Alfred: The Many Faces of Batman's Butler
Jeremy Irons may be the next Alfred Pennyworth, but he's not the first. Let's look back on the other men who have played the role.
Like a ruby the size of a tangerine, Alfred Pennyworth is a rarity amongst superheroes. Before Tony Stark had Jarvis or EON’s James Bond had Q, there was the trusty butler who always knew how to keep Batman’s darkest secrets, along with any other shadows hidden away at Wayne Manor. Now, he has been cast for the screen again as Jeremy Irons in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman extravaganza.
However, despite being only the most recent of many onscreen variations of the consummate Dark Knight accomplice, Irons has more leeway than many might suspect with a character who has been portrayed as everything from a retired actor of the stage to an underworld spook looking for a slightly less chaotic job in the U.S. (and that’s just the comics!). Irons is in excellent company with a series of performers who each brought something unique to the gentleman superhero’s hushed confidence. Join us now as we look back on the actors who made the greatest impact on Batman’s greatest friend.
The first live-action interpretation of Alfred doesn't exactly come with the prestige of some of the ones who came after. Columbia's 1943 Batman movie serial, which marked the first appearance of the Dynamic Duo and friends on the big screen, is oft-overlooked...and with good reason. The racist depictions of Japanese bad guys marks it firmly as a product of the World War II era. However, William Austin played Alfred in a manner true to the comics as a mystery/detective story enthusiast (in addition to his obvious duties as a butler), and our first look at him in live-action backs this up. The thing is, he looked considerably different from his comic book counterpart at the time!
When Alfred first appeared in 1943's Batman #16, he was a rather portly fellow, more resembling Alfred Hitchcock than the whip-thin gentleman's gentleman we've become accustomed to. Veteran character actor William Austin's slender, mustached manservant quickly became the standard for the comic book version of the character that has endured for the next seventy years! (We owe a tip of the cowl to Comic Book Resources for that William Austin as Alfred screengrab!)
Batman and Robin (1949)
Columbia's second attempt to bring the Batman mythos to life is considerably better than the first. 1949's Batman and Robin is full of more scientific gadgets and less distasteful racist depictions, and on that basis alone it becomes more watchable. They certainly cast the right man for Alfred this time around. Eric Wilton's brief IMDB entry claims that Wilton was cast as a butler "more than any other" in "usually uncredited" roles across 200 films. Wilton's Alfred Pennyworth is, well...a butler, and he's played to perfection.
Less comedic than William Austin's Alfred, Wilton also has a more hands-on role in the Dynamic Duo's adventures as the Batmobile's driver. Don't get too excited, though. Batman and Robin's Batmobile is nothing more than a convertible, and Bruce and Dick can be seen leaping into the back seat to change clothes while Alfred drives down an alley (in broad daylight) and putting the top up to conceal their identities. Hey, you do what you can on a serial budget...
Everyone remembers Burt Ward’s precocious “old chum” rapport with Adam West’s groovy Batman. But before Dick, it was Alan Napier’s proper English butler who the Caped Crusader had to rely on in the field. Indeed, it’s revealed over the course of the series that Napier’s Alfred (never designated the “Pennyworth” surname) often provided driving services for the Dark Knight until Robin came of age. He also still occasionally ventured into Gotham with a mask, as pictured above from the 1966 Batman film, to save the day and do some undercover snooping for the Dynamic Duo. Alfred even gave Batman a lift from time to time on the strangely inconspicuous Alf-Cycle (a regular bike that Batman would piggyback onto).
A former employee of the Earl of Chutney, Napier’s Alfred was a consistently upbeat and amiable fellow who eagerly assisted our heroes in whatever was required, including answering the perpetually ringing Bat-Phone and providing the rare longbow lifeline, as he was once the William Tell of Liverpool. Napier, a terrific actor in his own right having appeared in cinema classics like The Uninvited (1944), Cat People (1942), and Orson Wells’ Julius Caesar (1953), brought a natural English gentleman charm to a role that depicted a butler of the stiffest upper-lip. Poised and grandfatherly, Napier’s Alfred was nothing less than immaculate.
Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), Batman & Robin (1997)
Perhaps the most revered live-action Alfred is the one who managed to serve three different Batmans over the course of four films. As much as the tone shifted from Tim Burton to Joel Schumaucher in Warner Brothers’ original Batman movie franchise, Gough’s unflappable Alfred Pennyworth never did. Played with a natural warmth and the driest of underhanded wit, this Alfred insisted on calling his surrogate son by the name of “Master Wayne” out of tradition, although he was clearly so much more.
Presented throughout all four films as the man who raised Bruce—after an unspecified stint as an employee of Buckingham Palace—he was always supportive of his surrogate son’s efforts to confront crime, at least after the first Batman film. In the 1989 original, the darker tone of Burton’s style permeated throughout, and Alfred would quietly reject his employer’s one-man war on crime, only ever saying aloud that he wished not spend his few remaining years grieving for "the loss of old friends or their sons."
By the time Batman Returns rolled around, Alfred had gotten with the program, not least of all because Bruce still seemed irked about Alfred’s civil disobedience of allowing Vicky Vale into the Batcave. In the later films, he served as Batman’s conscience and lone friend on Christmas Eve, as well as the wise father forcing his son to accept the next generation’s choices with the birth of Robin (grandparents just spoil their grandkids, don’t they?). In fact, Gough’s genial presentation of the sole Wayne Manor keeper became the saving grace of the 1997 train wreck that was Batman & Robin. If not for the subplot of Batman having to let go of his beloved butler, that toyetic neon nightmare would have been devoid of a single shred of humanity. But leave it to Gough, a genre veteran of fare like Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula (1958) and Konga (1961), to find the urbane Tenzing Norgay to every type of Batman’s Edmund Hillary.
Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), The New Batman Adventures (1997-1998), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Justice League (2003-2004)
A number of actors have voiced the cultured superhero assistant in the past, but none have been as omnipresent as the tenor of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. This old school gent, who has also served with the likely more pleasant company of Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967) and Karen Black in Airport 1975 (1974), became the go-to vocalist for Batman’s right hand in the war on crime. Primarily a definitive adaptation of the Post-Crisis variation on the character, Alfred in The Animated Series mostly keeps to himself and provides only the sparsest amount of wit while waiting in the wings. Occasionally permitted the chance to comfort his surrogate son, this Alfred is still very much a product of the comic book source’s reticent servitude, albeit with a dash of Pre-Crisis espionage thrown in. A constant source of unspoken companionship for Bruce, it is only in the sounds of Batcave silence that deafen elderly Bruce’s life in Batman Beyond where Alfred’s (as well as the whole now-defunct Bat-Family’s) importance can be truly measured. Also, fun fact: Zimberalist Jr. is also the fan favorite voice actor of Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man: The Animated Series.
Birds of Prey (2002-2003)
A cross between Michael Gough’s Alfred Pennyworth and a Greek Chorus—at least by WB standards (CW for you youngin’s)—Abercrombie’s Alfred acted as narrator for the pilot and several episodes of this short-lived soap that was equal parts Smallville and Charmed. Set in the near future, Alfred watches over Helena Kyle much as he did her father…Bruce Wayne. Helena is the lovechild of Bruce and Selina Kyle, and Batman turns out to be a deadbeat dad when he skips town following the murder of Catwoman and the paralysis of Batgirl. Now, Helena Kyle leads a super-team that includes Oracle/Barbara Gordon and Black Canary while Alfred provides the tactical support of an old veteran. He also has the meta-aware of an onscreen Santa Claus. Birds of Prey did not survive long enough for Abercrombie to really differentiate his Alfred beyond his abounding congeniality, but he still remained one of the better parts of this show.
Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
As the most prestigious thespian to don the cufflinks, Academy Award winning Michael Caine brought a vividly different energy to the role of Alfred Pennyworth. Like most modern interpretations of the butler, he was more father than servant to the Bruce Wayne of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. However, as the only live-action pairing to last three films, Caine and star Christian Bale developed a genuine rapport of father and son in a trilogy that pushed that dynamic to its breaking point. Played with a coy cockney accent from a man who clearly wasn’t born into a profession of deference, Caine’s Alfred is more than a conscience on Bruce’s shoulder; he’s a constantly sardonic devil’s advocate. With the responsibility of a parent for a guy who jumps off rooftops in his spare time, Alfred develops severe reservations about what Bruce is doing to his mind and body, causing him to question the crusade early about how this reflects the great Thomas Wayne’s legacy, and to downright plead for it to end by the time of The Dark Knight Rises.
For all of their emotional contention, which brought new verisimilitude to the aspect of playing father and friend to a superhero, Caine’s Alfred remains the most deprecating and humorous iteration of the character, cherishing his cockney accent over sophisticated decorum. Caine’s previous filmography also plays a part in developing some of this Alfred’s mysterious biography, as he tends to have a working knowledge throughout the series of criminal psychology and speaks in riddles about his time as a freelance mercenary for a Burmese warlord. Despite timeline incongruities, it is easy to imagine Caine’s British soldiers of Queen and fortune in films like Zulu (1964) and especially The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with maybe a dash of Harry Palmer and Jack Carter thrown in, having been a rough sketch of this Alfred Pennyworth’s youth. When Alfred is at his most conspiratorial with Bruce in The Dark Knight, he can be just as dangerous as the Batman himself.