Julie Newmar as the iconic Catwoman
Newmar in My Living Doll with Robert Cummings
Newmar with Mike Nesmith in The Monkees
It took Julie Newmar just thirteen episodes to become an enduring, world-famous icon. Nearly six decades ago, on the campy sitcom Batman, she originated a sultry and smart villainess and love interest — the Catwoman.
In the show’s first two seasons (1966 - 1967), her lithe cat burglar — clad in a skintight black bodysuit and kitten ears — consistently outsmarted the comically wooden Batman (Adam West) and overeager Robin (Burt Ward). Based on the DC Comics characters and distinguished by its bright colors and comic-book aesthetic, Batman ran on ABC until 1968. Newmar ceded the role to Eartha Kitt in season three to work on the film Mackenna's Gold.
Born in Los Angeles, Newmar would grow to a willowy five-foot-eleven — her figure and balletic grace working to her advantage. The daughter of a Ziegfeld Follies dancer and a pro footballer-turned-college professor, she was, by her late teens, a prima ballerina with the Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera Company. She's best known for playing the Catwoman ("a feline devil," as Batman called her), but has notched many other successes over her seven-decade career. Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff caught up with the legend ahead of her ninetieth birthday, which was on August 16.
Why has comedy been so important for you?
Comedy is life itself. Those who can laugh the most live the longest. The most exquisite example is the Dalai Lama. He giggles all the time. Comedy is all about timing. I'm a musician, a pianist and I happen to have perfect pitch. So music is my background, and I believe that comics are natural musicians.
You were the frst live-action Catwoman. How would you describe your character?
She was sexy, seductive, sensuous. The part fit me because I worked to physicalize it, and I have a certain sense of humor that fit the character.
Catwoman was very clever at outsmarting people.
She was smarter than Batman. Any self-respecting cat-loving person knew that!
In preparation for the role, you adopted two cats and observed their behavior. On the show, you licked a saucer of milk to tempt Robin.
Let's say that I sucked the milk from the saucer [makes sucking sounds]. Back in the '60s, you didn't stick your tongue out on camera. Even bellybuttons couldn't be shown!
Why do you think Batman was a hit?
For one thing, it was in color. Very few television shows were in color in 1966. The producer at 20th Century Fox [William Dozier] understood what it should look like. And he got the best writers and expensive color film. Notably, the camera was occasionally tilted in order to give it that extra boost of camp. Camp was a new thing [on TV].
There were rumors of an affair between you and Adam West. Any truth to that?
Adam and I adored each other. But an affair was in the minds of the audience, put there by none other than [Batman's] great writer Stanley Ralph Ross. He wrote a humorous romance. That's why Catwoman is one of the most beloved of the bad guys.
In one scene you slid down the railing and told Batman you wanted to marry him, thereby getting between him and Robin.
I choreographed that to look like a dance from [choreography titans] Bob Fosse or Jack Cole. The great thing is that it was all shot in one three-minute take. I ad-libbed a fairly naughty thing: I turned my derriere to the camera. I'm a dancer, darling! We know what to do with our bodies. You should see the online comments about that clip. Very, very naughty!
Your Catwoman costume, which you donated to the Smithsonian, was made of black Lurex. How did they make it fit so tightly?
I sewed an "S-curve" [seam] into the waistline. I did that with all my costumes and garments. You put the costume on, put a mark where your waistline is, another at the tip of your upper hip and a third under the bosom. So you get something like a droopy "S" line, which automatically improves the hang of the whole costume.
How did the Catwoman role come to you?
I think they asked Suzanne Pleshette first; I'm not sure. But I was living in New York in a beautiful penthouse on Beekman Place, and my brother John was visiting from Harvard with friends. The phone rang, and someone — I think an agent — asked me about playing this character, Catwoman, on a show called Batman, that had been on the air a while and was having a rise in popularity. I didn't know about Batman because I wasn't allowed to read comic books when I was a kid. But my brother did. He jumped up and said, "Do it!" So I flew to L.A. that weekend, got the scripts, had a costume fitting on Tuesday and was in rehearsal by Wednesday.
Before Catwoman, you'd starred as a robot called Rhoda on the sitcom My Living Doll. What technique did you use to play a robot?
She was a doll with an IQ of 180-something. She wasn't a real human being. She didn't have understandable emotions — and that would throw off the timing. It was the hardest part I ever had to do, the biggest challenge of my career. It took me many weeks to make it real, so that my body became the character and I didn't have to intellectually direct my movements and behavior. Eventually, Rhoda's movements came naturally to me.
What was your favorite TV appearance played overall?
I was on The Monkees in 1967. They made me look good. I don’t know how they did it, but there were actually stars in my eyes. You can’t always get cameramen [Irving Lippman] like that or a director [Gerald Shepard] who lets it happen. What a sweet treat for me looking back. All four Monkees were so much fun. John Lennon said the Monkees were “more like the Marx Brothers than the Beatles.”
In 1975, you jumped out of an airplane with a parachute, singing as you were skydiving. Were you scared?
No, it wasn't scary, not till the third time I went up. But if you were frightened, you wouldn't jump out of an airplane, would you?
What happened the third time?
There was a part that I failed to do [correctly]. You were supposed to count slowly: one-thousand ... two-thousand ... three-thousand. And then you opened your parachute on a certain count. No one was jumping with me. Once you exit the plane, everything speeds up by 200 percent. So you go [speaking rapidly] 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 ... I was aware that I was counting very fast. That's what was scary. But nothing went wrong. Everything worked out, and the rest of it was just bliss.
Why did you sing?
Toward the end, you're free-floating. There's nothing for you to do.
In 2004, you and your neighbor Jim Belushi had a big feud. You accused him of being excessively noisy and, because you say he wouldn't stop, you threw a raw egg at his house, where upon he sued you for millions. Tell me about that.
The ongoing loud music from his hot tub was terrible. It was disturbing my sleep. The best thing is always to settle and be agreeable. [Later] he offered me a guest spot on his series, According to Jim, and the episode ["The Grumpy Guy"] turned out to be hysterical. He's come back to live next door to me.
What's your philosophy about being ninety years old?
I don't think there are many mean people over ninety. The most important things to have when you're ninety are kindness and integrity.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #05, 2023 under the title "Prima Performer."