How the meek Mayberry choir director became the voice of Batman for a generation
Only Olan Soule could play a superhero and a geek.
Batman image: The Everett Collection
You don't have to be a he-man to play Batman. Hollywood has rubber suits to give actors those chiseled abs. Heck, Michael Keaton casually shifted gears from Beetlejuice to Bruce Wayne.
But it still might surprise you that the actor who portrayed Batman for fifteen years, from 1968 to 1983, was best known as a scrawny nerd on TV. Illinois native Olan Soule spoke with a smooth, sonorous voice that belied his build. He started his career in radio, where his musculature hardly mattered. Soule landed a major role on the radio program Captain Midnight, about a World War II superhero who was a blend of Batman, Sgt. Rock, Flash Gordon and Steve Canyon. Over the radio, Soule played Agent Kelly, SS-11, a member of Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron, helping the hero slug Axis baddies.
However, when Captain Midnight made the leap to television in 1954, the slim Soule could not fill the same role. Instead, he played Dr. Aristotle "Tut" Jones — a bespectacled scientist in a lab coat. "Tut" turned up in commercials for Ovaltine, too.
It didn't take long for Soule to get shoehorned into the stock "geek with glasses" role. Heck, on Dragnet, he seemingly wore the same wardrobe playing forensic scientist Ray Pinker. (Ray Pinker also happened to be a real-life forensics pioneer in Los Angeles.)
It wasn't long before he was firmly typecast — onscreen, at least. If you needed a guy who looked like Mister Peepers, but thought Wally Cox was too studly, Soule was your man. In the lesser-known The New Breed, a 1961 cop show, he was another lab technician.
So when The Andy Griffith Show needed to fill the role of John Masters, the cardigan-wearing choir director and sometimes hotel clerk, it turned to Soule. He made his first appearance in "Barney and the Choir," and popped up in four more episodes between 1963-64. Around the same time, he could be seen as a court clerk on Perry Mason. As the Sixties progressed, Soule continued to appear here and there on shows as pencil-pushers, doctors, clerks and other brainy, bureaucratic sorts. He was even the go-to guy if you wanted to sell prune juice.
Meanwhile, Filmation, an upstart animation studio, was starting to make a name for itself on television as a competitor to Hanna-Barbera. The cartoon house would later become best known for thriftily budgeted adaptations like The Archies and Star Trek: The Animated Series, but its big breakthrough came thanks to Superman. The New Adventures of Superman premiered in 1966 and brought the iconic Kryptonian to Saturday mornings. It proved to be so popular, that Filmation wrangled other DC characters like Aquaman, The Flash, The Atom and Green Lantern, all of whom appeared in The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure.
The big name missing from that bunch, of course, was Batman, who was busy entertaining folks in a hit live-action television series with Adam West under the cowl. But come 1968, the Batman television series had run its course. ABC canceled the show, which gave Filmation the chance to jump on the rights and bring an animated Batman to CBS. (Funnily enough, in one early 1968 episode of The Adventures of Batman cartoon, Filmation mistakenly put an ABC logo in an animated background — which aired on CBS. The suits at CBS flipped, and Filmation had to go back and draw in a replacement CBS logo for subsequent airings. Oops!)
That brings us to the casting of Batman. Filmation had a history of hiring comedic actors to portray its DC superheroes. Ted Knight (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Pat Harrington, Jr. (One Day at a Time) provided the voices of Green Lantern and Atom, respectively, for example. When it came time to find a caped crusader, Filmation utilized the oldest method in Hollywood — connections, connections, connections.
Marvin Miller, who best known as the voice of Robby the Robot, like so many actors of his era, first rose through the ranks of radio. One of his gigs was portraying Mr. First Nighter, a dapper and sophisticated theater enthusiast who was the fictional host of The First Nighter Program. Each episode had Mr. First Nighter donning his tuxedo and attending the opening of some stage performance, which was then played out by a regular cast of actors. The anthology series typically dipped into the genre of romantic comedy. From 1943 onward, Olan Soule worked as the male lead.
So, Miller, who was working as the voice of Aquaman for Filmation, recommended his old colleague Soule for the role of Batman. Lou Scheimer, the co-founder of Filmation, fell in love with Soule's voice.
"I loved Olan's voice. He was just a wonderful guy, truly talented. When you saw him you were surprised because he sounded ten feet tall, but he was just this little guy with glasses," Scheimer wrote in his book Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation (2012). "And he was gracious. He had never done an animated show before, and I think he was a little startled when he found out how easy the work was. Voice actors don't have to memorize anything!"
No wonder Soule settled into the role. He continued to voice Batman throughout the Seventies into the early Eighties, as the character joined Super Friends and jumped to another animation company, Hanna-Barbera.
From 1984-85, Soule voiced his final character in animation. The character turned up in both SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. He was not Batman.
No, Soule was Professor Martin Stein. Sometimes, not even Batman can escape the overwhelming power of the stereotype.