There would not be Batman without Alfred Pennyworth. Bruce Wayne’s butler, who raised him after the tragic slaying of his parents, is a pivotal part of Batman lore. He’s been there since the beginning, with varying degrees of depth and emotion. But one thing remains the same: Alfred will always be there for Batman, picking him up to tend his emotional and physical wounds. Batman can’t get far without his trusty Alfred.
Below are a list of just some of the cinematic and televised Alfreds from over the years. We didn’t cover them all (he’s been around for awhile), but touched upon the most important and influential Pennyworths. Let’s hear it for the world’s greatest butler!
Alan Napier (1960s series Batman)
His last name is never used, but Alan Napier‘s Alfred was a classical take on the character that set the tone for decades. No nonsense and capable of fixing up Bruce or even filling in for him in the suit (yeah, that happened), Alfred was an essential aide to Batman. Like the show itself, Batman’s Alfred sometimes got a little silly. Still, he captured the essence of the character even though he lacked the depth we would later get from some of his ancestors. There wasn’t a lot going on under the surface of Napier’s Alfred, but he nailed the look and feel of the character.
Michael Gough (Batman – Batman & Robin)
Gough played Alfred in four films (and one classic Diet Coke commercial). This was the first Alfred for many viewers (like yours truly) and therefore left a quite a mark. In the timeline of Batman films, Gough came between the sometimes silly Napier and the emotional, layered Michael Caine. He wasn’t able to dive into the psyche of Alfred as much as he might have liked, but he delivered a calm, reassuring tone and looked the part. To be fair, he actually was able to deliver some pathos for Alfred, it just happened to be in the reviled Batman & Robin. In the final film, Alfred gets sick and is on the verge of death for much of the film. Only Batman can cure him.. with a formula made by Mr. Freeze. It’s all very complicated and, quite frankly, stupid, but it gave Gough a chance to show off his acting chops. In those moments, and many before, we saw Alfred as he should be: caring, fatherly and wise.
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Batman: The Animated Series)
Many Batfans grew up with Zimbalist Jr.’s version of Alfred. Sure, he was a cartoon character, but he still nailed the part. Like Gough, Zimbalist Jr. gave Alfred just a wee bit of bite; you could feel the smirk under his British stiff upper lip. He didn’t get to do too much physically, but he was a great mental sparring partner for Batman. Many long nights in the cave were spent bouncing ideas off Alfred, who always had a dry comeback and advice.
Michael Caine (Batman Begins – The Dark Knight Rises)
It’s not surprising that Oscar winner and acting legend Michael Caine gave us our most impressive Alfred. His work in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is nuanced, human and even fun despite Nolan’s tendency for gritty darkness. In fact, many thought Caine should have been nominated for an Oscar, especially in the concluding The Dark Knight Rises. Here was an Alfred that wasn’t just support to Bruce Wayne, but a partner. He did detective work with him, he advised him and challenged him. He went toe-to-toe with Bruce, not relegated to only bringing him tea and tending his wounds.
Caine’s work was a turning point, as we will highlight later. He gave such depth to the character and inspired future screenwriters to give Alfred much more to do dramatically. He didn’t have to be an exposition machine or simply someone for Bruce to talk to. He could have layers and feelings and goals. Caine changed Alfred for the better. And probably forever.
Sean Pertwee (Gotham)
Following Caine’s cue, Pertwee’s Alfred has much more to him. Pertwee gives us an Alfred who cares for young Bruce Wayne and also trains him and teaches him right from wrong. Plus, he’s tough. Super tough. He’s not as old as other Alfreds and has much more attitude, he’s lively and feisty and speaks his mind. He has fight in him and you can see where Bruce gets it from.
Gotham made the smart choice to make Bruce’s training start years before his trips overseas. Instead, he starts learning about justice and what a hero can do from Alfred, who refuses to let Bruce sink into darkness after his parents are killed. Pertwee is downright electric, buzzing with fierce energy.
Jeremy Irons (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
Batman v Superman isn’t out, of course, so we don’t really know how great or bad Irons is as Alfred, but we can already tell a few things about his take. Like Pertwee and Caine before him, Irons’ Alfred isn’t just a butler; he’s a major part of Batman’s power, from his gadgets to his detective work. More than that, he is someone who Bats can plot and argue with. Alfred will conspire and plan with Batman, but he will also get in his face and tell him when he’s wrong, tell him what is at risk. This is once again a very modern, new take on the character. This Alfred doesn’t sit on the sidelines because Bruce Wayne’s life and cause is far too important.
It’s an exciting time to be a Batman fan and therefore it’s an exciting time to be an Alfred fan. We’ve had lots of Alfreds over the years and we will likely have many more. The character has transformed from slight side role to a bonafide supporting player in the Batman films. We can’t wait to see how he grows next. Wherever Batman goes, Alfred will follow.