09 March 2014

Forever Robin?

Listening to Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin discuss the Batman Forever movie from 1995 on Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast got me thinking how poorly cast Chris O’Donnell was as Dick Grayson.

O’Donnell was in his mid-twenties when he made the movie. His appearance certainly called into question the state’s need to assign Dick Grayson a bachelor millionaire as a guardian, but that wasn’t the only problem.

O’Donnell is at his best playing bottled-up characters alongside wild cards (as in Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino). But Dick Grayson is the more emotionally open side of the Dynamic Duo. Furthermore, that movie’s take on the partnership called for Dick to be edgy.

Looking back, I was reminded of a scene in the 1960s Batman television show in which Dick tries to infiltrate a youth gang by cleverly dressing up in a leather jacket and slicking his hair. A girl offers him a cigarette. He coughs at the first inhale, offering the lame excuse that he’s had too many already that day. (Burt Ward himself didn’t smoke growing up, he says.) Adam West as Bruce Wayne later acknowledged that Dick had done his best, but it was…painfully obvious…that…he was not…a smoker.

Even with an earring, O’Donnell looked just as incongruous reading his lines. Just working on a motorcycle doesn’t make a kid a potential juvenile delinquent—especially when he looks old enough to be in law school.

Reportedly director Joel Schumacher had narrowed down his casting choice to O’Donnell and Leonardo DiCaprio, four years younger and already Oscar-nominated for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. The moviemaking team asked a focus group of young teen-aged boys—the core audience for action movies since Star Wars—which of those two actors looked like he’d win in a fight. The boys says O’Donnell would. But that was the wrong question. A big part of the appeal of Robin is that he’s the littlest guy in the fight, but comes through anyway.

O’Donnell played the role of Dick Grayson through two movies directed by Schumacher. Then, as he tells the story, he walked away from blockbuster roles to marry and raise a family while taking less time-demanding acting jobs. He’s now a father of five, three of them boys, and they’re naturally proud of their father’s most iconic role. O’Donnell described the pattern in a 2010 interview:

“I used to try to be really low-key on airplanes, with my hat pulled down. Now I pre-announce to the people around us, ‘I want to apologize in advance,’” he jokes.

“When Chip was 3, as soon as we sat down, he said, ‘My dad was Robin in the Batman movie.’”
During a recent visit to Conan O’Brian’s talk show, O’Donnell disclosed that he still owns one of the Robin costumes, in an unopened crate that he’s moved from house to house. I’m sure his kids would be glad to see inside.

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