Friday, December 2, 2005


When the total box office grosses are tallied up at the end of the year, I'm pretty sure "March Of The Penguins" will be right up there as one of the biggest moneymakers for 2005. The documentary proved to be so popular, it's working its way into pop culture references - like the upcoming Crossover of the Week. A future inductee into the Crossover Hall of Fame suggested that he and his crossover companion should go see "the penguin movie".

So in a way, I'm taking "March Of The Penguins" as my inspiration for this month's inductee into the TV Crossover Hall of Fame. (Also, the latest Coke CGI ad featuring the polar bears and the penguins as well an upcoming movie "Happy Feet".)

But in truth, I've wanted to tip my top hat to this finny fellow for years. And since I'm wrapping up my yearlong mantra of "What I Say, Goes" in celebration of my half-century mark, I figured now was as good a time as any.

So this December, instead of looking to the North Pole for inspiration, I turned to the South Pole. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you......


Waaaak waaaaak waaaak!

The Penguin was one of the premiere quartet of villains who terrorized Gotham City during the 1960s. And from a Real World perspective, he was one of only two in that quartet to be played by that same actor throughout the run of the series. (Burgess Meredith played The Penguin; Cesar Romero was always the Joker. The Riddler and Catwoman had different actors during the course of the show. But have no fear, Toob Believers! I have splainins for both!)

There are plenty of theatrically released movies that actually belong in the TV Universe, and the 1966 "Batman" is one of them. It opened between the first and second season of the show and featured that same quartet of villains.

Once again, Burgess Meredith returned as the Penguin and Romero was the Joker. Frank Gorshin, the one true Riddler, was in it as well. (Gomez Addams once briefly assumed the identity.) But Catwoman was actually a crook named Betty who would later go straight and marry a cop. Her husband was the son of a private eye named Barnaby Jones. (This Catwoman was played by Lee Merriweather.)

So even though it was a feature film, "Batman" does count as a credit in the TV Universe for The Penguin.
The Penguin was more of a mobster-styled criminal rather than a costumed super-villain. He apparently came from a wealthy background but was rejected by his family for his... "proclivities".

The Penguin harkened back to the more idealized view of high society criminals, as might have been found in films from the thirties and forties like "Lady For A Day". In keeping with his family's tradition of wealth, the Penguin lived a life of crime executed with his own self-proclaimed class and style.

In keeping with his high society ways, The Penguin would frequent nightclubs, of the supper club style much like the legendary Stork Club. (Of course, of course.) And it was at one of those supper clubs where he delighted in a most unusual act. It was a stupid human trick in which an evil hypnotist subjected a rock group known as 'The Monkees' to cruel treatment on stage while they were under his mind control.

But with his Cyrano beak of a nose and potbelly and some unknown hip condition that caused him to waddle, The Penguin distorted that image of the Gentleman Thief probably first made popular by AJ Raffles. In his top hat, tails, cummerbund, spats, and a monocle, he was a contradiction between looks and style and circumstance not too far removed from the Kings of the Road, - those haughty hobos who put on airs while wearing threadbare tuxedos as they ate beans from a can.

It was probably due to his odd looks and build that The Penguin decided to adopt the flightless avian for his image as a costumed criminal. Born Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, the Penguin was an outcast in his rich, debutante family. Their rejection drove him to become a violent criminal - at least according to the comic books and the Tim Burton movie "Batman Returns" from the early 1990s.

As far as Toobworld was concerned, the origin of The Penguin was never fully splained. In fact, only a few of the secondary villains had their beginnings detailed, like the Bookworm, Mr. Freeze, and one of my faves, King Tut.

But I suppose we have to go along with the comic book assertion that his name was Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot. This is a shame, because aside from it being a stupid moniker, it does prevent us from making the claim that one of Burgess Meredith's guest roles in which he played a villain could be considered The Penguin before his transformation.

I was especially tempted by a backwoodsman he played in "The Great Silence", an episode of 'Tales Of Tomorrow'. This mountain-dweller, who single-handedly thwarted an alien threat, might have used that UFO technology to jump-start his self-improvement.

Or maybe he could have been Luther Dingle, aka "Mr. Dingle The Strong". Mr. Dingle was subjected by various aliens to a battery of experiments which expanded his mind and increased his strength in 'The Twilight Zone'.

But no. I guest we're stuck with Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, one of the worst names ever created for a fictional character.

Unlike most Batman villains, The Penguin never centered his crimes around a psychotic obsession; he was in control of his own actions and was considered sane. But he did possess a few eccentricities. For instance, he is known for his love of birds and his umbrellas, which allow him to glide through the air, double as firearms or have some other specialized function.

Because of those umbrellas, The Penguin might have been an inventor or a scientist during the thirties before turning to a life of crime. And he may have called upon that knowledge to create his many trick umbrellas which he used in the execution of his crimes. Or maybe he was just a guy who created novelty gag gifts gone wrong.

At any rate, he created umbrellas for all sorts of uses in crime. But he may also have fashioned one as a gift to his Gotham City partner in crime, the Riddler. It served no other purpose, like spraying knockout gas or having a hypnotic design that could mesmerize his victims when spun quickly. It was just that the hand-crafted handle made the bumbershoot special for the Riddler - shaped like a question mark, which was the Riddler's personal symbol.

That umbrella, along with plenty of dress shirts with question marks on the collar tabs, were somehow purloined by a time-traveling Gallifreyan. Known only as "The Doctor", he most probably appropriated the items during his banishment on Earth imposed by his fellow Time Lords.

This would have been the Doctor's third incarnation, but it would have been an incident unrecorded for viewing by the Real World. (Surprise, surprise!) It's unknown if the Doctor was in league with the Riddler or with Batman, but we do know the Third Doctor was aware of the Caped Crusader's existence.

"What did you expect?
Some kind of space rocket with Batman at the controls?"
'Doctor Who' - "Inferno"

In any event, I'm declaring that the umbrella carried by the Seventh Doctor was created by The Penguin.

Burgess Meredith played The Penguin in the series, appearing in 10 episodes of the series. Because he was so popular with the audience, the producers always had a script waiting for Meredith if he happened to come into town.

In an interview about why he decided to do 'Batman', Burgess Meredith said, "I did Batman for two reasons, one of which was salary. The other was that, after its first few episodes, Batman became the in-thing to do.

"Actually, we didn't get as much money from the show as you might think, although we were paid decent money for the feature film version. The main impetus to continue appearing on 'Batman' - beyond the desire to get some TV work - was that it was fashionable."

I remember hearing a radio interview with him many years ago in which he said that if it had not been for his appearance as The Penguin, he never would have had such a resurgence in his career to the point where he got two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. Meredith just about worked right up until his death in 1997; had it not been for The Penguin, he might have retired to just the Skippy peanut butter voice-overs to tide him over.

The Penguin also made his mark in the Tooniverse as well (voiced by Ted Knight, Paul Williams, and Lennie Weinrib). His animated version qualifies him for entry into the Hall as well, having appeared in not only 'Batman - The Animated Series' and in 'Super-Friends', but also in an episode of 'Scooby-Doo'! (I suppose it could be argued that the "animated" opening credits for the 1960s live-action series were a window into the Tooniverse.

So like Adam West last month, - and that's a coincidence, honest! - The Penguin has two versions inducted this month. But we're drawing the line there. Danny Devito's depiction of the dastardly do-badder in 'Batman Returns' and the comic book character don't count. But they do illustrate how the character does span the creative universes of Mankind's Imagination.

'The Monkees'
'Doctor Who'

'The Adventures Of Batman'
'The New Scooby-Doo Movies'
'The New Adventures Of Batman'
'Batman And Robin' [part of Tarzan And The Super 7'
'Batman - The Animated Series'

And here's one last reason why The Penguin is perfect for this end of the year honor - he's suited up for New Year's Eve!


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