somewhat with parts in “Where the Boys Are,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “Studs Lonigan,” “The Great Impostor,” “The George Raft Story,” “Sail a Crooked Ship” and “That Darn Cat.”

Gorshin made his Broadway debut in 1969 in the title role of “Jimmy,” an unsuccessful musical about the life of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. He had a longer run in 2002 and 2003 playing George Burns in the one-man show “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” which brought him a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance.

Later television appearances included Murder She Wrote and The Fall Guy, and running parts on the daytime serials The Edge of Night and General Hospital. His last appearance was in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation broadcast two days after his death. Gorshin and Tony Curtis played themselves in a special season-ending episode written and directed by film fan Quentin Tarantino.

Frank Gorshin in 1966 “Batman” movie, top, “Star Trek,” above.