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Do You Remember Cesar Romero, The Original Joker?

Joaquin Phoenix has been all the rage (literally and figuratively) for his portrayal of Joker, the iconic Batman villain, in the 2019 movie of the same name. But long before he and Heath Ledger tackled the part, Cesar Romero left his mark as the marvelous miscreant in the Batman television series. In fact, Romero’s role as the Joker is believed to have reignited his stalling career.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ABC Television

Playing The Villain

When it came to playing a villain on BatmanCesar Romero said, “We have a lot of fun doing this show… It’s a part that you can do everything that you’ve always been told not to do as an actor. In other words, you can get as hammy as you like and go all out. It’s great fun, I enjoy it. Everybody wanted to be a villain in Batman, it was sort of ‘the’ thing to do.” Apparently ‘everybody’ included Frank Sinatra; at the height of his fame, Sinatra was itching to land the role of Joker on the Batman series. Unfortunately for the leader of Ocean’s 11, the production had already cast Romero, and they didn’t want to fire him.

Photo: Flickr/Shed On The Moon

The Look Of The Joker

In addition to being a tall, handsome Hollywood heartthrob, Romero was known for his distinctive mustache, which was considered a trademark of his Latin good looks. Romero refused to shave it off when he was cast as the Joker. To cover up the facial hair, the show’s makeup artist’s smeared white face paint over the mustache, creating a surreal, and somewhat mystifying, effect.

The Joker’s vibrant green hair also became a feature of the character’s appearance. “I’m not a great student of the Batman comic strip,” said Romero. “But I understand that the Joker got the green hair because, in one of the first strips that he appeared in, in making his escape from Batman, he dove into a river that was full of a certain chemical that turned his hair green.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Greenway Productions

Deeper Meaning

The paint-slathered mustache wasn’t the only thing that set Romero apart from other actors’ interpretations of the Joker. His take on the character exhibited a whimsy and malevolent glee that’s noticeably absent from the Joker as depicted in recent films.

Like other actors who appeared as villains on the Batman TV show, including Vincent Price, Roddy McDowell, and Julie Newmar, Romero wasn’t just punching the clock or mechanically delivering lines. He looked for a deeper meaning in the Joker’s actions, and tried to understand what made the character tick.

When asked by an interviewer if the Joker would ever win on the show, Romero offered his observation as to why the villains on the show would never triumph:  “Oh, you can’t win! The villain can’t win. We always win on Wednesday night. At the end of the show on Wednesday night we’re winning. But then comes Thursday night, and we lose.”