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silent film star
Joseph Frank Keaton VI was born in Piqua, Kansas, on October 4, 1895. His parents, Joseph and Myra, were a touring vaudeville act who happened to be passing through Kansas when Myra went into labor. According to family lore, young Joseph was given the nickname "Buster" after falling down a flight of stairs at age six months without injury. One version of the story says that it was Harry Houdini, with whom the Keatons often toured, who gave the youngster that nickname, but other versions say it was Joseph Sr. Whichever version is true, the nickname stuck, and the circumstances surrounding it became the basis for a new family act.
As soon as Buster was old enough to perform on his own, the Three Keatons, as the act was now called, began touring with an act based on "how to discipline a prankster child," which involved Buster's father literally throwing him around the stage, and sometimes even into the audience, while Buster maintained a straight face and always got up without injury. As unusual as the act's premise sounds today, it was quite popular in the late 1890's and early 1900's, and the family even toured Europe. By the time Buster was 16, however, his father had become such an unpredictable alcoholic that the act had become dangerous and it disbanded.
Keaton was living and working in New York City when he first met Fatty Arbuckle, who had just started making his own films under the Comique Pictures name. Keaton made his film debut in The Butcher Boy (April 23, 1917), and went on to make a total of 15 two-reelers with Arbuckle. His last picture with Arbuckle was The Garage (1920). He made his first feature-length film, The Saphead, in 1920.
Like Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and other silent screen stars of his day, Keaton wanted control over his career, and his brother-in-law Joe Schenk agreed to help him establish his own studio. By mid-1921 he was writing, directing, and starring in his own films, starting with One Week (1920) and ending with The General (1928). Keaton took considerable time on The General because he insisted on the film being as historically accurate as possible. Set during the Civil War, the climax scene showing a steam locomotive going across a bridge that collapses and drops the train into a river was one of the most expensive single scenes of the entire silent screen era. Although it is now considered one of Keaton's best works on a technical level, it was a critical and financial failure.
Keaton reluctantly signed with MGM after his contract with Schenk expired in 1928. Although current fans believe some of his best work was done while he was with MGM, Keaton was never happy there because he felt the studio was too rigid and stifled his creativity. He began drinking heavily, missing schedules, and getting into confrontations both on and off the set. By 1932 he was divorced and almost broke, and he was fired by MGM in 1934 after a confrontation with Louis Mayer.
Committed to a mental hospital for a time in 1935, Keaton was rehired as a $100-a-week gag-man by MGM in 1937. He spent the next several years appearing in touring productions on stage, starring in low-budget short subjects for Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures, and making a few pictures in Europe, where he was still considered a major star. His U.S. career was revived somewhat after Life magazine did a cover story on him in 1949, after which he made guest appearances on television shows and played supporting roles in major movies, including with Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952). The Buster Keaton Story, a film biography of him, was released in 1957, and the income from that one movie gave him more financial freedom than all of his previous work combined. He was awarded a special Oscar for his life work in comedy in 1959, and spent most of the 1960's appearing in several "Beach" musicals for American International Pictures and in television ad campaigns.
Buster Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, and was interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood.
Natalie Talmadge -- May 31, 1921 - July
25, 1932 -- divorced -- 2 children -- Buster Keaton Jr,
Robert Talmadge Keaton
This page was last updated on 01/31/2017.