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Also Known As: Joseph Frank Keaton Died: February 1, 1966
Born: October 4, 1895 Cause of Death: lung cancer
Birth Place: Piqua, Kansas, USA Profession: director, actor, screenwriter, producer, editor

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

A vaudeville star before the age of 10, Buster Keaton was preparing to make his Broadway debut in 1917 when a meeting with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle changed both the course of his life and the history of cinema forever. Coming into prominence at the same time as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton - whose deadpan expressions to the onscreen comic disasters that befell him earned him the sobriquet "The Great Stone Face" - became one of the most popular and successful comic actors of the silent era. In fact, his daring comic stunts, which he performed himself without camera trickery, quickly became the stuff of legend in films like "One Week" (1920), "The Three Ages" (1923), "Sherlock, Jr." (1924) and "The Navigator" (1924). Keaton directed and starred in his greatest achievement, "The General" (1927), which was panned by critics at the time and was a major box office flop, but later gained a reputation for being one of the best films made during the silent era. He made the transition to talkies with "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929), but suffered from bouts of alcoholism and other personal problems that eventually relegated him to little more than a gagman. But Keaton made a resurgence decades...

A vaudeville star before the age of 10, Buster Keaton was preparing to make his Broadway debut in 1917 when a meeting with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle changed both the course of his life and the history of cinema forever. Coming into prominence at the same time as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton - whose deadpan expressions to the onscreen comic disasters that befell him earned him the sobriquet "The Great Stone Face" - became one of the most popular and successful comic actors of the silent era. In fact, his daring comic stunts, which he performed himself without camera trickery, quickly became the stuff of legend in films like "One Week" (1920), "The Three Ages" (1923), "Sherlock, Jr." (1924) and "The Navigator" (1924). Keaton directed and starred in his greatest achievement, "The General" (1927), which was panned by critics at the time and was a major box office flop, but later gained a reputation for being one of the best films made during the silent era. He made the transition to talkies with "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929), but suffered from bouts of alcoholism and other personal problems that eventually relegated him to little more than a gagman. But Keaton made a resurgence decades later after numerous attempts at a comeback, starring opposite Chaplin in "Limelight" (1952) and becoming a frequent guest star on a several popular shows, which helped keep his name alive and assure his place in cinema history.

Born on Oct. 4, 1895 in Piqua, KS, Keaton was raised by his father, Joseph, and his mother, Myra, both of whom where vaudeville performers. By the age of three, Keaton had joined his mother and father in their traveling show, rechristened The Three Keatons, although keeping him working earned the constant scrutiny of the Gerry Society, the turn-of-the-century child labor authorities. According to legend, the great Harry Houdini, seeing the youngster take a fall down the stairs, remarked, "That's some buster your kid took." True or not, the nickname stuck and Houdini took credit for coining it throughout his life, though other sources indicated actor George Pardey made the comment, as the Keatons had not yet met Houdini. Whatever the origins, the Keatons struggled prior to Buster coming on board, but became a success soon after he joined the show. Tossed about by his father in the most physical of acts, he soon developed a knack for falling coupled with his signature impassivity, a theatrical contrivance - very much in contrast with his off-stage demeanor - which he maintained throughout his life. Keaton worked with his parents nearly 20 years until his father's excessive drinking led to the breakup of the act.

Now on his own, Keaton earned $250 a week in the Broadway show "The Passing Show of 1917," but broke his contract upon meeting Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and appearing in his first film, "The Butcher Boy" (1917). He and Arbuckle became fast friends, though their collaboration was delayed when Keaton was drafted into the army during World War I and was posted in France with the 40th Infantry. Keaton failed to see any action, but suffered an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing. Upon his return to the States, Keaton resumed his career with Arbuckle and appeared in such silent comedies as "Out West" (1918), "Back Stage" (1918), "The Hayseed" (1919) and "The Garage" (1920). From his first days before Arbuckle's camera, Keaton understood that film demanded a more subtle acting style than had the stage, and in contrast to his fellow performers' extravagance, he was quiet, controlled, unhurried, economical and accurate. When Arbuckle left to make features for Paramount, Keaton took over the company with Joseph Schenck handling the business end of things as he had for Arbuckle.

After appearing in shorts like "One Week" (1920) and "Convict 13" (1920) without Arbuckle, Keaton made his first feature, "The Saphead" (1920), which launched his career and turned him into a star. By this time, he had developed his patented deadpan whenever chaos exploded around him and took to donning his signature pork pie hat that he would wear in most of his films for the rest of his career. As with many top stars of the day, Keaton began directing most of his shorts, including "The Haunted House" (1921), "The Playhouse" (1921), "My Wife's Relations" (1922) and the three-reeled "Daydreams" (1922). He made his feature directing debut with "The Three Ages" (1923), a spoof of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" from 1916 that featured several hilarious site gags, like Keaton being thrown to a friendly lion and manicuring its claws. But the film failed to mark any significant advance over his shorts.

With "Our Hospitality" (1923), a beautiful period piece, Keaton revealed for the first time his love for trains while clearly demonstrating how his work stood apart from the conventions of the period - no wild mugging for the cameras, the use of locations instead of studios sets, minimal title cards, and long shots that proved his extravagant stunts were indeed real. He followed quickly with "Sherlock, Jr." (1924) and "The Navigator" (1924), assuring his place in film history. Keaton's next three films, "Seven Chances" (1925), "Go West" (1925) and "Battling Butler" (1926), were not up to the standards set by his first features, though "Battling Butler" actually out-grossed the more exceptional "The Navigator," and "Seven Chances" boasted time-lapse photography of a puppy growing to become a huge dog, as well as a scene in which Keaton entered a car and promptly exited after the background dissolved to a new location - a bit of movie shorthand greatly appreciated by his audience.

Returning to his love of trains gave Keaton the greatest prop of all for his masterpiece, "The General" (1926), his best film and widely hailed as one of the greatest from the silent era, if not of all time. Set during the Civil War, the feature-length comedy depicted Keaton as a railroad engineer who must save his beloved Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) from Union spies. Uncompromising as ever, Keaton refused to use a model for the film's climax, shooting instead at the unheard of cost of $42,000 a real train crashing through a burning bridge; the frame included men on horseback moving on the river bank as proof it was no camera trick. He also performed his own stunts, which included stepping out onto the engine of the speeding train. Following this unprecedented work, Keaton mysteriously tried playing it safe with the disappointing "College" (1927), which he modeled after Harold Lloyd's successful "The Freshman" (1925). But Keaton returned to form with the brilliant "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928), choreographing its phantasmagoric cyclone sequence as if it were ballet. Though he spun, slid, tumbled and eventually gained flight while apparently solid buildings collapsed and vanished magically, the public failed to appreciate his artistry, and the film was a commercial failure.

Because of the box office failures of "The General" and "Steamboat Bill," Keaton was persuaded by brother-in-law Joseph Schenck to abandon his own studio and join MGM. Both Chaplin and Lloyd urged him not to give up his independence, but family pressure - particularly troubles with his spendthrift wife, Natalie Talmadge - led him to accept $3,000 a week for the new arrangement. The studio insisted on completed, plot-heavy scripts in advance, nixing his proven working method of developing a narrative through improvisation. It was not long before he was drinking heavily. Keaton battled for every gag on "The Cameraman" (1928), a film comparable to his pre-MGM features, and made his final silent - and by general agreement the last authentic Keaton film - "Spite Marriage" (1929), before making the transition to talkies with "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929). But mediocrity soon set in with "Free and Easy" (1930), "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" (1931), "Speak Easily" (1932) and "The Passionate Plumber" (1932). By 1933, both MGM and his wife had dropped him as a hopeless alcoholic. He retreated to France, where he made "Le roi des Champs-Elyses" (1934), before signing a contract to make two-reelers for Educational Films. After making "Grand Slam Opera" (1936), his favorite short for the company, Educational closed down and Keaton was again set adrift.

Though he was able to control his drinking during his time with Educational, Keaton fell on hard times again and was reduced to working as a gagman for MGM, appearing in the Marx Brothers' "At the Circus" (1939) and "Go West" (1940). In the late 1930s, he directed his final films for MGM - "Life in Sometown, USA" (1938), "Hollywood Handicap" (1938) and "Streamlined Swing" (1938) - before he was hired by Columbia Pictures to make 10 two-reel comedies. He did have something of a triumph with the series debut, "Pest from the West" (1939), which proved he had not yet lost his audience appeal. But by the time he made the last one in the series, "She's Oil Mine" (1941), Keaton vowed to never again make another short. From there, he found some peace in his personal life through his marriage to dancer Eleanor Norris, while professionally he appeared in a few features like "Forever and a Day" (1943), "That's the Spirit" (1945) and "Boom in the Moon" (1946), while making his first appearance at the Cirque Medrano in Paris.

At the end of the decade, Keaton found renewed interest in his forgotten career when a LIFE magazine essay detailed the silent era's classic comedies, featuring his work alongside contemporaries like Chaplin, Lloyd and Harry Langdon. He made a memorable cameo as one of Gloria Swanson's bridge partners in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), before he acted for the first time opposite Chaplin in the classic comedy, "Limelight" (1952). Keaton also began appearing frequently in the new medium of television, where he demonstrated his stunts on shows like "I've Got a Secret" (CBS, 1952-1976) while maintaining interest in his silent films. Though many were considered lost, actor James Mason - who bought the house Keaton built for his first wife - found a treasure trove of canned silent films made by Keaton in a vault and promptly went about preserving them. After an appearance in "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956), Keaton's revival of sorts reached new heights with "The Buster Keaton Story" (1957), which starred Donald O'Connor and allowed the real Keaton to end his perpetual poverty. Two years later, he received an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to film while staying happily married to Eleanor. He lived modestly and worked steadily, earning nearly as much money in the last decade of his life as during his time at the top.

Keaton continued to appear on screens large and small for the next several years, guest starring as a hospital janitor who acts as Santa Claus for sick kids on an episode of "The Donna Reed Show" (ABC, 1958-1966) and playing a lion tamer in his final movie for MGM, an adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1960). Also that year, he was the mute King Sextimus the Silent in the successful tour of the Broadway hit, "Once Upon a Mattress," and was a time traveler in a partially silent episode of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964). He maintained a steady presence on television with episodes of the short-lived sitcom "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (ABC, 1962), "The Greatest Show on Earth" (ABC, 1963-64), and "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68), and had a small role in the ensemble comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963). With his appearance in the 22-minute short movie, "Film" (1965), written by Samuel Beckett, Keaton received a long standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, which allowed the silent comedian to take a final bow in his career. Following his last appearance on film in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966), Keaton died from lung cancer on Feb. 1, 1966 in Woodland Hills, CA. He was 70 years old and left behind a legacy as one of the greatest comics of the silent era, with some critics and filmmakers ranking him higher than Chaplin or Lloyd.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  The General (1927) Director
2.
  Battling Butler (1926) Director
3.
  Seven Chances (1925) Director
4.
  Go West (1925) Director
5.
  The Navigator (1924) Director
6.
  Sherlock, Jr. (1924) Director
7.
  The Balloonatic (1923) Director
8.
  Three Ages (1923) Director
9.
  Our Hospitality (1923) Director
10.
  The Blacksmith (1922) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 That's Entertainment! III (1994) Song Performer
2.
 Three Stooges Follies, The (1974) Himself (Archival Footage)
3.
 War Italian Style (1967) General Von Kassler
5.
 Sergeant Deadhead (1965) Private Blinken
6.
 Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) Himself
7.
8.
 Pajama Party (1964) Chief Rotten Eagle
9.
 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) Jimmy the Crook
10.
 The Great Chase (1962)
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Made first stage appearance at the age of nine months, crawling into the middle of his father's blackface routine
:
Joined the family act before the age of three, The Two Keatons becoming The Three Keatons
1900:
"Official" professional debut, October 17 at Dockstader's Theatre, Wilmington, Delaware
1900:
The Three Keatons traveled widely, appearing all over the USA and becoming headliners in NYC; from the beginning Buster was the star of the act
1909:
Keaton family made a brief trip to Europe, during which they played London's Palace
1917:
Father's drinking led to break-up of the act
1917:
Accepted a part in the Broadway show "The Passing Show of 1917" at $250 a week but broke contract after meeting Rosco 'Fatty' Arbuckle and appearing in his first film
1917:
First short film as actor, "The Butcher Boy", written and directed by Arbuckle
:
Drafted into Army and assigned to the 40th Infantry; posted to France
1920:
Played a straight role in his first feature, "The Saphead"; made on loan to Metro Pictures
1920:
Took over Joseph Schenck's Comique Films (formerly headed by Arbuckle)
1920:
First short film as director, "The High Sign" (shelved and not released until 1921)
1920:
First released short film as director, "One Week"; co-helmed with Eddie Cline
1921:
With Cline, co-wrote and co-directedthe two-reeler "The Playhouse", a special effects tour de force in which he appeared on screen simultaneously nine times, even performing a dance with himself
1922:
Comique Films name changed to Buster Keaton Productions (though Schenck still owned it)
1923:
Completed first feature comedy, "The Three Ages", a spoof of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916)
1924:
Released "Sherlock Jr" and "The Navigator"; the former considered by many as one of (if not) his finest films
1926:
His best-known film "The General" opened to unfavorable critical response
1928:
Last film released under the umbrella of "Buster Keaton Productions", "Steamboat Bill Jr"
1928:
Signed contract with MGM
1928:
First picture for MGM, "The Cameraman", well up to the standard of his best independent features
1929:
Last silent feature, "Spite Marriage"
1929:
Made first talking film as actor "The Hollywood Revue of 1929"
:
Appeared in eight MGM movies, ranging from mediocre to abysmal
1933:
MGM contract terminated
1934:
Made French film, "Le roi des Champs-Elyses"; never released in USA
1934:
Signed contract with Educational Films for two-reelers
1936:
Made "Grand Slam Opera", his favorite short for Educational
1937:
Educational Films closed down
1937:
Signed contract with MGM as gagman only
:
In the late 30s, a faulty refrigeration system in a film vault destroyed the negatives to all his silent movies
1938:
Last directing assignments, three single-reelers for MGM ("Life in Sometown, USA", "Hollywood Handicap", "Streamlined Swing")
1939:
Signed contract with Columbia; made 10 shorts over the next two years
1941:
Toured USA in detective play, "The Gorilla"
1947:
First appearance at Cirque Medrano, Paris (as Malec)
1949:
Made TV debut re-enacting a scene from "The Butcher Boy" on "The Ed Wynn Show" (CBS)
1949:
James Agee's essay in LIFE sparked renewed interest in silent films, particualrly the work of Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon
1950:
Appeared as himself in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard"
1952:
Acted in Chaplin's "Limelight" (only time the two appeared together)
1955:
Met businessman Raymond Rohaurer who would pull together a collection of prints of Keaton's silent films
1955:
Actor James Mason, then-owner of the villa Keaton had built for former wife Natalie Talmadge in 1925, discovered a cache of film cans in a locked vault in a gardner's shed which contained prints of all of Keaton's silent features and many of his short comedies too, a veritable treasure trove from which Rohaure could begin his work
1956:
Appeared in Michael Anderson's "Around the World in 80 Days"
1957:
Paramount released "The Buster Keaton Story", starring Donald O'Connor
1959:
Awarded a special Oscar for "his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen"
1963:
Acted in Stanley Kramer's "It a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
1965:
Received standing ovation as special guest at the Venice Film Festival where "Film", a 22-minte short written for him by Samuel Beckett, premiered
1966:
Last film appearances (excluding archival footage) in Richard Lester's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and Luigi Scattini's "War Italian Style" (released in the USA in 1967)
1987:
Last film unearthed and restored by Rohaurer (with Kevin Brownlow), the 1921 short "Hard Luck", premiered at London's Palladium
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

While his mother gave him the birthname Joseph Frank Keaton, his father later changed it to Joseph Francis Keaton.

When scandal rocked Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's world in 1921, Keaton remained a loyal friend to his mentor. Even though the courts absolved Arbuckle of any wrong doing in Virginia Rappe's death, Hollywood refused to forgive him, but Keaton stood by him, providing periodic financial support until Arbuckle's death from a heart attack in 1933.

"My old man was an eccentric comic and as soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet, he had slapshoes on me and big baggy pants. And he'd just start doing gags with me and especially kickin' me clear across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. By the time I got to be around seven or eight years old, we were called 'The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage'" --Buster Keaton

"We used to get arrested every other week--that is, the old man would get arrested. Once they took me to the mayor of New York City, into his private office, with city physicians . . . and they stripped me to examine for broken bones and bruises. Finding none, the mayor gave me permission to work. The next time it happened, the following year, they sent me to Albany, to the governor of the state." --Buster Keaton (From "The Buster Keaton Myths", by Patricia Eliot Tobias in CLASSIC IMAGES)

"One of the first things I noticed was that whenever I smiled or let the audience suspect how much I was enjoying myself they didn't seem to laugh as much as usual. I guess people just never do expect any human mop, dishrag, beanbag, or football to be pleased by what is being done to him. At any rate, it was on purpose that I started looking miserable, humiliated, hounded and haunted, bedeviled, bewildered and at my wit's end." --Buster Keaton

"I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of lives. Maybe this is because I never expected as much as I got . . . And when the knocks came, I felt it was no surprise. I had always known life was like that, full of uppercuts for the deserving and undeserving alike." --Buster Keaton

The official website devoted to him can be accessed at www.busterkeaton.com

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
Alice Lake. Actor. Involved in 1919.
companion:
Viola Dana. Actor. Involved in 1919.
wife:
Natalie Talmadge. Continuity person, actor. Married on May 31, 1921; divorced in 1932; born on April 28, 1897; died on June 19. 1969.
companion:
Dorothy Sebastian. Actor. First met when she starred opposite him in "Spite Marriage"; had on-again, off-agin relationship for close to 10 years (c. 1928-1938).
wife:
Mae Elizabeth Scriven. Nurse, hairstylist, playwright. Reportedly married on January 1, 1932 in Mexico although no record could be found; marriage not legal as Keaton's divorce was not final; legally married in 1933; divorced in 1935; born in 1905; had previously been married and divorced; alcoholic; went on to marry and divorce at least two more times; was also romantically involved with publicist Sam Fuller; was committed for psychiatric evaluation on and off in the 1950s.
companion:
Marilyn Stuart. Showgirl. Involved in 1935.
wife:
Eleanor Ruth Norris. Dancer. Met in 1938; married in 1940; survived him; born on July 19, 1918; died on October 19, 1998 at age 80.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

mother:
Myra Cutler Keaton. Actor. Born in March 1877 in Modale, Iowa; died on July 21, 1955 in Los Angeles, California; appeared in some of Keaton's films.
father:
Joseph Hallie Keaton. Actor. Born in 1867 in Terre Haute, Indiana; died on January 13, 1946 in Los Angeles, California; appeared in some of Keaton's films.
brother:
Harry Stanley Keaton. Actor. Born on August 25, 1904; died in May 1988 in San Ysidro, California.
sister:
Louise Dresser Keaton. Actor. Born on October 30, 1906; died of lung cnacer on February 18, 1981 in Van Nuys, California.
son:
Joseph Keaton. Born on June 2, 1922; mother, Natalie Talmadge; legally changed surname to Talmadge in 1934.
son:
Robert Keaton. Born on February 3, 1924; surname legally changed to Talmadge in 1934.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"My Wonderful World of Slapstick" Doubleday
"Buster Keaton" Zwemmer Books
"Buster Keaton" Indiana University Press
"The Silent Clowns" Alfred A. Knopf
"Keaton: The Silent Features Up Close" Citadel Press
"The Film Career of Buster Keaton" Regrave Publishing Company
"Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down" Scribner
"The Complete Films of Buster Keaton" Citadel Press
"Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography" Greenwood Press
"Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase"
"Buster Keaton Remembered" Harry N. Abrams Inc.
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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