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The 'Batman' that never was: When Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy almost played the Dynamic Duo

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·34 min read
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With Matt Reeves's The Batman, Robert Pattinson becomes the latest actor to don the Dark Knight's cape and cowl, joining an exclusive Bat-club that counts Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck among its members. But on one of the infinite earths out there in the DC Extended Universe, there’s a planet where Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy played Batman and Robin on the big screen.

Actually… that was very nearly this Earth. In the early 1980s, the late Ivan Reitman planned to cast the Saturday Night Live stars as the Dynamic Duo in a never-made Batman feature film. "I talked to Eddie Murphy about it, and Eddie wanted to play Batman," Murray tells Yahoo Entertainment in a recent interview for the latest installment in our video series The Never-Weres. "That’s as far as that conversation went." (Watch the video above.)

If Murphy wanted to be the Caped Crusader so badly, would Murray have willingly taken on the role of Robin? Holy negatory, Batman! "I don't wanna be the Boy Wonder to anybody," the Ghostbusters star says. "Maybe much earlier when I was a boy. But it was too late for that by the '80s. Also, I couldn't do the outfit. Eddie looks good in purple, and I look good in purple. In red and green, I look like one of Santa's elves. There was just a lot of vanity involved in the production. It wasn't gonna happen."

NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 12:  Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy attend Hard Rock Cafe Grand Opening on March 12, 1984 in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy attend Hard Rock Cafe grand opening on March 12, 1984 in New York City. Ivan Reitman nearly cast the duo as Batman and Robin in a never-made Batman movie. (Photo: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Murray may be joking about why he never donned Batman’s cape and cowl, but the Ghostbusters star really was Reitman’s top choice to headline the version of the film that predated Tim Burton’s Michael Keaton-starring 1989 blockbuster. Screenwriter Sam Hamm, who wrote the Burton film, shared that bit of history in the six-part 2005 DVD documentary Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight.

And in an extensive new interview with Yahoo Entertainment, executive producer Michael Uslan — who has produced every Batman feature film since acquiring the film rights to the character in 1979 — confirms those Murray and Murphy rumors. "That was purposefully kept away from me," he says, chuckling. "Things are meant to happen, and they happen."

As it turns out, Murray’s near-miss with the Batsuit is just one chapter in the wild story of Uslan's first attempts at making a Bat-blockbuster. Allow him to walk you through the legend of the never-made early ‘80s Batman film: what it was and how it (nearly) came to be.

Batman begins… in New Jersey

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 05:  Executive Producer Michael Uslan signs autographs at Spark FWD Conference at Vancity Theatre on February 5, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Andrew Chin/FilmMagic)
Batman fan-turned-film producer Michael Uslan signs autographs at Spark FWD Conference at Vancity Theatre on Feb. 5, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo: Andrew Chin/FilmMagic)

The tale of how Uslan came to be the keeper of the Batman film franchise is almost as eventful — and considerably less tragic — as the Caped Crusader’s own origin story. Born in Bayonne, N.J., in 1951, the young Michael Uslan gravitated to Batman comics as soon as he caught sight of those vintage Silver Age covers. From the beginning, he wasn’t a passive consumer of Batman stories: He wanted to be where the action was.

"On days off from school, I used to beg my mom to drive my friends and I to New York to go to the DC Comics Tuesday afternoon tours," he remembers now. And when he started writing for comic fanzines at age 13, he enlisted his dad to be his weekend driver and ferry him to and from the homes of the legendary comic book artists and writers that lived in the Tri-State area, including Batman co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

"I got to know Jerry Robinson, I got to know Bob Kane and later on Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams and Lew Sayre Schwartz — names who were important to the history of Batman over the years," Uslan says. "I would interview them and get the history of the comic book industry directly from the horse’s mouth. It was an incredible experience for me." (You can read more about Uslan's early years in his two memoirs, The Boy Who Loved Batman and Batman's Batman.)

BATMAN -
Batman co-creator Bob Kane in 1965. (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

At the time that the teenaged Uslan was interviewing some of those foundational comic book creators, they were still years away from having their work celebrated by mainstream popular culture. Many were still caught in the long shadow cast by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, whose notorious 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, came very close to torpedoing the entire comics industry. Wertham accused the medium of warping young minds with hidden and not-so-hidden messages and inappropriate imagery. Among the book’s most famous claims was that the dynamic duo of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were in a homosexual relationship whenever they weren’t fighting crime as Batman and Robin.

Although Seduction of the Innocent was later discredited after Wertham's research was found to be riddled with fabrications and specious claims, the damage it wrought on that generation of comic artists wasn't easily erased. Uslan says that part of his life's work with Batman has been to bring "honor and respectability" back to those original creators. "It was important to me that they get the respect that I feel they deserve. I knew them, and I've always felt that burden on my shoulders."

Holy camp, Batman!

While Batman was a hobby for much of Uslan's early life, he remembers the exact moment when it became his career: Jan. 12, 1966. That's the night that Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s live-action Batman TV series premiered on ABC, bringing its pop art colors and onomatopoeia-filled fight sequences into living rooms across America. Audiences flipped for the show's campy vibe, and the steadfastly earnest performances of Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin. But Uslan remembers feeling like he'd been punched in the gut by his favorite hero. "I was so upset," he says, thinking back on that fateful January night. "It's interesting to be simultaneously thrilled and horrified by what you’re watching."

That same evening, a curious and strange scene took place in the den of the Uslan family home in Bayonne. "Just like young Bruce Wayne had made a vow over the bloody bodies of his parents in the street — except my parents were safe upstairs — I said, 'Somehow, someday I will show the world a true Batman,'" Uslan recalls. "'I will attempt to erase these new words "pow," "zap" and "wham" from the collective consciousness of the world culture.' And that began my mission."

Uslan echoed young Bruce Wayne when he vowed to bring an authentic Batman movie to the big screen (Photo: DC Comics)
Uslan echoed young Bruce Wayne when he vowed to bring an authentic Batman movie to the big screen. (Photo: DC Comics)

Unlike Bruce Wayne, Uslan's mission didn't involve him mastering various scientific or performing amazing athletic feats. Instead, he left New Jersey for Indiana University in Bloomington, where he taught the country's first collegiate-level course in comic books as an undergraduate. (Uslan is still part of his alma mater's faculty.) That led to a professional relationship with DC Comics — where Uslan scripted issues of mid-'70s titles like The Shadow and Beowulf — and made a first run at acquiring the film rights to Batman, only to be turned down.

At that point, he switched industries to work at United Artists, where he learned the nuts and bolts of film producing. His stint at UA also sparked a creative partnership with Benjamin Melniker, a former executive at MGM who worked on such studio classics as Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Together, the duo re-approached DC Comics in 1979 and successfully negotiated a deal to bring Batman to the big screen for a movie that would finally put the "dark" in the Dark Knight. "I told him his ideas were electrifying," Melniker remarks in Shadows of the Bat, explaining how the contract they signed with DC encompassed live-action and animated feature films — though not television. (Melniker died in 2018.)

Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin on the 1960s Batman series. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin on the 1960s Batman TV series. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

According to Uslan, West initially greeted the news of a new Batman movie with the same antipathy that he himself had felt towards the 1966 series. "Adam West's immediate reaction to the news [of our movie] was not great," he remembers, adding that he initially considered casting West as Bruce's doomed father, Thomas Wayne, in his nascent project. "He said he should be the one [playing Batman], or that he should at least play 'Uncle Batman' in our Batman movies. But he kind of peed all over what we were trying to do, which he had every right to do. So there were some negative feelings early on."

Decades later, Uslan and West finally buried the Bat-hatchet at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, where they both appeared on a panel exploring the psychology of the Joker. "Adam sits down next to me, and his opening statement to this packed room was: 'What I've learned over the years is that there's enough room for more than one interpretation of Batman and the work that Michael has done and my work are equally valid.'"

"With that, I turned to him and said, 'Adam, I would like to open up and let 13-year-old Michael out for a minute,'" Uslan continues. "I looked at him and went: 'I'm sitting next to the Batman of the swinging '60s. Holy s***!' He cracked up and then stood up and gave me a bear hug. All was right with the world." (West died in 2017, one year after re-teaming with Burt Ward for the animated film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, which Uslan produced.)

The Man of Steel rises, the Dark Knight falls

At the same time that Uslan was pursuing the film rights to Batman, Alexander and Ilya Salkind were deep in the process of getting a Superman movie off the ground. The father-and-son producing team had announced plans to make back-to-back Man of Steel adventures to great fanfare in 1974, and chaotically cycled through numerous director-star combinations before arriving at Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve in 1977.

When Superman: The Movie finally premiered the following December, it flew to the top of the box-office charts as the first comic book movie blockbuster. "Dick Donner was the trailblazer," says Uslan, who was among the millions of moviegoers who saw Superman again and again in theaters. "He was an amazing guy, and I'm glad I later got the chance to know him and his incredible wife, Laura Shuler Donner." (Richard Donner died in July 2021.)

But Uslan also admits that his fanboy side had some criticisms of how Donner's film handled the Last Son of Krypton. "The Krypton sequence was incredible, and the Smallville segment was beautiful," he says of the movie's first half, before Clark Kent becomes Superman. "But it seemed like the second he put the costume on in Metropolis, it became lighthearted and wink-wink. He's saving a cat from a tree! So it blazed a path, but what we had to do [with Batman] was something revolutionary: We were going to be the first and dark and serious comic book superhero feature film ever, and that was a huge challenge."

Chirstopher Reeve's 1978 Superman blockbuster was the
Chirstopher Reeve's 1978 Superman: The Movie was the "trailblazer" for future comic book films. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

To provide potential backers with some sense of what the big-screen Batman experience would be like, Uslan penned a script he tentatively titled Return of the Batman, which incorporated elements from the Batman comics of the late '70s. "That script was about a Batman who was turning 50, and was now in a penthouse apartment in the middle of Gotham City. That was no Batcave, and there was no Robin — Dick Grayson had gone off to college, and it was just Alfred and Bruce. Terrorism had arrived on the shores of America for the first time, and Bruce Wayne was dragged back into the Batman thing kicking and screaming. He didn’t want to do it. In Act 3, the terrorists blew up all the tunnels and bridges around Gotham and the element of fear plays into the whole thing."

If that set-up of an older Bruce returning to his nocturnal activities sounds familiar, Uslan swears that Return of the Batman in no way inspired Frank Miller's seminal 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which is based on a similar premise. "Don’t take anything away from Frank! I was just doing what I needed to do to make my movie."

Even as he was writing Return of the Batman, Uslan knew the script was unlikely to get a greenlight at any major studio. Instead, he approached it as a kind of Bat-Signal alerting interested parties to the kind of Batman movie he intended to make. But he wasn’t prepared for the intense backlash he received from angry executives. "I was turned down by every studio in Hollywood, and told it was the worst idea they ever heard," he remembers. "The conventional thinking was that Superman was the only comic book character capable of sustaining a blockbuster picture. Nobody could get their hands around the idea of a dark and serious Batman."

Wayne... Bruce Wayne

Bruce Wayne strikes a Bond-ian pose on the cover of a 1988 Justice League International issue (Photo: DC Comics)
Bruce Wayne strikes a Bond-ian pose on the cover of a 1988 Justice League International issue. (Photo: DC Comics)

It was Melniker who ultimately figured out how to get the stalled project moving again. "Ben said, 'They’re all an older generation,'" Uslan remembers. "That generation of executives, agents and in a lot of cases the talent pool itself looked down their noses at comic books." Instead, Melniker suggested that they take their Batman pitch to a younger demo, and he had just the place to start: Casablanca Records, a disco label that had recently merged with a movie company overseen by thirtysomething producer Peter Guber. And this time, Uslan found that he had an eager audience.

"I pitched the project to Peter over the phone, and he said, 'This is amazing. Can you be in my office tomorrow?' We ended up in his office, and I brought all my Batman and Detective Comics to show them. I kept them away from the silly stuff: Genie Batman, Robot Batman and Alien Batman, and showed them the Denny O’Neil-Neal Adams run that returned him to his darker roots, and the Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers issues that were a highly stylized and darkly romantic version of Batman. Peter said, 'We're in!'"

Guber closed the deal with Uslan and Melniker in November 1979. The $15 million project was officially unveiled at the 1980 edition of New York’s Comic Art Convention with Warner Bros. — which also released Superman and shared a parent company with DC Comics — later coming onboard to distribute. Guber also enlisted Jon Peters as his producing partner, launching one of the defining Hollywood partnerships of the 1980s.

Batman producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber at the premiere of the 1989 blockbuster. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Batman producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber at the premiere of the 1989 blockbuster. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

With Return of the Batman buried in the Batcave, the production team's next task was picking the right writer and director to start the development process all over again. For Uslan, the obvious answer was to look to the most successful film franchise around: the James Bond series, which had kicked off with 1962's Dr. No and was still churning out hit adventures decades later. "I said, 'We gotta go after the best of the Bond people.'"

Uslan's Bond short list included Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton — who was also an early candidate to direct Superman: The Movie — and screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz, who penned On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Live and Let Die, respectively, and shared a writing credit on Diamonds Are Forever. Mankiewicz came with another feather in his cowl: He was heavily involved with the writing and re-writing of both Superman films during that tumultuous multiyear production. "He was the one everybody behind the scenes said made it work," Uslan says.

Maibaum and Hamilton ultimately decided not to hop aboard Uslan's Batmobile, but Mankiewicz was ready to suit up. "Tom and I started working together, and he had a million questions. You gotta remember: our focus was that we wanted to take James Bond to the next step with Batman. Tom wanted to think outside of the box and he was heavily influenced by his own work on Superman, which had worked so well."

Flipping the script

Tom Mankiewicz (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage) *** Local Caption ***
Tom Mankiewicz attends the 2006 premiere of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

The Mankiewicz era of Batman roughly spans 1981 to 1985, and the screenwriter penned multiple drafts of the script during that four-year period, several of which can still be found online. (Mankiewicz titled his script The Batman, which happens to be the title of Reeves's film.) Clocking in at just over 120 pages, the screenplay is packed with incident, action and comedy, to the point where it easily could have been split into two movies much like the Superman films.

But Uslan says that the plan was always to tell a one-shot Batman yarn. "Nobody was banking that there would be a sequel," he admits. "It's not like it is today, where you always think 'sequel!' If it was successful, there could be sequels, like with the Bond films. That's one of the mistakes they made with the Green Lantern film, for example, where they saved the best villain for a sequel that never came." (Ryan Reynolds would almost certainly agree.)

Closely following the Superman template, Mankiewicz devotes the first 40 pages of The Batman to the Caped Crusader's origin story, beginning in 1960 with the by-now familiar scene of young Bruce Wayne's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, being gunned down in an alleyway by a thug named Joe Chill. Vowing vengeance, the orphan dedicates the next decade of his life to improving his mind and body — a process depicted in a swirl of scenes that find Bruce mastering the arts of martial arts, criminology, ballet, mountaineering and even racecar driving. In a sign of the times, Mankiewicz includes an odd cameo by celebrated Italian American driver Mario Andretti, where he’s lapped by Bruce.

Bruce Wayne prepares himself to become Batman in his original comic book origin story (Photo: DC Comics)
Bruce Wayne prepares himself to become Batman in his original comic book origin story. (Photo: DC Comics)

"That was something I always wanted to see," Uslan says of the extensive amount of screentime devoted to Bruce's training. "It was also something the comic books had largely ignored, so that whole young Bruce Wayne section stemmed from working with Tom and wanting to see that happen."

Following a spirited street fight with a motorcycle gang in his civilian clothes, the now-adult Bruce decides that he needs to become a weird figure of the dark to realize his goal of striking fear into the hearts of superstitious, cowardly criminals. Enter the Batman on Page 41 of The Batman script, where he's described as a "truly awesome figure, from his black cowl to his gleaming black boots" with a "huge, dark cape."

Concept art for The Batman, sketched by Marshall Rogers. (Photo: Warner Bros./YouTube)
Concept art for The Batman, sketched by Marshall Rogers. (Photo: Warner Bros./YouTube)

As for who would wear that suit, Uslan says that Warner Bros. kept a running list of possible Batmen that included such unlikely names as Oscar-winning character actor Dustin Hoffman. "Everybody had input on it, including studio people and the producers. I remember going, 'What the heck is Dustin Hoffman doing on this list?' The answer was that he was an A-list actor, so somebody threw him on! I remember Jimmy Caan's name on that list."

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep star in the 1979 Best Picture winner, 'Kramer vs. Kramer' (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep star in the 1979 Best Picture winner, Kramer vs. Kramer. Hoffman was one of the A-list stars on the short list to play Batman in the early 1980s. (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Over the course of The Batman's remaining 90-plus pages, the new hero is joined in his crusade by other members of the extended Bat-family, including Gotham Police Commissioner David Gordon (not James Gordon), a boy wonder named Dick Grayson and Silver St. Cloud, a stunning scholar who becomes a love interest for both Bruce and Batman. The choice of Silver St. Cloud over better-known Batman paramours like Selina "Catwoman" Kyle and Vicki Vale might seem surprising, but she was always first in Uslan's heart.

"I pushed for her," he says of the Steve Englehart-created character, who made her comic book debut in 1977. "I kept Tom away from Vicki Vale, as well as Julie Madison and Linda Page. In the comics, it really came down to Silver St. Cloud and Catwoman at that time. As a guy who wrote James Bond, I think he felt very comfortable with Silver."

Mankiewicz's Batman script featured Silver St. Cloud as Bruce Wayne's love interest (Photo: DC Comics)
Mankiewicz's Batman script featured Silver St. Cloud as Bruce Wayne's love interest. (Photo: DC Comics)

On the other hand, Uslan wasn't able to persuade Mankiewicz to keep Robin out of the script. "I fought tooth and nail against that. I tried to show Tom material that had no Robin in it, because I was never a Robin fan." Uslan may have lost that battle, but he won the war… for a little while anyway. Robin was supposed to make appearances in both the 1989 Batman and 1992's Batman Returns, but the Boy Wonder remained offscreen until Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever in 1995 when Chris O'Donnell nabbed the role.

Naturally, every superhero needs a supervillain and Mankiewicz throws Bruce into a war against two partners-in-crime: Gotham’s top crime boss, the Joker, and an ambitious city councilman named Rupert Thorne. (Like Silver St. Cloud, Thorne made his first comic book appearance during Englehart's run on Detective Comics in 1977.) And it turns out that their alliance actually predates the Batman: It's revealed early on in the script that the Joker hired Joe Chill to kill Thorne's chief rival for the city council seat… Thomas Wayne.

The Joker's involvement in the murders of Bruce's parents was a Mankiewicz-invented plot point that carried over into the 1989 film, and it's something that still bothers Uslan today. "That was always deeply disturbing to me," he says, adding that he took his concerns directly to Bob Kane only to receive a surprising response. "Bob told me: 'That's the way I would have done it. It makes more sense: You created me, I created you.'"

Rupert Thorne joined Batman's rogues gallery in the comic books in the 1970s. (Photo: DC Comics)
Rupert Thorne joined Batman's rogues gallery in the comic books in the 1970s. (Photo: DC Comics)

As we come to learn, the Joker and Thorne's master plan is for Thorne to gradually work his way up to the top of Gotham's political class, while the Joker calls the shots behind the scenes. But that scheme is complicated when Batman enters the picture and becomes a crime-fighting celebrity — one who doesn't mind appearing in public in broad daylight. (He has that in common with Adam West's sunny Caped Crusader.)

When their attempts to simply kill Batman fail — in the first draft of Mankiewicz's script, the Joker hires the Penguin do their dirty work — the city councilman and the Crown Prince of Crime hit upon a more ingenious solution: turning the city against its hero. To achieve that end, the Joker announces that anytime his Bat-nemesis appears in public, he'll kill a leading Gotham citizen. The dastardly duo go the extra mile by enlisting a Batman impersonator to make those fatal appearances, resulting in the murders of the city's mayor and a pair of high-wire acrobats better known as the Flying Graysons.

Tried and sentenced to death in absentia by a Gotham judge, the real Batman is forced to stay off the streets. That is until the Joker and Thorne kidnap Silver in order to strike a final, fatal blow against the reeling hero. The climactic fight takes place on and around an oversized electric typewriter, a sequence that sounds like an outtake from the 1960s series. But Uslan credits the Golden Age Batman comics for providing that memorable backdrop for an action set-piece. "I showed Tom the comics that Bill Finger wrote in the '40 and '50s where Batman and Robin jumped on giant typewriters and giant cash registers. So that was me pushing that stuff, and he thought it was very visual and a lot of fun."

The climactic action sequence of Mankiewicz's Batman film was inspired by the oversized props seen in vintage Batman comics. (Photo: DC Comics)
The climactic action sequence of Mankiewicz's Batman film was inspired by the oversized props seen in vintage Batman comics. (Photo: DC Comics)

According to Uslan, one of the reasons he wanted to pursue a Bond veteran like Guy Hamilton to direct The Batman is that he'd have experience accomplishing the labor-intensive action sequences that Mankiewicz described on the page. Working in the days before computer-assisted special effects, all of Batman's fighting and stunt work would have to be done practically, which could prove costly in the hands of a novice filmmaker.

"That would have been up to Guy coming in and saying, 'This is how it was done in Goldfinger,'" Uslan says of how the production would have approached the script's spectacle. "Every director loved to play with the newest special effects toys and show them off. The danger was always if they became too enamored with the toys. I'm always a believer that when you do that too much, it sacrifices plot and character and I wanted to shy away from that."

Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud were red-hot lovers in the pages of the Batman comics of the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo: DC Comics)
Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud were red-hot lovers in the pages of the Batman comics of the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo: DC Comics)

The other overtly Bond-ian element of The Batman script is Bruce's prodigious sex life, which Mankiewicz goes out of his way to make part of the character's origin story. "Once I get the hang of something, I just can't seem to stop," an 18-year-old Master Wayne cheekily tells his first conquest following an all-night lovemaking session. Later on, Bruce beds a "buxom Miss Gotham model," as well as a female reporter seeking a story that's more "in depth" than the average profile. Meanwhile, Mankiewicz imbues the romance between Silver and Bruce is filled with enough innuendo and overt carnality to make Superman — or Steven Soderbergh — blush.

"That was the influence of the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers issues that I gave to Tom, which gave him carte blanche to explore that," Uslan says, adding that nobody at Warner Bros. had an issue with the amount of sex in the script. "What was important to me is that we show the world that we're doing this in a serious way, and trying to treat these people as real people. I'm gonna convince them that Bruce Wayne could be a real young man with post-traumatic stress syndrome on this journey of self-discovery through life. I'm gonna convince them that the Joker could be a modern-day terrorist. I'm gonna convince them that all the gadgets and inventions could be real. That was a game changer in the history of Batman and cinema."

A revolving door of directors

Peter O'Toole, Barbara Hershey and Richard Rush on the set of The Stunt Man (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection)
Peter O'Toole, Barbara Hershey and Richard Rush on the set of The Stunt Man. Rush was an early candidate to direct Batman. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection)

As Mankiewicz kept revising The Batman script, Uslan watched multiple directors come and go from the Batcave. After Hamilton turned the gig down, Warner Bros. got excited about Richard Rush, who had just directed Peter O'Toole in the acclaimed action comedy The Stunt Man and scored a Best Director nod. Over the years, it has been rumored that O'Toole was in the running to play the Penguin in The Batman, but Uslan says the Lawrence of Arabia star was his back-up pick for the Joker if his first choice — Jack Nicholson — turned the job down. "Take a look at Peter O'Toole's face, and you can see what I saw in it. It makes sense."

The studio's excitement proved brief, however, as Rush quickly departed the project. "I don’t know that I ever learned the reason why he fell out," Uslan says now. Next up was Joe Dante, fresh off his 1981 horror movie hit The Howling and about to start production on a little movie called Gremlins. Uslan had a personal history with the filmmaker that dated back to his college days at Indiana University.

"My friends and I went to this all-night movie called The Movie Orgy," he says, referring to Dante's now-legendary eight-hour compilation of B-movie clips, exploitation trailers and random pieces of found footage that he took to college campuses in the late 1960s. Years later, while working at United Artists, Uslan ran into Dante again on the set of the Roger Corman-produced creature feature Piranha, which famously had a bevy of future industry titans working behind the scenes.

"You had Dante directing for the first time, and the writer was some guy named John Sayles," he jokes. "What was the name of the production assistant? Oh, Gale Anne Hurd: I don't know what became of her! And the special-effects guy, Jim Cameron, was great — he only had a budget $250 to work with. I don't know what became of him either."

Joe Dante on the set of Explorers, the movie he made instead of the Batman. (Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Joe Dante on the set of Explorers, the movie he made instead of The Batman. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Having encountered Dante before, Uslan knew that he was a comic book fan and could potentially bring that passion to The Batman. In fact, the director has since revealed in interviews that he was particularly passionate about the Joker storyline. "The Joker was a major character in it, [and] I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie," Dante told Psychotronic Cinema in a 2016 interview. "For whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards the Joker than towards Batman. I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, 'I can't do this movie — I'm more interested in the Joker than I am in Batman, and that's not the way it should be.'"

For his part, Uslan remembers Dante's departure slightly differently, suggesting he was wooed away by a sizable payday to make Paramount's teens-in-space adventure Explorers. "Joe got an amazing offer… and was let out of his contract. So we lost a lot of time, and more years went by."

Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray on the set of Ghostbusters. (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray on the set of Ghostbusters. (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection)

With Dante out, Warner Bros. next turned to Ivan Reitman, who’d proven he was up to the task of blending action and comedy on a big scale in the smash hit 1981 comedy Stripes. Reitman hoped to replicate that success by putting Bill Murray in the Batsuit. Ultimately, Reitman and Murray bypassed The Batman for Ghostbusters, which overcame a famously difficult production process to top the 1984 box-office charts. Uslan says that the offer was still on the table to Reitman at that point, but the director wasn't up to mounting another mammoth spectacle. "He said, 'I'm exhausted. I can't do another big picture back-to-back. And the search started all over again."

Looking back now, Uslan confesses to being relieved that he dodged the Bill Murray bullet… uh, Batarang, even if it once again put The Batman on the back burner. "It wasn't my vision," he says, diplomatically. "I think the key is to follow a filmmaker with a passion and a vision: somebody who knows a character, loves a character, respects the integrity of a character and whom you believe has the ability to execute the vision. And casting comes from the vision of the filmmaker."

The Batman becomes Batman

The filmmaker with the right vision for Gotham’s champion finally walked into Uslan’s life in 1985. A former animator at Walt Disney, Tim Burton transitioned to live-action feature filmmaking with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, starring Paul Reubens’s famous alter ego. After the film became a surprise hit for Warner Bros., the studio was eager to keep him in the family and brought him to the attention of the Bat folks. "They said, 'We want you to see a cut of this young man's new movie for us,'" Uslan recalls. "I came out of there and told everyone, 'This is the greatest marriage of art direction and direction I think I've ever seen. What an innovative director!'"

As it happened, that innovative director also had little interest in comic books, which meant Uslan had to give him a crash course in all things Batman. Over the course of three lunches, the producer made the same presentation he previously delivered to Mankiewicz. "My job was to indoctrinate him into the world of the dark and serious Batman, so once again I kept him away from all the funny stuff," he says. "I gave him the same material I had given Tom: Neal Adams, Steve Englehart and my favorite Batman comic of all time — Detective Comics No. 439, 'Night of the Stalker.' By the end of the third lunch, there was no question: This was the guy that we'd been waiting for.”

But Burton himself still had some questions, and they largely involved the viability of the Mankiewicz script. "[It] was basically Superman, only the names had been changed," the director said in the 1995 career retrospective, Burton on Burton. "The Mankiewicz script made it more obvious to me that you couldn't treat Batman like Superman, or treat it like the TV series, because it's a guy dressing up as a bat and no matter what anyone says that's weird. And you've got to go along with that, to some degree. If you want to be bright and light you either do Superman or Cotton Candy Man, you don't do Batman."

Tim Burton and Michael Keaton on the set of 'Batman' (Photo: Mary Evans/GUBER PETERS CO / POLYGRAM FILMED ENTERTAINMENT / WARNER BRO/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Tim Burton and Michael Keaton on the set of Batman. (Photo: Mary Evans/Guber Peters Co/Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Warner Bros./ Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

Keeping Burton in the director's chair meant jettisoning the Mankiewicz script and starting over from Page 1 with a new screenwriter, Sam Hamm. Gone was the 40-minute origin story, along with Rupert Thorne, Silver St. Cloud and that giant Bill Finger-inspired typewriter. "We wanted to basically jump in where Batman was already established, but not well-known," Hamm told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019 about how he and Burton approached the film. "The audience thinks they're seeing what they remember from the comics as the origin of Batman, but then all of a sudden, Batman shows up! The idea was just to be constantly fighting whatever the audience's expectations might be. For me, that was the big fun of writing the screenplay — trying not to do it by the numbers."

While it wasn't easy for Uslan to bid farewell to a script he'd help shepherd, he credits Burton with coming up with the big idea that made Batman work. "Tim told me, 'Michael, if we are ever going to do the first-ever serious and dark superhero movie, this film cannot be about Batman. This movie has to be all about Bruce Wayne, and he have to show a Bruce Wayne who is so driven and obsessed to the point of being psychotic that audiences around the world will believe he's a guy who would get dressed up as a bat and go out and fight crime.'"

Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster 'Batman' (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)
Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman. (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

Burton followed that pitch up with his pick for who should play the psychotic Bruce Wayne — Michael Keaton. "I was apoplectic," Uslan says of when he first heard that Beetlejuice himself would be given the keys to the Batmobile. "But Tim said, 'I'm telling you right now, I do not know how to show Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford or Dennis Quaid getting into a Batman costume without getting unintentional laughs. With Michael Keaton, we can pull off the Bruce Wayne thing.'"

Burton's gamble proved correct: When Batman premiered in the summer of 1989, it reinvented the comic book movie, both visually and narratively. "The Marvel Cinematic Universe owes its existence to Tim Burton," Uslan says simply. "Look at the Iron Man movies — those should really be called Tony Stark and the Spider-Man movies should be called Peter Parker. That's Tim Burton’s influence. Batman changed Hollywood forever, and it changed the world's perception of comic books, superheroes and supervillains."

The Dark Knight continues

Batman (Robert Pattinson) is on the trail of the Riddler in Matt Reeves's upcoming The Batman (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/ ™ & © DC Comics)
Batman (Robert Pattinson) is on the trail of the Riddler in Matt Reeves's The Batman. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics)

In the three decades since Burton cracked the Bat-code, the Batman movies has become one of Hollywood's most lucrative film franchises, and Uslan has seen successive filmmakers put their own stamp on the character — for better and sometimes for worse. (He still has vivid memories of hurling the script for Joel Schumacher's 1997 boondoggle Batman & Robin at the wall in fury.) But he has long since succeeded in his youthful mission to make the industry and general audiences take the Dark Knight seriously. To this day, Uslan remains delighted when he sees a cinematic vision of Batman that's rooted in what he loves about the comics.

That's certainly the case with Matt Reeves's film, which he describes as the Batman-as-Sherlock Holmes story he's always wanted to see told onscreen. "What Matt has done is stunning," he says of The Batman. "I always wanted to see Batman the detective, and he delivers on that." Funnily enough, there are echoes of Mankiewicz's script in the new film: Thomas Wayne's political ambitions factor into the backstory of both narratives; Batman is more of a public figure than one who exclusively stays in the shadows; and both movies make room for an explosive car chase between Batman and the Penguin that ends with the Dark Knight triumphant.

Reflecting on The Batman that might have been, Uslan thinks that Dante or Reitman would have done a fine job with that original script. But he's comfortable with it remaining a never-were. "If the first Batman movie was made and came out at either Christmas 1982 or the summer of 1983, it would've been fine. It would've been that extension of Bond, as well the influence of Superman, and a serious approach to Batman. But the fact that we were stuck in development health for 10 years gave time for Tim Burton to become an animator and then a director. So without those years in development hell, we never would've had Tim, and we never would've had the revolution that changed everything. So I can sit back now and say, 'Yeah — it was worth it.'"

Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo