It was Wednesday, January 2, 2019, and a stout, elderly man was sat on a chair casually talking to host Ellen DeGeneres. It was another taping of The Ellen Show, the popular daytime chat and entertainment show on NBC. The man in question was Burt Ward, who shot to fame in the 1960s on the popular superhero series Batman. And alongside the usual friendly chatter, Ward would also reveal how he has quietly saved thousands of lives.
Ward got his big acting break playing Robin to Adam West’s Batman in the landmark TV show that first aired in 1966. The young American actor teamed up with the famous Caped Crusader to defeat the sinister criminals of the fictional metropolis Gotham City. And Ward’s exemplary behavior wouldn’t be limited to the small screen.
In fact, the now 74-year-old has done a great deal of good in the non-fictional world. It might not be quite as dramatic as the crime-fighting undertaken by his on-screen alter ego Robin, but Ward’s real-life good deeds have nonetheless impacted upon so many lives. We’re literally talking in the thousands here.
But before we go into the fascinating details of that, we should first rewind right to the very beginning of Ward’s astonishing life story. Burt Ward was born Bert John Gervis Jr. on July 6, 1945. His place of birth was Los Angeles, the sprawling metropolis in the sunny state of California.
Ward was the son of real-estate specialist Bert John Gervis Sr. and his wife Marjorie Ward. The future actor was surrounded by considerable wealth as a youngster, with his parents being solidly middle-class. And his childhood would be seemingly idyllic.
For example, Ward would enjoy playing a lot of sports growing up, including one particular activity that you wouldn’t readily associate with California. With his poppa being the proprietor of the wandering ice extravaganza Rhapsody On Ice, Ward’s main passion as a boy was actually ice-skating. Indeed, Ward wanted to be an skater more than anything.
Ward’s sporting prowess was such that in elementary school he was crowned “athlete of the year,” reportedly taking just six seconds to complete the 50-yard sprint. Furthermore, between the ages of eight and 10, Ward managed to throw five no-hitter games and even a couple of perfect games in the local baseball division. His enthusiastic and athletic ways led to his mom calling him “Sparky” – a nickname that stuck throughout his early years.
Besides his clear love of and talent for sport, the young Ward was also a devoted fan of comics. His favorites included the DC publications Superboy and Superman. He would have been unaware at this point, of course, just how much a certain DC comic character would change his life forever.
Ward would subsequently attend the Beverly Hills High School. By his high school years his talent for martial arts and tennis had blossomed. Ward was much more than just a physical athlete, though. In fact, he was supremely intelligent child.
Yes, Ward was so smart that he would be called a “boy wonder” by the national press. After also excelling at chess for his high school, he went on to attend the University of California, Los Angeles. While studying there, Ward made it into the best three per cent of students in the U.S. in a science and math evaluation. And an even more remarkable accolade earned him considerable press attention.
When he proved he was able to read 30,000 words per minute, Ward became, for a period of time at least, officially the quickest reader on the planet. It was in the wake of this incredible feat that the aforementioned nickname of the “boy wonder” was bestowed on him by a press that was fascinated by this remarkable young man.
Ward’s talents didn’t end there, either. Indeed, the teen prodigy also displayed considerable business acumen and founded a property firm with the support of his dad. Ward was soon among the youngest brokers in the state and handled deals for a couple of homes before his interest turned to acting.
When Ward’s focus switched to performing, his well-connected poppa set up talks with noted L.A. mogul Saul David, which resulted in the teenager acquiring an agent. Ward had no background in acting at all, however, and hadn’t even undertaken any classes. He would subsequently take his mom’s maiden name when beginning his screen career and altered the spelling of his first name, replacing the “e” with a “u.”
Ward’s agent soon landed him an audition with 20th Century Fox. It evidently went well, as shortly afterwards he was asked to take part in a screen test with an actor named Adam West. The role was for Robin, the Boy Wonder, and the TV show was a screen adaptation of the popular DC comic Batman.
Of course, the then 19-year-old Ward would subsequently land the role that would change his life forever. And how he succeeded in doing so was interesting in itself. In the screen test with West, Ward demonstrated his considerable martial arts prowess, smashing up a brick and chopping a plank of wood an inch thick in half. He was already a karate brown belt at the time.
In fact, as Ward revealed to Me TV in 2017, he would triumph over more than 1,000 other hopefuls who were also vying for the role of Robin. “That’s pretty big competition,” he said, with considerable understatement. Ward also revealed that the casting team selected him because he was precisely how they envisaged Robin would look and behave in the real world.
The show first aired on ABC in January 1966 and quickly became a huge hit with audiences and critics alike. West’s Batman and Ward’s ever enthusiastic Robin perfectly complemented each other. And unlike his co-star West, the athletic Ward personally carried out the vast majority of the stunts that the story-lines required.
Batman would run for three action-packed seasons and more than 100 episodes, with ABC broadcasting a couple of shows per week during the height of its popularity. Ward’s lovable Robin became as well-known for his “holy…” catchphrase – with the actor estimating to Me TV that he uttered the phrase close to 400 times in the series – as for his earnest fight against Gotham City’s colorful villains. As a result, he was now a household name in the U.S. and a major star.
At the height of the series’ popularity, Ward would make another interesting career move. The multi-faceted entertainer turned to music, recording some songs with the legendary rocker Frank Zappa. “Yeah, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. They are totally the opposite of me. I’m all-American, apple pie, and these guys have long beards and scraggly hair. It was hilarious,” he told Me TV. Moreover, one of the tracks – the wryly titled “Boy Wonder, I Love You” – even made the charts in Illinois.
However, despite the success of the show – which was easily one of the most widely watched in the U.S. during the mid-60s – Ward wasn’t being paid handsomely. In fact, as he would find out to his chagrin, he was only pocketing the lowest salary permitted by the Screen Actor Guild. What’s more, a decline in its viewer numbers would lead to the series’ cancellation after season three.
Both Ward and West would reprise their roles in a 1966 spin-off movie, simply titled Batman. Unfortunately, though, after the series ended, Ward would find it much more difficult to succeed in the acting world. His performances as Robin were arguably so iconic and so synonymous with him that it was tough to snag other parts. He nonetheless appeared in a number of films and made-for-TV movies, as well as lending his voice talents to the The New Adventures of Batman animated series in the 1970s.
Moreover, Ward’s private life was busy during his Batman pomp – and indeed afterwards. In 1965, not long before the series first aired, the actor wed a woman named Bonney Lindsey. While the marriage only lasted until 1967, it did produce a daughter called Lisa before the couple split up.
Next, Ward would marry actress Kathy Kersh, whom he’d first met on the set of Batman in 1966. Kersh appeared in two episodes of the show, in fact: “The Impractical Joker” and “The Joker’s Provokers.” The pair tied the knot mere months after meeting, but divorced in 1969 following fewer than two years of marriage.
After yet another failed marriage in the 1980s – this time to model Mariana Torchia – Ward would encounter a woman named Tracy Posner in the final year of that decade. Posner was the daughter of the notorious businessman Victor Posner, who ironically had dispatched Tracy to purchase outright Ward’s own firm. Instead, though, she fell in love with the man whose business interests she was supposed to seize control of and subsequently told her vulture-like father to leave Ward’s company well alone.
Initially, however, Victor – who was reportedly the basis for Wall Street’s predatory Gordon Gecko – didn’t take well to his daughter falling in love with Ward. Indeed, the actor recalled the lengths the businessman went to stop their courtship during that 2017 Me TV interview. “He called me up and offered me $10 million to send his daughter back,” Ward revealed. “I said, ‘Sir, it’s a very kind offer, but I love your daughter, and I’d rather have your daughter than the money.’”
And keep her he did, as Ward went on to wed Posner in 1990. She was the Batman star’s fourth wife, but one whom he’s still very much in love with today. As well as their affection for one another, the pair – whose daughter Melody Lane arrived in 1991 – share a deep love of dogs. Indeed, Ward has been a canine lover for much of his life, and what he and Posner have done for the animals has warmed hearts all around the world.
That’s because four years after they married, the couple set up a charity, a not-for-profit that has by now saved tens of thousands of innocent lives from almost-certain death. The remarkable organization, which is still running today, goes by the name of Gentle Giants. In fact, it’s the biggest operation of its kind on the planet.
“Since my wife Tracy and I began running Gentle Giants… we have rescued over 15,500 dogs and found safe, loving homes for them,” Ward revealed to USA Today in 2016. The canine-loving couple run the charity from their enormous home in Norco, Riverside County, California. And aside from their daughter, the organization is now their main life concern.
So how and why did it all start? Well, Ward revealed all to DeGeneres in that aforementioned January 2019 interview on The Ellen Show. “At the time, the person who was rescuing them had died,” he told the evergreen host. “And they’re all dying in shelters. We thought, ‘What a terrible injustice.’”
With the animal shelters not having enough room for the large dogs and the likelihood of the creatures having to be put down as a result, Ward and his wife quickly decided they had to do something about it. “It was the first week of August 1994 that I said to my wife, ‘Tracy, we can’t let them die,’” he told Ellen. The dog lovers couldn’t just sit back and let this prospective mass-slaughter happen.
So, the caring couple stepped in, with Ward telling Ellen how their temporary intervention subsequently turned into a noble, long-term cause. “I said to my wife [in 1994]… how about we just take them maybe for two weeks, until I find someone else to take them,” Ward revealed. “It’s been 24 years. Nobody else has taken them!” he roared, to much laughter and applause from the studio audience.
Ellen then went on to ask Ward how many dogs they have at any given time. “We always have a minimum of 50,” he explained, to noticeable gasps from the audience. Next, the down-to-earth actor disclosed how many of the large dogs would sleep on the bed with the couple at night. “As many as can get in,” he joked, before stating that the actual number was 25-30, which provoked an expression of disbelief from Ellen.
Ward has gone into some detail elsewhere to outline exactly how his organization saves the lives of numerous breeds of large dogs. “My wife and I for the last 22 years, for total charity, we’ve rescued thousands of dogs. Every one of which would have been dead if we had not saved them,” he told Me TV in 2017. “We pay for their food, their shelter, their medical. We’ve found every one a safe, loving home. We vowed to help these magnificent gentle giants to live longer.”
Moreover, merely saving the magnificent beasts they’d taken in from being slaughtered wasn’t enough for Ward or his wife Posner. As he explained to both Ellen and Me TV, the couple have devised a distinctive guardianship and food program for the animals as well.
“We created a special feeding and care program that had increased the life span of every dog in the program by three years — from six to eight years for our breeds up to around 11 or 12 years,” Ward stated. “But we wanted to do more, and 15 years ago, we thought, ‘Well, if we can make the best food possible…’” And the result of that drive was Gentle Giants Dog Food.
Gentle Giants Dog Food’s unique recipe was devised by a group of specialists brought in by the couple. The food was then tested over a two-year period on their rescue animals – with sterling results – and finally arrived in stores in 2008. A decade or so later, and the Wards’ special formula is now sold in more than 1,000 outlets across Florida, California and Arizona. It can be bought online from large retailers such as Amazon and Walmart as well.
So, what difference does the specially produced food make? Well, as Ward revealed to DeGeneres, their big dogs such as Great Danes were now living to around double their anticipated ages. “We have them living up to 27 years, healthy and active,” he said proudly. “And it’s not just living long, it’s the quality of life.”
But what exactly is different about Gentle Giant in comparison to regular dog food? “There’s nothing magical, it’s all based on quality and science,” Ward told USA Today. “Most dog food contains 12-22 percent fat, but ours has a heart-healthy nine percent. You only have to put your hand in a bag of dog food to feel all the grease… but not Gentle Giants.”
Indeed, the canines that the Wards keep all eat a more nutritious and healthy form of specialized dog food. Feeding takes place at least five times per day, but as Ward told USA Today the dogs they look after consume less than average, as Gentle Giants’ formula is so easily absorbed into the animals’ bodies. “And our dogs are not in cages or locked in yards, but live communally together in our home with us in a very nurturing environment, so they are not stressed,” he added.
What the Wards do doesn’t come cheaply, however. In fact, it comes at a considerable cost to them. The large breeds that they keep munch their way through the best part of 600 pounds’ worth of food on a daily basis. This alone all adds up to approximately $14,000 a month in outgoings, while yearly medical costs for the animals amount to an eye-watering $50,000.
Some of the outlays are covered by generous donations, adoption fees and the Gentle Giants brand of food, but not enough for them to ever be in the black. Despite this, though, the big-hearted Wards seemingly wouldn’t change a thing. “We pay for everything and take no salary,” the actor – who was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January 2020 – explained to USA Today. “This is our charity.”
A great deal of time, effort and space are required in keeping the dogs. Thankfully, the Wards have 5 acres’ worth of lush land for the animals to run around in, as well as considerable finances to fall back on, too. “We could be off relaxing in Bora Bora, but we choose to use our resources to care for the dogs seven days a week. I couldn’t tell you the last time we took a vacation!” Ward stated.
So, everything they do comes from a deep love of dogs. After a life largely spent in the hugely competitive and demanding entertainment industry, Ward could have been forgiven for retiring to the beach with his riches. But his remarkable and tireless work for needy canines after the salad days of his career were over has won him a new legion of admirers. “I was the Caped Crusader, but now I’m the Canine Crusader,” he joked. Yes, Burt Ward, the one-time Boy Wonder, is a real-life superhero for the ages.