What kind of man could achieve what he did? Who was this Buster Keaton, this jack of all theatrical trades, this genius in disguise?
Born Joseph Frank Keaton to a pair of medicine show performers, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler Keaton, on October 4, 1895, Buster seemed destined for show business. He reputedly made his first appearance on stage crawling on from the wings at the age of nine months
On the road with his parents, Buster learned not only to be his father's roughhouse partner, but to sing, dance, play the piano and the ukulele, juggle, do magic and write gags and parody.
The performers he knew were also his teachers: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, then at the start of his career, taught the little boy to dance, decades before he taught another child, Shirley Temple, to dance for the movies.
The great Harry Houdini taught him card tricks. Buster, like the rest of the world, was enthralled with Houdini's act, often watching him from the wings or even from up above in the flies to try to figure out Houdini's secrets.
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 final 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
His greatest mistake...In 1928 Keaton’s production company was signed over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the biggest of the Hollywood studios. Before long Keaton was at the mercy of MGM’s army of producers, supervisors, and screenwriters, whose efforts to “improve” his brand of humor virtually destroyed it...Sound stages replaced his love of shooting on location.
After signing with MGM in 1928, Keaton's life spun out of control. He lost artistic control over his films, his marriage to Natalie Talmadge fell apart and he was troubled by alcoholism and mental illness. His contract at MGM was terminated and Keaton fell into a deep depression. He fell out of the Hollywood film world until an appearance at the circus in Paris in 1947. After making numerous appearances at the circus, Keaton was offered a television show.
Keaton and Chaplin
As a result of the show, Keaton was cast on Charlie Chaplin's ‘Limelight’. This led to the rediscovery of his comic artistry. During the 1950s, many of his silent masterpieces were re-released. His last decade saw him all but overwhelmed by the constant demands on his time and tributes to his genius.
Keaton married his second wife, nurse Mae Scriven, in 1933 during an alcoholic binge about which he afterward claimed to remember nothing. When they divorced in 1936, she took half of everything they owned. Four years later, he married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years his junior. She saved his life from the spiral of alcoholism, and helped to salvage his career.
Actor James Mason bought Buster's old house and found some old Keaton films which were released again..This made him wealthy at last..He built his dream home in Woodland Hills and he and his lovely wife Eleanor at last had the life Buster dreamed of.
He died aged 70 in his sleep, shortly after playing cards with his wife. He had been suffering from cancer.
In his final years Buster took great satisfaction in the knowledge that a new generation was finding his old films funnier than ever. And although he still refused to smile when a camera was on him, he had to concede that life hadn't been too bad. He was making better than $100,000 a year from commercials alone.