Screenwriter highly regarded for his film work but best known for the hit 60s TV series Batman
There is a certain wry absurdity in the fact that the respected screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr, who has died aged 91, should be associated, above all, with onomatopoeic exclamations such as "POW!", "WHAM!", "CRR-ASH!" and "ARRGH!". These on-screen graphics, describing the action in Batman, the hit TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968, were an essential element of the campy, tongue-in-cheek satiric tone created by Semple, who was inspired by the more serious Batman comic books, first published in the 1940s.
In fact, Semple, who was story and script consultant on all 120 episodes, wrote only the first four teleplays, though his contributions to the adventures of Batman ("the Caped Crusader") and his adolescent sidekick Robin ("the Boy Wonder") – played in an amusingly straight-faced way by Adam West and Burt Ward – included such catchphrases as "Come on, Robin, to the Bat Cave! There's not a moment to lose!" and Robin's terse exclamations, "Holy crackup!", "Holy Titanic!", "Holy camouflage!" and "Holy happenstance!"
Despite having co-written two of the best conspiracy movies of the 1970s – The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975) – Semple believed that "Batman was the best thing I ever wrote, including those big movies. As a whole work, it came out the way that I wanted it to and I was excited by it."
Lorenzo was born into a wealthy family in Mount Kisco, Westchester county, New York, and was keen to become a playwright like his uncle Philip (The Philadelphia Story) Barry. However, he first served in the second world war as an ambulance driver for the Free French forces in the Libyan desert, for which he earned a Croix de Guerre, and then with the American army, which awarded him a bronze star.
After the war, Semple wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, and had two plays produced on Broadway, Tonight in Samarkand (1955) and Golden Fleecing (1959). Neither was a success, but the latter was picked up by MGM, retitled The Honeymoon Machine (1961), and made into a strained cold-war comedy starring Steve McQueen as a naval lieutenant who uses his ship's computer to break the bank at a casino in Venice.
Semple started writing regularly for television in 1958, culminating with Batman. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film spin-off, which was released in 1966. The film, directed by Leslie H Martinson, had four villains: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), causing Commissioner Gordon to declare: "A thought strikes me ... so dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance ..." "The four of them ... their forces combined ..." Batman interjects. "Holy nightmare!" Robin chimes in.
Semple then decided to concentrate almost entirely on writing for the big screen, although he always had a low opinion of screenwriting, which he considered a craft rather than an art. He and Martinson teamed up again for Fathom (1967), one of many 1960s James Bond spoofs, this one starring Raquel Welch in the title role. (She is repeatedly asked how she got her name, each time providing a different answer.)
Directed by Noel Black, Pretty Poison (1968), for which Semple's screenplay won the New York Film Critics Circle prize, was an early example of a movie with ecological concerns. The bizarre black comedy starred Anthony Perkins as a disturbed young man who, convinced that the chemical plant where he works is polluting the river in his town with a "diabolical substance", enlists the help of his psychopathic girlfriend (Tuesday Weld) to destroy the polluting factory. Although the film remained pretty poisonous at the box office, it gathered a well-deserved following over the years.
After five writers' scripts had been discarded by the director Franklin J Schaffner on Papillon (1973), based on the former Devil's Island convict Henri Charrière's semi-autobiographical bestseller, Semple was brought in to write a role for Dustin Hoffman that was not in the book. He spent six weeks writing three quick drafts to create the wimpish, thickly bespectacled Louis Dega, a friend for Steve McQueen's character in line with the trend for "buddy" movies.
Another 70s trend was the conspiracy thriller, which explored the dark underside of America in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. This gave Semple a chance to get a screenwriting credit on Alan J Pakula's political thriller The Parallax View, an extremely disturbing no-holds-barred look at an assassination cover-up with a downbeat ending, and on Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, which creates an atmosphere of paranoia as Robert Redford, a lowly analyst, tries to reveal dirty dealings in the CIA.
Among the less distinguished efforts in which Semple was involved were two remakes: the heavy, charmless King Kong (1976) – "Put me down, you goddamn chauvinist pig ape!" says Jessica Lange – and Hurricane (1979), a multimillion-dollar flop, which might have been better if Roman Polanski's personal difficulties had not forced him to give up the project and flee the US.
Semple was then back to comic-book land with Flash Gordon (1980) and Sheena (1984), both eliciting intentional and unintentional easy laughs. But before Semple could say "Holy Sean Connery!", he was asked to write the screenplay for Never Say Never Again (1983). After a 12-year hiatus, the original James Bond returned to the role for the last time in this retread of Thunderball (1965) in which Bond is asked: "Now that you're on this, I hope that we're going to have some gratuitous sex and violence?" Semple does an adequate job in supplying it.
He is survived by his wife, Joyce, two daughters, Johanna and Maria, the latter also a writer, and a son, Lorenzo.
Stephen Weeks writes: Lorenzo Semple was an original – a man with deeply held beliefs and a passion for justice, but delicately wrapped in a delightful, mischievous veneer of humour. He broke off the comfort of his education at Yale after his fresher year to drive ambulances in north Africa before the US had entered the second world war. After it, he continued his studies and graduated from Columbia University, New York. Yale was from his comfortable youth, and he was keen to embrace the future – and to establish himself as a man with something to say.
He loved technology: in the late 1970s he equipped the house he'd had built in Aspen, Colorado, with a computer that turned on lights and in the morning drew blinds and opened windows, automatically, wishing him "Good morning" while it was at it. In 1985, he lugged his steel-cased "portable" to my 12th-century house in Wales to work on a script with me, and he was the first person I knew who had email. This fascination went way back: the plot of his 1961 movie The Honeymoon Machine demonstrates the early fun and even the malicious potential of computers, which stood him in good stead when he came to Batman later.
Lorenzo's last trip to Europe was in 2008, as a guest of honour of the Karlovy Vary film festival. The film he chose to represent his work was Pretty Poison, whose whole attitude towards small-town, white picket-fence life pre-dates David Lynch by two decades. It proved as disturbingly shocking as it had been when first released