Holy dulcet tones!
UPDATED 4/27/20: The late Casey Kasem was born 88 years ago! Perfect time to present this piece from 2018! And for the FILMATION BATMAN Index of features, click here. — Dan
I once wrote that Burt Ward was the greatest of all Robins, regardless of media: TV, film and, yes, even comics. His version of the Boy Wonder, abetted by a team of cheeky writers and directors, embodied what makes Batman’s aide de camp so great — he’s unfailingly loyal and brave with a sharp intelligence, despite a generous helping of naivete.
But that’s not to say he’s the only great Robin — and not even the only great Robin actor.
Because while Ward was the total package, Casey Kasem was Robin’s perfect voice, an actor who was able to convey everything special about Dick Grayson and his costumed alter ego while never himself appearing on screen.
I’ve been reminded of this a lot lately as John S. Drew and I have been recapping and reviewing every episode of the 1968 Filmation Batman cartoon series — most notably, the most recent installment, which features Will the Real Robin Please Stand Up, in which Kasem pulls double duty as Robin and a blond-haired doppelganger. (Click here for the podcast episode. I think you’ll dig it.)
As Robin, Kasem basically took Burt Ward’s excitably aggressive approach and improved upon it with the nuance of a talented voice actor: He’s all gung ho, ready to join the fray, though never unhinged, whether it’s against the Joker, Catwoman, Riddler or even the regrettable Dollman.
Kasem was already a voice pro by the time Filmation brought him to Gotham — and, unlike Ward, was much older than Batman’s teenage charge. (Ward was a youthful 20 when the first season filmed; Kasem was 36 when the cartoons first aired — same age as my Dad.)
He’d kicked around radio since the early ’50s before landing as a deejay at KRLA, one of Los Angeles’ top stations, in the early ’60s. So he was already well known in L.A. when he scored his first major voice-acting gig — as Robin. (His national career really took off in 1969, when he was cast as Shaggy in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, and in 1970, when American Top 40 was launched.)
Despite his experience, or maybe because of it, Kasem’s voice retained a youthful quality that made him well suited to playing adolescents in cartoons — and talking to them on the radio. But while Shaggy was a munchies-loving proto-stoner, Robin was all kick-ass-and-take-names. (The modern Teen Titans cartoons’ Scott Menville’s voice even has echoes of Kasem’s.)
Clearly, Kasem’s Robin made an impression, and not just among the kids sitting in front of the tube on Saturday mornings. When Hanna-Barbera took over DC’s cartoons from Filmation with Super Friends, they took Kasem with them as the Boy Wonder — along with Filmation’s Batman, the great Olan Soule.
Admittedly, it’s fun hearing Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their roles when Filmation scored Batman for a return series in 1977 (and West again in the latter episodes of H-B’s Super Friends) but I’m always conscious that it’s West or Ward talking. It’s stunty. You never forget who’s doing the talking.
Soule and Kasem’s voices, however, embody the roles. In this regard, they have the benefit of never showing their faces.
Another test: Whenever I pick up a Batman comic from the ’60s and read the dialogue, I don’t hear West and Ward’s voices in my mind — I hear Soule and Kasem’s.
Yet as wonderful as Soule was, he was ultimately surpassed by Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman. Perhaps that’s unfair: The Caped Crusader of Filmation and Super Friends was quite different from the Dark Knight of Batman: The Animated Series. Two different approaches were called for and both were achieved.
But that just puts Kasem’s performance in sharper relief.
Because over the last 50 years or so, and in the decades prior, nobody’s done a better job at capturing the spirit and energy of Robin — using only his voice — as Casey Kasem.
— The FILMATION BATMAN Index of Features. Click here.
— 13 QUICK THOUGHTS: The Kitschy Kick of FILMATION BATMAN. Click here.