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.

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BrittReid 3 months ago
He was also in The Day The Earth Stood Still.
JoeSHill 3 months ago
Olan Soule's voice history with The Caped Crusader first began on "THE BATMAN-SUPERMAN HOUR" that debuted on CBS Saturday Mornings on Sept. 14, 1968. Allen Ducovny executive produced the Filmation Associates cartoon series shortly after the ABC-20th Century Fox Television series finished its impressive three-year run in March 1968, National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics today) and Filmation had maintained a successful track record since their first cartoon series, "THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN" in Fall 1966, and "THE SUPERMAN-AQUAMAN HOUR OF ADVENTURE" in Fall 1967. Filmation was supposed to do a "METAMORPHO" cartoon series for NPP-TV, but when the studio successfully secured the rights to do a Batman cartoon series, their previous plans changed. Olan Soule also guest starred on an episode of "BATMAN" before the animated series debuted, and he, along with Casey Kasem, Jane Webb, and Ted Knight, who played both the voices of all the Bat-villains and "Commissioner Gordon" also narrated all of the 38 episodes that were produced by Ducovny Productions and Filmation Associates. It has also been said that "F-TROOP" actor Larry Storch had also voiced "The Joker", but this is false to fact, as Ted Knight voiced all the villains, while Jane Webb voiced "Batgirl" and "Catwoman". Olan Soule's voiceover of The Caped Crusader was both impressive and successful, and after CBS canceled "THE BATMAN-SUPERMAN HOUR" in 1969 ( this was also due to the backlash and complaints about the violence in Super Hero cartoons in the late 60s) "SESAME STREET" made its NET debut in November 1969 (National Educational Television before they became PBS) and National Periodical Publications and Filmation made some brief animated shorts for the children's series, and Olan Soule' also returned to voice Batman in the two shorts with Ted Knight and Casey Kasem. CBS aired the 1968 Filmation Batman cartoons on Sunday Mornings in the 1969-70 TV season. In Fall 1970, Warner Bros.Television officially released "BATMAN/SUPERMAN/AQUAMAN" as a 69 half-hour package for general syndication in the general TV markets. but Olan Soule', Casey Kasem, and Ted Knight, who made it big as "Ted Baxter" on CBS's "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW" in the 70s, all returned to voice their animated roles from 1968 in Hanna-Barbera's "THE NEW SCOOBY-DOO MOVIES" in Fall 1972 on CBS, and from there, ABC, National Periodical Publications and Hanna-Barbera Productions, who hired Dr. Haim Ginott had collaborated to produce a new series called "SUPER FRIENDS" that debuted on Sept. 8. 1973. because of the ratings' spike with both CBS's Batman & Robin guest starring in "THE NEW SCOOBY-DOO MOVIES" and ABC's "THE BRADY KIDS", a Filmation-produced series spun off from the popular live ABC series that had Superman and Wonder Woman (making her animated debut) that ultimately resulted in the Superheroes returning to Saturday Morning TV since 1968, but without all the violence, as child psychologist Dr. Ginott was hired as a consultant. Olan Soule' and Casey Kasem returned to voice their "Batman & Robin" roles from 1973 to 1983, while Ted Knight narrated "SUPER FRIENDS" in its first season only. In 1977, CBS and Filmation Associates returned to make "THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BATMAN", but this time, bringing back the original Batman & Robin voices of Adam West and Burt Ward in a 13 episode run. In Fall 1984 when ABC aired "SUPERFRIENDS-THE LEGENDARY SUPER POWERS SHOW", Adam West replaced Olan Soule's Batman voice, as the actor went on to voice another character on the Hanna-Barbera show- so from 1968 to 1984, Olan Soule' voiced Batman a decade before Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill took over in 1992's "BATMAN, The ANIMATED SERIES" and its many formats that followed!
bayman50cal 3 months ago
And not one audio recording of any of the characters?
Jon 3 months ago
I've seen Olan Soule recently on THE MONKEES, playing a NYC hotel waiter. It's getting where I recognize a lot of classic tv actors before I see their names in the credits.
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