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Actor Kevin Conroy, best known as the voice of Batman, died Friday at age 66

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Actor Kevin Conroy has died. And if you don't know his name, I am sure you know his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES")

KEVIN CONROY: (As Batman) I vengeance. I am the knight. I am Batman.

CHANG: Conroy was the voice of the caped crusader on "Batman: The Animated Series" from 1992 to 1996. He was also in 15 films, 15 animated series and two dozen video games. Conroy died of cancer on Thursday at the age of 66. He was the quintessential Batman to several generations of fans, including NPR's very own Glen Weldon of Pop Culture Happy Hour. Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here. Sad day, though.

CHANG: Good to have you. Yeah. So, I mean, there have been so many actors who've depicted Batman over the decades. But there's clearly been such an outpouring of affection for Conroy after news of his death. Why do you think his take on Batman resonated so deeply with people?

WELDON: Oh, I think it's because Conroy understood something that literally no other actor to play Batman ever has. And it's so simple, but it's so fundamental. And it's that Batman isn't a disguise, right? Batman is the real guy. It's Bruce Wayne that's the character he's playing. That's the pose. That's the face he shows to the world. But a lot of other actors just adopt a big fake-y voice when they play Batman. Most of them, it's this whispery rasp to seem super butch and super intimidating. And, you know, that makes sense, I guess. They see Batman as a role to play, a big one. So they strap on those bat ears. And they can't help it. They convince themselves they have to create this whole big persona.

CHANG: So how would you capture Kevin Conroy's version of Batman? Like, was it more natural?

WELDON: Oh, yeah, more natural, less forced, I think, is really the thing. And you sense that. It's what nerds like me really respond to. He's basically using just his natural speaking voice. It's important. He's not playacting, right? He's just acting. And the creators of "Batman: The Animated Series" have said that's exactly what they were looking for as they were auditioning people for the series. They kept having actors come in and do the Michael-Keaton-I'm-Batman-tough-guy whisper. And it was exactly what they didn't want their cartoon show to be. They didn't want their cartoon show to be cartoonish. So Conroy comes in. He just reads the lines. You know, he took his natural voice down a peg. He got a little - inched a little closer to the mic. But it's not a pose. That's what's important, right? He's just cool. He underplays it. He hangs back - a bit wry, a bit sardonic. It just felt natural.

CHANG: But the Bruce Wayne bit was sort of a put on, don't you think, like, that whole pampered billionaire playboy thing?

WELDON: Oh, yeah. That was the performance. Yeah. When he played Bruce, he would nudge his natural voice up a notch, you know, go softer, which, of course, is the sound of privilege, of comfort, of a life of ease and unconcern. What he's actually doing there is he's just talking like all the other privileged jerks that Bruce Wayne hangs with.

CHANG: (Laughter).

WELDON: He's basically code switching, if you think about it. And, you know - I don't know - is it too much of a stretch to say that maybe he sounded so natural and unforced code switching because Conroy himself was gay and maybe knew a little bit more about code switching, was more practiced at code switching than some of the other actors to play Batman? I mean, yeah, it's a stretch, but I'm not ruling it out.

CHANG: Well, I know that a lot of actors avoid career-defining roles that might end up boxing them into a particular character. But it seems like Kevin Conroy never shied away from the role that would end up defining him, right?

WELDON: Yeah, he loved it. I mean, he continued to voice the characters you mentioned on other shows, movies, games. He was a fixture in the Comic-Con circuit. He loved engaging with fans. He even got to play an elderly version of Bruce Wayne on the CW show "Arrow." By all accounts, he was just a sweet guy who really relished the role and relished his fans. But it wasn't his whole life. The guy trained at Juilliard alongside Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams. He did Shakespeare. He did Broadway. He had long runs on a couple of soaps. But he was the Batman that several generations of us grew up with. And I'm just - we're out here feeling a real pang of loss tonight.

CHANG: I am sorry. That is Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thank you so much, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.