I always loved Buster Keaton. I thought, what a wonderful person to look on and react to these young kids and to view them as the audience might, to shake his head at their crazy antics. ... He loved it. He would bring me bits and routines. He'd say, 'How about this?' and it would just be this wonderful, inventive stuff. A lot of the audience seemed to be seeing Buster for the first time. Once the kids in the cast became aware of who he was, they all respected him and were crazy about him. And the other comics who came in—Paul Lynde, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett—they hit it off with him great.
At the age of three, Keaton began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons. He first appeared on stage in 1899 in Wilmington, Delaware. The act was mainly a comedy Sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side, while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his Father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely; he was rarely injured or bruised on stage. This knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse, and occasionally, arrest. However, Buster Keaton was always able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. He was eventually billed as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged", with the overall act being advertised as "The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage". Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his Father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. In 1914, Keaton told the Detroit News: "The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don't last long, because they can't stand the treatment."
In February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room and dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-star and gag man, making his first appearance in The Butcher Boy. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle's second Director and his entire gag department. He appeared in a total of 14 Arbuckle shorts, running into 1920. They were popular, and contrary to Keaton's later reputation as "The Great Stone Face", he often smiled and even laughed in them. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends, and Keaton was one of few people, along with Charlie Chaplin, to defend Arbuckle's character during accusations that he was responsible for the death of Actress Virginia Rappe. (Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, with an apology from the jury for the ordeal he had undergone.)
Influenced by her family, Talmadge decided not to have more children, and this led to the couple staying in separate bedrooms. Her financial extravagance (she would spend up to a third of his salary on clothes) was another factor in the breakdown of the marriage. Keaton dated Actress Dorothy Sebastian beginning in the 1920s and Kathleen Key in the early 1930s. After attempts at reconciliation, Talmadge divorced Keaton in 1932, taking his entire fortune and refusing to allow any contact between Keaton and his sons, whose last name she had changed to Talmadge. Keaton was reunited with them about a decade later when his older son turned 18. With the failure of his marriage and the loss of his independence as a filmmaker, Keaton lapsed into a period of alcoholism.
On May 31, 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of his boss, Joseph Schenck, and sister of actresses Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge. She co-starred with Keaton in Our Hospitality. The couple had two sons, Joseph, aka Buster Keaton Jr. (June 2, 1922 – February 14, 2007), and Robert Talmadge Keaton (February 3, 1924 – July 19, 2009), later both surnamed Talmadge. After the birth of Robert, the relationship began to suffer.
One of his most biting parodies is The Frozen North (1922), a satirical take on william S. Hart's Western melodramas, like Hell's Hinges (1916) and The Narrow Trail (1917). Keaton parodied the tired formula of the melodramatic transformation from bad guy to good guy, through which went Hart's character, known as "the good badman". He wears a small version of Hart's campaign hat from the Spanish–American War and a six-shooter on each thigh, and during the scene in which he shoots the neighbor and her husband, he reacts with thick glycerin tears, a trademark of Hart's. Audiences of the 1920s recognized the parody and thought the film hysterically funny. However, Hart himself was not amused by Keaton's antics, particularly the crying scene, and did not speak to Buster for two years after he had seen the film. The film's opening intertitles give it its mock-serious tone, and are taken from "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert W. Service.
In 1926, Keaton spent $300,000 to build a 10,000-square-foot (930 m) home in Beverly Hills designed by Architect Gene Verge, Sr., which was later owned by James Mason and Cary Grant. Keaton's "Italian Villa" can be seen in Keaton's film Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. Keaton later said, "I took a lot of pratfalls to build that dump."
Keaton signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1928, a Business decision that he would later call the worst of his life. He realized too late that the studio system MGM represented would severely limit his creative input. For instance, the studio refused his request to make his early project, Spite Marriage, as a sound film and after the studio converted, he was obliged to adhere to dialogue-laden scripts. However, MGM did allow Keaton some creative participation on his last originally developed/written silent film The Cameraman, 1928, which was his first project under contract with them, but hired Edward Sedgwick as the official Director.
The house suffered approximately $10,000 worth of damage from a fire in the nursery and dining room in 1931. Keaton was not at home at the time, and his wife and children escaped unharmed, staying at the home of Tom Mix until the following morning.
Keaton was at one point briefly institutionalized; according to the TCM documentary So Funny it Hurt, Keaton escaped a straitjacket with tricks learned from Harry Houdini. In 1933, he married his nurse, Mae Scriven, during an alcoholic binge about which he afterwards claimed to remember nothing (Keaton himself later called that period an "alcoholic blackout"). Scriven herself would later claim that she didn't know Keaton's real first name until after the marriage. The singular event that triggered Scriven filing for divorce in 1935 was her finding Keaton with Leah Clampitt Sewell (libertine wife of millionaire Barton Sewell) on July 4 the same year in a hotel in Santa Barbara. When they divorced in 1936, it was again at great financial cost to Keaton.
Upon Keaton's return to Hollywood, he made a screen comeback in a series of 16 two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures. Most of these are simple visual comedies, with many of the gags supplied by Keaton himself, often recycling ideas from his family vaudeville act and his earlier films. The high point in the Educational series is Grand Slam Opera, featuring Buster in his own screenplay as an amateur-hour contestant. When the series lapsed in 1937, Keaton returned to MGM as a gag Writer, including the Marx Brothers films At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and providing material for Red Skelton. He also helped and advised Lucille Ball in her comedic work in films and television.
In 1939, Columbia Pictures hired Keaton to star in ten two-reel comedies, running for two years. The Director was usually Jules White, whose emphasis on slapstick and farce made most of these films resemble White's Three Stooges comedies. Keaton's personal favorite was the series' debut entry, Pest from the West, a shorter, tighter remake of Keaton's little-viewed 1935 feature The Invader; it was directed not by White but by Del Lord, a veteran Director for Mack Sennett. Moviegoers and exhibitors welcomed Keaton's Columbia comedies, proving that the Comedian had not lost his appeal. However, taken as a whole, Keaton's Columbia shorts rank as the worst comedies he made, an assessment he concurred with in his autobiography. The final entry was She's Oil Mine, and Keaton swore he would never again "make another crummy two-reeler."
On May 29, 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris (July 29, 1918 – October 19, 1998), who was 23 years his junior. She has been credited by Jeffrey Vance with saving Keaton's life by stopping his heavy drinking and helping to salvage his career. The marriage lasted until his death. Between 1947 and 1954, they appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris as a double act. She came to know his routines so well that she often participated in them on TV revivals.
In 1949, Comedian Ed Wynn invited Keaton to appear on his CBS Television comedy-variety show, The Ed Wynn Show, which was televised live on the West Coast. Kinescopes were made for distribution of the programs to other parts of the country since there was no transcontinental coaxial cable until September 1951.
Unlike his contemporary Harold Lloyd, who kept his films from being televised, Keaton's periodic television appearances helped to revive interest in his silent films in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, Keaton played his first television dramatic role in "The Awakening", an episode of the syndicated anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents. About this time, he also appeared on NBC's The Martha Raye Show.
Keaton also appeared in a comedy routine about two inept stage Musicians in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952), recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse. With the exception of Seeing Stars, a minor publicity film produced in 1922, Limelight was the only time in which the two would ever appear together on film.
Also in 1954, Keaton and his wife Eleanor met film programmer Raymond Rohauer, with whom the couple would develop a Business partnership to re-release Keaton's films. Around the same time, after buying the comedian's house, the actor James Mason found numerous cans of Keaton's films. Among the re-discovered films was Keaton's long-lost classic The Boat. The Coronet Theatre art house in Los Angeles, with which Rohauer was involved, was showing The General, which "Buster hadn't seen ... in years and he wanted me to see it," Eleanor Keaton said in 1987. "Raymond recognized Buster and their friendship started." Rohauer in that same article recalls, "I was in the projection room. l got a ring that Buster Keaton was in the lobby. I go down and there he is with Eleanor. The next day I met with him at his home. I didn't realize we were going to join forces. But I realized he had this I-don't-care attitude about his stuff. He said, 'It's valueless. I don't own the rights.'" Keaton had prints of the features Three Ages, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill, Jr., College (missing one reel) and the shorts "The Boat" and "My Wife's Relations", which Keaton and Rohauer then transferred to safety stock from deteriorating nitrate film stock. Unknown to them at the time, MGM also had saved some of Keaton's work: all his 1920–1926 features and his first eight two-reel shorts.
A 1957 film biography, The Buster Keaton Story, starring Donald O'Connor as Keaton was released. The screenplay, by Sidney Sheldon, who also directed the film, was loosely based on Keaton's life but contained many factual errors and merged his three wives into one character. A 1987 documentary, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, won two Emmy Awards.
In December 1958, Keaton was a guest star as Charlie, a hospital janitor who provides gifts to sick children, in the episode "A Very Merry Christmas" of The Donna Reed Show on ABC. He returned to the program in 1965 in the episode "Now You See It, Now You Don't". The 1958 episode has been included in the DVD release of Donna Reed's television programs. One of the show's cast-members, Paul Peterson, recalled that Keaton "put together an incredible physical skit. His skills were amazing. I never saw anything like it before or since."
Keaton was presented with a 1959 Academy Honorary Award at the 32nd Academy Awards, held in April 1960. Keaton has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 6619 Hollywood Boulevard (for motion pictures); and 6225 Hollywood Boulevard (for television).
In 1960, Keaton returned to MGM for the final time, playing a lion tamer in a 1960 adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Much of the film was shot on location on the Sacramento River, which doubled for the Mississippi River setting of Twain's original book.
In 1961, he starred in The Twilight Zone episode "Once Upon a Time", which included both silent and sound sequences. Keaton played time-traveler Mulligan, who traveled from 1890 to 1960, then back, by means of a special helmet.
Keaton also found steady work as an actor in TV commercials, including a series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer made in 1962 by Jim Mohr in Buffalo, New York in which he revisited some of the gags from his silent film days.
Keaton also had a cameo as Jimmy, appearing near the end of the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Jimmy assists Spencer Tracy's character, Captain C. G. Culpepper, by readying Culpepper's ultimately-unused boat for his abortive escape. (The restored version of that film, released in 2013, contains a restored scene where Jimmy and Culpeper talk on the telephone. Lost after the comedy epic's "roadshow" exhibition, the audio of that scene was discovered, and combined with still pictures to recreate the scene.) Keaton was given more screen time in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). The appearance, since it was released after his death, was his posthumous swansong.
Keaton designed and modified his own pork pie hats during his career. In 1964, he told an interviewer that in making "this particular pork pie", he "started with a good Stetson and cut it down", stiffening the brim with sugar water. The hats were often destroyed during Keaton's wild film antics; some were given away as gifts and some were snatched by souvenir Hunters. Keaton said he was lucky if he used only six hats in making a film. Keaton estimated that he and his wife Eleanor made thousands of the hats during his career. Keaton observed that during his silent period, such a hat cost him around two dollars; at the time of his interview, he said, they cost almost $13.
He played the central role in Samuel Beckett's Film (1965), directed by Alan Schneider; he had previously declined the role of Lucky in the first American stage production of Waiting for Godot, having found Beckett's writing baffling. Also in 1965, he traveled to Italy to play a role in Due Marines e un Generale, co-starring alongside the famous Italian Comedian duo of Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia. In 1987 Italian singer-songwriters Claudio Lolli and Francesco Guccini wrote a song, "Keaton", about his work on that film.
Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, aged 70, in Woodland Hills, California. Despite being diagnosed with cancer in January 1966, he was never told that he was terminally ill or that he had cancer; Keaton thought that he was recovering from a severe case of bronchitis. Confined to a hospital during his final days, Keaton was restless and paced the room endlessly, desiring to return home. In a British television documentary about his career, his widow Eleanor told producers of Thames Television that Keaton was up out of bed and moving around, and even played cards with friends who came to visit the day before he died. Keaton was interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California.
The International Buster Keaton Society was founded on October 4, 1992 – Buster’s birthday. Dedicated to bringing greater public attention to Keaton’s life and work, the membership includes many individuals from the television and film industry: actors, producers, authors, artists, graphic novelists, Musicians, and designers, as well as those who simply admire the magic of Buster Keaton. The Society’s nickname, the "Damfinos," draws its name from a boat in Buster’s 1921 comedy, "The Boat."
In 1994, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld penned a series of silent film stars for the United States Post Office, including Rudolph Valentino and Keaton. Hirschfeld said that modern film stars were more difficult to depict, that silent film comedians such as Laurel and Hardy and Keaton "looked like their caricatures".
In 2012, Kino Lorber released The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, a 14-disc Blu-ray box set of Keaton's work, including 11 of his feature films.
Film critic David Thomson later described Keaton's style of comedy: "Buster plainly is a man inclined towards a belief in nothing but mathematics and absurdity ... like a number that has always been searching for the right equation. Look at his face—as beautiful but as inhuman as a butterfly—and you see that utter failure to identify sentiment." Gilberto Perez commented on "Keaton's genius as an actor to keep a face so nearly deadpan and yet render it, by subtle inflections, so vividly expressive of inner life. His large, deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare, he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow." Critic Anthony Lane also noted Keaton's body language: