Joe E. Tata (post-Batman days) as Nat Bussichio in Beverly Hills, 90210.
Happy anniversary, Dynamic Duo! It was 45 years ago that Batman and Robin burst onto the small screen in the camp comic book superhero TV series Batman. Twice a week, the Caped Crusaders risked their lives protecting the citizens of Gotham City from crimes being committed by one of their archenemies, such as the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, King Tut, the Joker and the Black Widow, just to name a few.
Helping these colorful criminal masterminds pull off their nefarious capers was a collection of assorted goons, including one played by Joe E. Tata. Best known nowadays for playing Nat Bussichio in the original Beverly Hills, 90210 and the 2008 remake, 90210, the actor appeared in countless TV shows throughout the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. He had worked with Batman associate producer William P. D’Angelo on another series for Warner Bros. and it was D’Angelo who introduced Tata to Batman producer Howie Horwitz.
“Howie telephoned me one day and asked, ‘Did you see the first episode of Batman?’” recalls Tata. “I said, ‘Yeah, and it wasn’t anything like I read in the comic books.’ Howie said, ‘I know, but did you have a smile on your face?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He told me, ‘Good, because I want you to be in the show.’”
The actor came face-to-face with Batman (Adam West) and his sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) for the first time in the two-part episode “The Ring of Wax” and “Give ‘em The Axe,” starring Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. There is a scene in which the Riddler and one of his henchmen, Tallow (Tata), steal the Batmobile. The director was surprised when the car kept going even after he yelled, “Cut!” Tata and Gorshin never left the studio lot but they had fun just the same.
“I loved working with Frank,” says Tata. “He was one of the world’s greatest impressionists. Frank would do Burt Lancaster, for example, and it was as if Lancaster was right there in the room with you. One day Frank was working on an impression of Anthony Quinn that he was planning to use in his very first show in Las Vegas. He asked me, ‘Joey, what do you think of this?’ Frank did his thing and I said, ‘Okay...,’ and he said, ‘Well?’ I said, ‘Who the heck is it?’ Frank said, ‘Wait, listen again.’ I kept stringing him along for the whole day,” says the actor with a chuckle.
“I had such a good time working with the cast and crew of Batman as well as the guest stars,” he continues. “Some weeks I’d go to the studio lot and just hang around. It was as if I were a part of the company, which was a nice feeling.
“One day I bumped into Stanley Ralph Ross, who was one of the writers on Batman. I had just been cast in another episode [“Hizzonner the Penguin, Dizzonner the Penguin”] with Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. I said, ‘Stanley, do me a favor. If you ever write something I’m going to work in could you please make me a goon. I mean, I always play a goon but I want the audience to be able to actually see that I’m a goon.’ Stanley started to laugh and said, ‘Get outta here!’
“When I got the script for the Penguin story I saw that I was playing, surprise, surprise, G.O.O.N. #1. I wore a black derby, a black turtleneck, a pair of black pants, black shoes and carried a black umbrella. However, across my chest in huge white letters was written G-O-O-N, the Grand Order of Occidental Nighthawks,” laughs the actor. “That was the club that was going to destroy Batman.”
Unfortunately for the Penguin, he and his fine feathered fiends failed to dissolve Batman and Robin in a vat of sulfuric acid and their reign of terror on Gotham City was foiled. This was good news, however, for Tata as he was able to return to make one final appearance on the series. This time he played Suleiman the Great, one of King Tut’s (Victor Buono) Egyptian thugs in the season three episode “I’ll Be A Mummy’s Uncle.”
“Victor Buono was hysterical,” says the actor. “His assistant, who had an equally imposing figure, would do and say these silly things on the set that would make us all laugh and it drove the director nuts. At one point the cameraman was laughing so hard that he ruined the take. One day it was getting late so Buono stood in the middle of the set and, in his very best Shakespearean voice, said, ‘All right, everybody! Shut up! We’re going to do this shot and I don’t want any screwing around!’ We were all quiet and the minute they said, ‘Action!’ he and his assistant burst out laughing. He was a very, very witty man and a terrific human being.”