Joseph Frank Keaton (1895 - 1966) American Comedian, Technical Advisor, Comedy Consultant, Editor, Actor, Stunt Assistant, Stunt Double, Performer, Producer, Writer and Director. Joseph Frank Keaton, was born in Piqua, Kansas, October 4, 1895 to Joe Keaton and Myra Keaton. Joe and Myra were Vaudevillian comedians with a popular, ever-changing variety act, giving Keaton an eclectic and interesting upbringing. In the earliest days on stage they traveled with a medicine show that included family friend, illusionist Harry Houdini. Keaton himself verified the origin of his nickname "Buster", given to him by Houdini, when at the age of three, fell down a flight of stairs and was picked up and dusted off by Houdini, who said to Keaton's father Joe, also nearby, that the fall was 'a buster'. Savvy showman Joe Keaton liked the nickname, which has stuck for more than 100 years. At the age of four, Keaton had already begun acting with his parents on the stage. Their act soon gained the reputation as one of the roughest in the country, for their wild, physical antics on stage. It was normal for Joe to throw Buster around the stage, participate in elaborate, dangerous stunts to the reverie of audiences. After several years on the Vaudeville circuit, "The Three Keatons", toured until Keaton had to break up the act due to his father's increasing alcohol dependence, making him a show business veteran by the age of 21. While in New York looking for work, a chance run-in with the wildly successful film star and director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, resulted in Arbuckle inviting him to be in his upcoming short The Butcher Boy (1917), an appearance that launched Keaton's film career, and spawned a friendship that lasted until Arbuckle's sudden death in 1933. By 1920, after making several successful shorts together, Arbuckle moved on to features, and Keaton inherited his studio, allowing him the opportunity to begin producing his own films. By September of 1921, tragedy touched Arbuckle's life by way of a scandal, where he was tried three times for the murder of Virginia Rapp. Although he was not guilty of the charges, and never convicted, he was unable to regain his status, and the viewing public would no longer tolerate his presence in film. Keaton stood by his friend and mentor through out the incident, supporting him financially, finding him directorial work, even risking his own budding reputation offering to testify on Arbuckle's behalf. In 1921, Keaton also married his first wife, Natalie Talmadge under unusual circumstance that have never been fully clarified. Popular conjecture states that he was encouraged by Joseph M. Schenck to marry into the powerful Talmadge dynasty, that he himself was already a part of. The union bore Keaton two sons. Keaton's independent shorts soon became too limiting for the growing star, and after a string of popular films like One Week (1920), The Boat (1921), and Cops (1922), Keaton made the transition into feature films. His first feature, Three Ages (1923), was produced similarly to his short films, and was the dawning of a new era in comedic cinema, where it became apparent to Keaton that he had to put more focus on the story lines and characterization. At the height of his popularity, he was making two features a year, and followed Ages with Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924) and _The General (1926)_, the latter two he regarded as his best films. The most renown of Keaton's comedies is Sherlock Jr. (1924), which used cutting edge special effects that received mixed reviews as critics and audiences alike had never seen anything like it, and didn't know what to make of it. Modern day film scholars liken the story and effects to Christopher Nolan Inception (2010), for it's high level concept and ground-breaking execution. Keaton's 1926 Civil War epic The General (1926)kept up his momentum when he gave audiences the biggest and most expensive sequence ever seen in film at the time. At it's climax, a bridge collapses while a train is passing over it, sending the train into a river. This wowed audiences, but did little for it's long-term financial success. Audiences did not respond well to the film, disliking the higher level of drama over comedy, and the main character being a Confederate soldier. After a few more silent features, including College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Keaton was informed that his contract had been sold to MGM, by brother-in-law and producer Joseph M. Schenck. Keaton regarded the incident as the worst professional mistake he ever made, as it sent his career, legacy, and personal life into a vicious downward spiral for many years. His first film with MGM was The Cameraman (1928), which is regarded as one of his best silent comedies, but the release signified the loss of control Keaton would incur, never again regaining his filmmaking independence. He made one more silent film at MGM entitled Spite Marriage (1929) before the sound era arrived. His first appearance in a film with sound was with the ensemble piece The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), though despite the popularity of it and his previous MGM silents, MGM never allowed Keaton his own production unit, and increasingly reduced his creative control over his films. By 1932, his marriage to Natalie Talmadge had dissolved when she sued him for divorce, and in an effort to placate her, put up little resistance. This resulted in the loss of the home he'd built for his family nicknamed The Italian Villa, the bulk of his assets, and contact with his children. Natalie changed their last names from Keaton to Talmadge, and they were dis-aloud from speaking about their father or seeing him. About 10 years later, when they became of age, they rekindled the relationship with Keaton. His hardships in his professional and private life that had been slowly taking their tole, begun to culminate by the early 1930's resulting in his own dependence on alcohol, and sometimes violent and erratic behavior. Depressed, penny-less, and out of control, he was fired by MGM by 1933, and a full-fledged alcoholic. After spending time in hospitals to try and treat his alcoholism, he met second wife Mae Scrivens, a nurse, and married her hastily in Mexico, only to end in divorce by 1935. After his firing, he made several low-budget shorts for Educational Pictures, and spent the next several years of his life fading out of public favor, and finding work where he could. In 1936, his career was slightly reinvigorated when he produced the short Grand Slam Opera (1936), which many of his fans admire for giving such a good performance during the most difficult and unmanageable years of his life. In 1940, he met and married his third wife Eleanor Norris, who was deeply devoted to him, and remained his constant companion and partner until Keaton's death. After several more years of hardship working as an uncredited, underpaid gag man for comedians such as The Marx Brothers, in 1949, he was consulted on how to do a realistic and comedic fall for the film In the Good Old Summertime (1949) in which an expensive violin is destroyed. Finding no one who could do it better than him, he was given a minor role in the film. His presence reignited interest in his silent films, which lead to interviews, television appearances, film roles, and world tours that kept him busy for the rest of his life. After several more film, television, and stage appearances through out the 1960s, he wrote the autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, having completed nearly 150 films in the span of his ground-breaking career. His last film appearance was in the 1966 comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) which premiered seven months after Keaton's death from the rapid onset of lung cancer. Since his death, Keaton's legacy is being discovered by new generations of viewers every day, many of his films are available on YouTube, DVD, and Blu-Ray, where he, like all gold-gilded and beloved entertainers can live forever.
Son of Joe Keaton and Myra Keaton.
Father, with Natalie Talmadge, of sons Buster Keaton Jr. and Bob Talmadge.
Older brother of Harry Keaton and Louise Keaton.
His older son was born during his marriage to Natalie Talmadge.
Unlike many silent movie stars, Buster was eager to go into sound considering he had a fine baritone voice with no speech impediments and years of stage experience, so dialogue was not a problem.
Interred at Forest Lawn (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, California, USA.
Pictured on one of ten 29¢ US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. Designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, this set of stamps also honored Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charles Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Zasu Pitts, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara and the Keystone Kops.
Fractured his neck while filming Sherlock Jr. (1924) and did not learn about it until a doctor saw X-rays of his neck during a routine physical examination many years later.
Died quietly at home, in his sleep, shortly after playing cards with his wife.
He was already quite ill with the cancer that would eventually kill him by the time he made his last completed film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He used a stunt double in this film, as well as most of the films he made as an MGM contract player. Before signing with MGM in 1928, he had performed all of his own stunts, and even doubled for cast members in his own films, as in Sherlock Jr. (1924), where he played both himself, riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle, and the man who falls off the back of it.
His mother was of British/German ancestry, and his father was of Scottish/Irish ancestry.
Because most of his childhood was spent on vaudeville with his parents, he had few peers. However, he enjoyed a more regular childhood during his family's annual summer getaways to an Actor's Colony on Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. In fact, the city of Muskegon has erected a historical marker to note his stomping ground.
First married Mae Scriven in Mexico on January 1, 1932 before his divorce from Natalie Talmadge was final, then again legally in 1933.
He became an alcoholic when he his career collapsed around 1930, only kicking his habit and regaining his self-esteem when he married Eleanor Norris (Eleanor Keaton), his wife from 1940 until his death in 1966.
Was voted the 7th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly, making him the highest rated comedy director. Charles Chaplin didn't make the list.
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945". Pages 523-531. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
He was voted the 35th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
When he married Natalie Talmadge, the Talmadge family was one of the great acting dynasties in both theater and film, and the gossip in Hollywood was that Keaton married her to gain respect in the industry, a rumor he never quite lived down during his peak. Ironically, Keaton is now a film legend, while most people would be hard-pressed to answer who the Talmadges are.
Not only did Keaton do all his own stunts, but, when needed, he acted as a stunt double for other actors in the films.
He often surrounded himself with tall and heavy-set actors in his films, typically as his antagonist, to make his character seem to be at as much of a physical disadvantage as possible. The similarly diminutive Charlie Chaplin (Charles Chaplin) also did this.
The three top comedians in silent era Hollywood were Keaton, Charlie Chaplin (Charles Chaplin) and Harold Lloyd. All three comics produced, controlled and owned their own films. Keaton was convinced to sell his studio and films to MGM in the 1920s, while Chaplin and Lloyd retained ownership of their films. Chaplin and Lloyd became wealthy, while Keaton endured years of financial and personal problems.
In one scene in Sherlock Jr. (1924), filmed at a train station, Keaton was hanging from a tube connected to a water basin. The water poured out and washed him on to the track, fracturing his neck. This footage appears in the released film.
Was named the 21st Greatest Actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends List by the American Film Institute
Was hearing-impaired since 1918, after serving in Germany fighting World War I.
Met Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle for the first time strolling down Broadway in New York City. Arbuckle was with Keaton's old vaudeville acquittance Lou Anger, who introduced them. Arbuckle immediately asked Keaton to visit the Colony Studio, where he was set to begin a series of comedies for Joseph M. Schenck. The famous comedy team was born.
Loved to play baseball. He would sometimes play baseball between takes on the movie set. Furthermore, for the annual Hollywood charity baseball game for Mount Sinai Hospital in the 1930s, he always lead the comedians' team and developed the comedy business on field with his writers.
Said he learned everything about moviemaking and comedy from Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle.
The Navigator (1924) was his most successful movie by gross revenue.
There is much legend regarding the conception of his nickname, Buster. Many attribute the name to the legendary Harry Houdini, who was the partner of Joe Keaton (Buster's father) in the medicine-show group "Kathleen Marownen", after he saw a young Buster fall down a set of stairs without any injury. Others have said that it was Joe who conceived the name after he saw Buster's accident, while still others say that Joe Keaton fabricated the incident for a good story to tell on vaudeville. Which of these stories is actually true is unknown.
He and his parents formed an acrobatic group called "The Three Keatons" in his early youth.
Wanted to become an engineer as a child.
His performance as Johnny Gray in The General (1926) is ranked #34 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
His last film work was The Railrodder (1965), but because it was such a short film it was released before other movies, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which had completed filming before "The Railrodder".
Is mentioned in the song "Cinéma" by Paola Del Medico.
When he was three years old, he got his right index finger caught in a clothes wringer and it was crushed and had to be amputated at the first knuckle. The injury is most clearly visible in The Garage (1920), when Keaton steadies Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's head with his right hand while wiping oil off his face with his left.
He died the same day as his The Stolen Jools (1931), Speak Easily (1932) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) co-star Hedda Hopper.
In 1952 while remodeling his home, James Mason discovered several reels of Keaton's "lost" films (Mason had purchased Keaton's Hollywood mansion) and immediately recognized their historical significance. He took upon himself the responsibility for their preservation.
He is believed to be the first person to use "Buster" as a name, and popularized its usage ever after.
Keaton was one of the few actors who welcomed the advent of sound films. He knew his character didn't need dialog, but he looked forward to sound effects. "When somebody goes boom, they really go *boom*" he once said.
Keaton, Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel all referred to their screen characters as "The Little Fellow".
A baseball fanatic, Keaton not only held games between takes, but also incorporated it into applications for employment. According to legend, two of the questions on the application he used to hire actors read "Are you a good actor?" and "Are you a good baseball player?" Anyone who answered "Yes" to either had a job with Keaton.
He appears in four of the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest Movies: The General (1926) at #18, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) at #40, Sherlock Jr. (1924) at #62 and The Navigator (1924) at #81.
Broke his ankle while filming The Electric House (1922) when he slipped on the escalator and was still recovering from it when he made The Play House (1921) in which his stunts were considered to be tamer than usual.
Ex-son-in-law of Margaret Talmadge.
Ex-brother-in-law of Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge.
On a whim, Keaton took crew member Ed Brophy and used him in a comedy role in The Cameraman (1928). That decision launched Brophy on his own notable comedy career.
His acting mentor was Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle.
Acting mentor to comedienne Lucille Ball.
He was awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Picture at 6619 Hollywood Boulevard; and for Television at 6321 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat.
Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot.
I gotta do some sad scenes. Why, I never tried to make anybody cry in my life! And I go 'round all the time dolled up in kippie clothes-wear everything but a corset . . . can't stub my toe in this picture nor anything! Just imagine having to play-act all the time without ever getting hit with anything!
[when told to cheer up at an MGM film premiere, the reporter asked, "Are you happy to be here?"] Of course, I got off location for this!
What used to get my goat at MGM were comedians like The Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello who never worried about the script or the next scene. My God, we ate, slept and dreamed our pictures.
Is Hollywood the cruelest city in the world? Well, it can be. New York can be like that, too. You can be a Broadway star here one night, and something happens, and then you're out - nobody knows you on the street. They forget you ever lived. It happens in Hollywood, too.
The first thing I did in the studio was to want to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting room, what you did to it in there, how you projected it, how you finally got the picture together, how you made things match. The technical part of pictures is what interested me. Material was the last thing in the world I thought about. You only had to turn me loose on the set and I'd have material in two minutes, because I'd been doing it all my life.
They say pantomime's a lost art. It's never been a lost art and never will be, because it's too natural to do.
[on his time working as an uncredited gag writer for The Marx Brothers at MGM] It was an event when you could get all three of them on the set at the same time. The minute you started a picture with the Marx brothers you hired three assistant directors, one for each Marx brother. You had two of 'em while you went to look for the third one and the first two would disappear.
Think slow, act fast.
Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.
[on the differences between his and Charles Chaplin's characters] Charlie's tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy. Lovable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a working man and honest.
All my life I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, "Look at the poor dope, will ya?"
Not long ago a friend asked me what was the greatest pleasure I got from spending my whole life as an actor. There have been so many that I had to think about that for a moment. Then I said, "Like everyone else, I like to be with a happy crowd."
Dumb show is best for screen people, if they must appear in public.
I've had few dull moments [in my life] and not too many sad and defeated ones. In saying this I am by no means overlooking the rough and rocky years I've lived through. But I was not brought up thinking life would be easy. I always expected to work hard for my money and to get nothing I did not earn. And the bad years, it seems to me, were so few that only a dyed-in-the-wool grouch who enjoys feeling sorry for himself would complain.
Only things that one could imagine happening to real people, I guess, remain in a person's memory.
When I've got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups. So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling. Close-ups are too jarring on the screen, and this type of cut can stop an audience from laughing.
Half of our scenes, for God's sakes, we only just talked over. We didn't actually get out there and rehearse 'em. We would just walk through it and talk about it. We crank that first rehearsal. Because any thing can happen - and generally did... We used the rehearsal scenes instead of the second take.
[on the advent of sound in the movies] In every picture it got tougher. They'd laugh their heads off at dialogue written by all your new writers. They were joke-happy. They didn't look for action; they were looking for funny things to say.
I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I double-cross them.
A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny.
[on why he did all his own stunts] Stuntmen don't get laughs.
Pop made me the featured performer of our act when I was five. There were dozens of other family acts in vaudeville at the turn of the century, but none of the children in them was featured as early as that. Many of those kids were very talented, and their parents were as eager as mine to give them the same head start in show business that I was getting. The reason managers approved of my being featured was because I was unique, being at that time the only little hell-raising Huck Finn type boy in vaudeville. The parents of the others presented their boys as cute and charming Little Lord Fauntleroys. The girls were Dolly Dimples types with long, golden curls. I doubt that any kid actor had more attempts made to save him [by civic do-gooders[ than did our Little Buster. The reason of course was our slam-bang act. Even people who most enjoyed our work marvelled when I was able to get up after my bashing, crashing, smashing sessions with pop.