I still remember the morning of October 11, 2004. It was a Monday, and I got up to get ready for school, but I heard my mother crying as she watched the morning news. She had to then break it to me that Christopher Reeve, a hero to me and the world, had passed away the day before. It was painful as someone who was obsessed with Superman and superheroes since my earliest memories, and I truly felt as if Superman had died. I felt the same way yesterday morning when I learned Kevin Conroy had passed away. I felt like Batman had died.
Seeing Batman: The Animated Series for the first time in 1992 is seared into me. It felt like a before-and-after moment for me with my love of Batman. I had loved all other versions of Batman I had encountered on a page or on a screen before that show, but this was IT! This was BATMAN! And a big part, maybe the biggest, was that voice. The moment you heard that deep, chest-heavy voice, it was as if all of the other actors were just guessing, but this was the actual Batman. It was like meeting the love of your life. That smack in the face, instinctual feeling of "yeah, this is it!" It was an absolute. A certainty. This was Batman's actual voice. This was the one readers heard in their heads since 1939 and whom other actors were trying to find in themselves. It wasn't Adam West's charming and confident voice, and it wasn't Michael Keaton's dark and eerie whisper. It was the voice of Kevin Conroy. It was the voice of Batman.
What set Batman: The Animated Series apart from other adaptations was its striking character-first approach. We weren't here to just see guys fight; we were here to learn about them as people and what makes them do the things they do. Notice how when you remember your favorite moments from the series, they're not action scenes. They're moments of character introspection or interactions between them or even catharsis.
That was Kevin Conroy's approach to Bruce Wayne and Batman as well. Anyone can try to sound tough or angry or make fighting sounds. Kevin found something more. He found the suave, cool confidence of the public Bruce Wayne, as well as the intimidating growl of Batman that struck fear in criminals. But he also, maybe for the first time, found the third person in there. There's the man between the two images he has created. The man who contemplates both of them and maybe even judges them. He is the man who, as a boy, watched his parents murdered in front of him and grew up swearing vengeance. Kevin and us, through him, found the real Bruce Wayne.
Looking Back at How Special Kevin Conroy Was
While he helped fans meet the real Bruce Wayne, the real Kevin Conroy was someone even more special. I was lucky enough to have met him several times at comic conventions or movie events, and it always struck me how much energy (and patience) he had for fans. He knew this was a moment for them, and he wanted them to remember it positively. Any of us who've been at conventions have seen horror stories with overzealous or anxious fans acting like idiots around celebrities, and while I've seen that around Kevin, he never let on that it bothered him or made them feel bad about it. He was always kind, welcoming, and warm to anyone.
He often had a sign at his table informing fans that he couldn't do the "Batman voice" for readings into any recorders or phones. Yet at one New York Comic Con, a friend of mine was getting an autograph for his friend who was a Marine stationed in Iraq. My friend told him who the autograph was for, and Kevin told him to call his friend's phone. It went to voicemail, of course, but when he was able to hear it, there was a voicemail from Batman sending him his best wishes and thanking him for his service.
Kevin Conroy knew the heavy importance that comes with playing one of these heroes. Like Christopher Reeve, he understood that he was a vessel for the character and that it was then his responsibility to have that character mean something to people.
I was at an event at the Paley Center in New York in 2014 celebrating Batman's 75th anniversary. Kevin was there and shared a story about how in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he volunteered in kitchens to help feed first responders and rescue workers. Word got around there who he was, and eventually, he took on the task of calling children whose fathers were missing first responders to try and cheer them up. He called them as Batman and, even in their darkest moments, let those kids hear their hero telling them to keep hope and stay strong. Batman lost his parents as a child, so there was something these kids could immediately latch onto there. They had now suffered the same thing as their hero, and he was there for them to tell them it would be okay.
I had met him before, but as luck would have it, I bumped into Kevin Conroy on the street in New York before that Batman event in 2014. One of the cool things about New York is you never know who you'll run into, and on this day, it was Batman himself, or rather Kevin. I was nervous to approach him (you never know how it'll go when it's not at an event), but I went up to introduce myself to him. He greeted me with a smile and brought me in for a handshake, joking that people usually don't recognize him until he speaks.
Oddly enough, a couple of days before, I had seen an old episode of Cheers that he had guest-starred on as a Boston Red Sox player. I mentioned it to him, and he immediately threw his head back for a big deep laugh as he covered his face with his hand, almost embarrassed. "Oh god, that was a lifetime ago!" He then told me a funny story about how at the time, he was excited to be on the biggest TV show in the world but nervous as a lifelong New Yorker that his friends and family, who were Yankees fans, would see him wearing enemy colors. He said some of them still busted his chops about it decades later. I approached him as a Batman fan, but he embraced me like an old friend as he told me that and other stories right there on the street.
That was Kevin Conroy's special gift as a performer and as a person. He brought you in and made you feel like you had known him forever. His Batman was dark and mysterious, yet out of any version of the character, his was the one you felt like you knew the most intimately. That's why so many fans say his Batman is the definitive one because it's the one we know the most personally. He gave this dark, brooding character defined by vengeance a heart. A big one.
That's why he played the character for 30 years over every possible medium because his Batman was the one we all trusted to bring us somewhere new and feel okay with it. Hell, what other Batman would you accept or even embrace singing from?
I truly believe Kevin Conroy's work as Batman belongs right up there with Mel Blanc's Looney Tunes work and the cast of The Simpsons as titans of an art form. There's an ignorant belief that voice acting is easy or that it doesn't require as much as visual acting when it probably requires an even greater skill to do it well. We rely on visual cues to convey emotion and feeling, but to be able to do all of that without the physical element that's an incredible talent. Kevin was an incredible talent and an incredible person. Fans lost a piece of Batman with his passing, but the world lost Kevin Conroy. Thank you, sir.
To rewatch all of Batman: The Animated Series and Kevin Conroy's other great performances as Batman, check it all out on HBO Max.