I cycled back to read more about Eartha Kitt’s playing Catwoman after musing that in the 60s, Catwoman would not have been as valuable a property because she was a secondary character in a secondary genre. Comics were still fringe. So there would not have been uproar of that nature. The outrage would have been more about interracial mingling – on the level of Eartha Kitt as a person rather than as a usurptress of a white role. And perhaps racial identification would actually have worked in the opposite fashion, if she were scene as an exotic, forbidden animal.
This article also points to the practice of treating casting lightly and flexibly. The producers casually replaced actors as the need arose and even looked at it as a special opportunity. A new portrayal did not erase or assault a former. There is a powerful parallel to the flexible casting (and flexible characterization) in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series – Batman uses a gun, Robin is a girl, The Joker is (apparently) gay. This kind of approach seems to avoid/subvert a “grounded” argument about casting. The same flexibility continues into “Batman: Year One,” where Catwoman (or pre-Catwoman) is black.
I also gained a new tributary to follow: The casting of Zoe Kravitz as the latest Catwoman. What has been the reaction? Is this now a part of tradition or canon that comic book geeks will defend? If so, is that what is missing here: A history of Scrooges of Color that gains its own following and traction? And/or a breakthrough portrayal within an inspired overall approach? The equivalent to “Into the Spider-Verse”?
EARTHA KITT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FIRST BLACK CATWOMAN
Everything you need to know about Eartha Kitt’s portrayal of the Batman villain Catwoman.
News broke that biracial actress Zoe Kravitz has been cast as Catwoman. She stars opposite Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne / Batman in Matt Reeve’s prequel movie. The reason why it’s big news is she’s black. The character has been played by caucasian women for decades. Most recently by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises.
While it’s big news that the “Big Little Lies” star is playing The Cat opposite The Bat it’s worth noting that the racial barrier was broken over 50 years ago. Eartha Kitt, the biracial actress, singer, and writer played Catwoman in the Batman 1960s series. Here’s how it went down.
EARTHA KITT BECOMES A “SEX KITTEN”
Eartha Mae Keith was born in South Carolina on January 17, 1927, on a cotton plantation. Her mother Annie Mae Keith was Cherokee and black. Eartha was born to a white man who she never knew and spent her life looking for. It’s rumored that she was conceived by rape. Her mother remarried and Eartha’s stepfather rejected her for her light skin. She and her sister were sent to live with relatives. Eartha Kitt was rejected by her black peers as “that yella’ girl” and white people only saw her as a poor black girl.
But despite her harsh upbringing Eartha Kitt prevailed. Excelled even. By 16 she won a full scholarship to study ballet with the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. She continued dancing, singing and performing gaining greater fame. Soon she was named as a “performer to watch”. In 1946, at 20, famous director Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world.” Then, her singing career took off.
In the 1950s she had a breakout hit with her album RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt. She had hits like “Monotonous”, “I Want To Be Evil” and “Santa Baby”. Eartha Kitt cultivated the image of a sultry seductress and self-mockingly called herself a “sex kitten”.
EARTHA KITT TAKES OVER FROM JULIE NEWMAR
ABC’s live-action 1966 television show Batman was a campy sensation and Adam West became a household name. One of the biggest villains on the show was Catwoman. She was played by Julie Newmar and starred in 12 episodes for the first two seasons. Over time the character became defined by the unrequited romance between them and she took on a less villainous role.
When the third, and final, season arrived in 1967 Newmar was unavailable to reprise the role. She was contractually obligated for a role as an Apache woman in the western Mackenna’s Gold. Not racist at all by the way. The producers looked for a replacement.
By this time Kitt had become a worldwide sensation. Her stage performances were getting international acclaim. Her songs were playing on the radio in regular rotation. But her acting also took center stage. She had won an Emmy for her guest spot on the Robert Culp, Bill Cosby show I Spy (1965). She was honored with a star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” in 1960. She was cast as the new Catwoman, but it wasn’t easy.
EARTHA KITT BECOMES CATWOMAN AND THE SOUTH IS MAD
The show had changed actors before. It didn’t take itself too seriously.
Frank Gorshin played the Riddler in ten episodes of the series as well as the theatrical movie. But Gorshin wasn’t available in season two. So John Astin, well-known for The Addams Family, stepped in. George Sanders played Mr. Freeze in season one. But Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach both played him in season two. Lee Merriweather had already played Catwoman for the movie. No big deal. But this was something different.
Producer Bill Dozier picked Eartha Kitt to play the new Catwoman. “We felt it was a very provocative idea,” producer Charles B. Fitzsimons said. “She was a cat woman before we ever cast her as Catwoman. She had a cat-like style. Her eyes were cat-like and her singing was like a meow. This came as a wonderful off-beat idea to do it with a black woman.”
“I was about nine years old when she played Catwoman on Batman, and that was a really big deal,” Kitt’s daughter Kitt Shapiro later told Closer Weekly. “This was 1967, and there were no women of color at that time wearing skintight bodysuits, playing opposite a white male with sexual tension between them! She knew the importance of the role and she was proud of it. She really is a part of history. She was one of the first really beautiful black women — her, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge — who were allowed to be sexy without being stereotyped. It does take a village, but I do think she helped blaze a trail.”
When her casting was announced television network affiliates in the Southern states were outraged. Fitzsimons and the other producers didn’t care. But they did agree that the romance between Batman and Catwoman had to end. They were progressive but not stupid.
When did Eartha Kitt play Catwoman? Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman debuted on Batman on December 14, 1967, in the episode “Catwoman’s Dressed To Kill”. In the episode, Catwoman attacks high-society fashion icons.
There was clearly sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman. But without the need to cater to Batman she was free to become an even greater villain. She manages to capture Batgirl and threatens to kill her. It’s a bold move and one she could have never pulled off before. Catwoman became more an equal to Batman with a “Catlair”, a “Kitty Car” and even hires a lawyer.
While Kitt had appeared on dozens of movies and stageplays she was unused to the rigors of a scripted television show. Alan Napier, who played Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, said, “Julie Newmar was the best Catwoman, but Eartha Kitt was kind of marvelous. She did complain a lot on the set though.”
Kitt appeared in two more episodes of the show “The Funny Feline Felonies” and “The Joke’s on Catwoman” respectively. Her signature move is to say everything is “perfect” while rolling her r’s. It comes out as “purrfect” and it’s wonderful. The New York Post is quoted as saying, “Eartha Kitt was born to be Catwoman.” Newmar herself later said Kitt was her favorite Catwoman. “She had the voice and that purr,” She later told 13th Dimension. “She could purr while talking. I could never really get that. She had that from years of singing, I think, and being a sultry woman herself. She was wonderful. I just flipped when I saw her do it. I thought she was great.”
After the show, she went on to an even more amazing career before her death. “Oh! I loved doing Catwoman!” Kitt told The Austin Chronicle in 2006. When asked if she would reprise her role she said, “Why not? But I probably would do it now as the mother of the cat. I love doing the character. I didn’t have to think about it: I didn’t try to be a cat, I am a cat!”
Eartha Kitt died December 25, 2008, in Connecticut, U.S.A. at 81-years old. While many Catwomen have come and gone Eartha Kitt’s was the most purrfect.
The next woman of color to play a live-action Catwoman was Halle Berry in the box office bomb of the same name. Zoe Kravitz is no stranger to Batman though.
Back when they were casting The Dark Knight Rises Kravitz said she was turned down for a role because she’s a woman of color. “In the last Batman movie [The Dark Knight Rises], they told me that I couldn’t get an audition for a small role they were casting because they weren’t ‘going urban,'” she told Nylon. “It was like, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ I have to play the role like, ‘Yo, what’s up, Batman? What’s going on wit ‘chu?'” Plus, she is the voice of Catwoman in The Lego Batman Movie.
We’ll see how Zoe Kravitz does.
What do you think of Eartha Kitt’s performance? Are you excited for Zoe Kravitz? Let us know in the comments below!