If anybody ever tells you, “don’t meet your heroes,” don’t listen to them.
There were so many great, fun, unforgettable, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!” moments that occurred while I was writing my Batman history book, and near the very, very top was getting to spend an hour on the phone with Kevin Conroy, who’d voiced Batman and Bruce Wayne on Batman: The Animated Series, as well as Justice League and any number of additional animated projects and video games (and one very memorable live action performance, too). We talked about his audition, about his approach to the role, about how much his performance as Batman had meant to so many people, and
When we were wrapping up the manuscript, my editor, Chris Prince, asked who I’d like to write the book’s introduction, and I think I blurted out “IT’S GOT TO BE KEVIN CONROY” before he’d even finished the question. We asked Kevin, and he graciously and quickly agreed, and mentioned that no one had asked him to write anything before. About a week later, he sent us a brief essay looking back at his acting career and his life as Batman. Poignant, a little self-deprecating, funny, but, above all, sincere. A perfect introduction from a perfect gentleman.
Thanks for everything, Kevin.
Introduction to Batman: The Definitive History of The Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond, by Kevin Conroy, 2019
I’ve always been fond of the phrase “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It certainly applies to my life. I had trained to be a stage actor, developing the skills to interpret the elevated texts of Shakespeare, the heroic passions of the Greek plays, the gritty realism of contemporary theater. Attending drama school at the age of seventeen, I was certain of my career direction. Although I am fortunate enough to have been able to support myself as an actor my entire life, I learned early on that the theater just doesn’t pay the bills, and the theater I’d trained for was somewhat a relic of a bygone time. Actors tend to make their living in film and television and venture to the theater at a financial sacrifice to assuage the itch to be on stage in front of a live crowd. There’s really nothing like it.
On one of my excursions to LA from New York, my agent sent me to audition for this new project being done at Warner Bros.: Batman. New? I thought. Batman had been around for years. I was so naive to the Batman liturgy that I had no idea how groundbreaking this series was going to be. On meeting Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Andrea Romano, I explained I was only familiar with the Adam West Batman. Bruce was horrified: “No, no, no, we love Adam, but that’s not at all what we’re doing. Don’t you know the Batman legacy? His parents were killed in front of him as a child, and he lives to avenge their deaths and cure the world of evil. It’s very noir and dark. What kind of childhood did you have?” I didn’t want to get into how the nuns at St. Bridget’s didn’t approve of comics and said, “I just haven’t really been exposed to comic books. Look, let me use my imagination.” I improvised on the spot, imagining myself in the trauma of that child—with his world collapsed upon him, what kind of man would he become? How could he mask his pain? How could he fight the hurt and rise above it? My voice went to a very broody, husky, pained place. I honestly think my naivete as to whom I was auditioning for and the importance of the Batman legacy allowed me to be much freer and more experimental than I would have been otherwise. I felt totally at ease in the isolation of that sound booth to improvise. I booked the job.
As I grew into the role over time, I was amazed at how strange a coincidence it was that of all the superheroes, the one I would portray was this one. I, an actor familiar with classic stage tragedy, was playing the one superhero who has no superpowers and is just driven by the raw pain of his childhood to right the world. He is a true hero in the tradition of the classics but with the raw intensity of contemporary drama. Like a modern Orestes. I also learned that Batman is his true self—what he has become to deal with his pain. That means that Bruce Wayne is the performance, the three-piece suit of armor he puts on to face the world of society.
Recently, when I was appearing at a comic convention in Chicago, I was approached by a woman. She reached out to me and said, “I grew up in the projects on the South Side. My parents worked long hours. I was alone every afternoon. Most of the kids I grew up with got into trouble and are either dead or in jail. But I had you. Batman kept me safe, taught me what was right, kept me out of trouble. You really touched my life.” I hugged her tightly and thanked her for making me realize that life had led me to do something more than just entertain. You see, I’d been busy making other plans.