January 13th, 2000
Buster Keaton
About Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton is considered one of the greatest comic actors of all time. His influence on physical comedy is rivaled only by Charlie Chaplin. Like many of the great actors of the silent era, Keaton’s work was cast into near obscurity for many years. Only toward the end of his life was there a renewed interest in his films. An acrobatically skillful and psychologically insightful actor, Keaton made dozens of short films and fourteen major silent features, attesting to one of the most talented and innovative artists of his time.

Born in 1895 to Joe and Myra Keaton, Joseph Francis Keaton got his name when, at six months, he fell down a flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom unhurt and relatively undisturbed, he was picked up by Harry Houdini who said the kid could really take a “buster,” or fall. From then on, his parents and the world knew him as Buster Keaton. By the age of three, Keaton joined the family’s vaudeville act, which was renamed The Three Keatons. For years he was knocked over, thrown through windows, dropped down stairs, and essentially used as a living prop. It was this training in vaudeville that prepared him for the fast-paced slapstick comedy of the silent movies.

When, in 1917, his father’s drinking broke up the act, Keaton moved to Hollywood, where a chance meeting brought him contact with another former vaudevillian. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the most famous of the comic actors of the time, took Keaton on and showed him the ropes of the movie industry. For the rest of his life, Keaton would acknowledge Arbuckle as one of his closest friends and his greatest influence. With his deadpan humor and exceptional acrobatic technique, the lanky Keaton was a perfect partner for Arbuckle’s clumsy antics. The audience agreed, and within a few years, Keaton had acquired the notoriety to move out on his own.

The bulk of Keaton’s major work was done during the 1920s. Writing, directing, and staring in these films, Keaton created a world unlike the other comic stars of the times. Where Harold Lloyd battled physical adversity trying to make it to the top, and Charlie Chaplin avoided catastrophe through luck and good will, Keaton was an observer, a traveler caught up in his surroundings. He often found himself in the same compromising circumstances as Chaplin and Lloyd (chased by an angry crowd, left behind by a train), but he maintained a sense of even composure throughout. No matter how lost or downtrodden Keaton seemed to be, he was never one to be pitied. The NEW YORK TIMES said of him, “In a film world that exaggerated everything, and in which every emotion was dramatized and elaborated, he remained impassive and solemn, his poker-faced inscrutability suppressing all emotion.” It was this “stone face,” however, that came to represent a sense of optimism and everlasting inquisitiveness.

In films such as THE NAVIGATOR (1924), THE GENERAL (1926), AND THE CAMERAMAN (1928), Keaton portrayed characters whose physical abilities seemed completely contingent on their surroundings. Considered one of the greatest acrobatic actors, Keaton could step on or off a moving train with the smoothness of getting out of bed. Often at odds with the physical world, his ability to naively adapt brought a melancholy sweetness to the films. The subtlety of the work, however, left Keaton behind the more popular Chaplin and Lloyd. By the 1930s, the studio felt it was in their best interest to take control of his films. No longer writing or directing, Keaton continued to work at a grueling pace. Not understanding the complexity of his genius, they wrote for him simple characters that only took advantage of the most basic of his skills. For Keaton, as for many of the silent movie stars, the final straw was the advent of the talkies.

Though he acted in a number of films in the ’30s (often alongside Jimmy Durante), Keaton no longer possessed the stoic charm many had grown to love. He worked as an uncredited writer for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton, eking out a living at a fraction of his former salary. He began drinking and through the ’40s did very little work of serious interest. It was not until 1953, and his appearance in Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT that the public revival of Keaton’s work began. More than simply a nostalgia for the old days, this new interest encouraged Keaton to revive his career with frequent appearances on television. The sheer ability of his acrobatics astounded audiences who had become used to less sophisticated physical comedy, and by the 1960s, his films were returning to the theaters and he was being hailed as the greatest actor of the silent era.

In 1966, after finishing work on Richard Lester’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Buster Keaton died at the age of sixty-nine. His career spanned six decades and touched the lives of millions of people. He had worked with everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Samuel Beckett, Cecil B. DeMille to Tony Randall, and had maintained a seemingly selfless composure throughout. For many, this deadpan style was a poignant reminder of the fragility of life in the age of complex and overwhelming machines. Today, more than thirty years after his death, Buster Keaton’s films seem as funny, touching, and relevant as ever.

  • mjncheers

    I’m a recent convert to Buster Keaton’s films and have watched all his short films and long films almost in a row! (except for the post-Cameraman ones which broke my heart) I think he was at his best when he was given total control over his material. Only then his stuff came off univeral, time-honoured and artistically rendered.

    I recently saw the Red Mill directed by Arbuckle in his later years and found him a fine director too. But his early Comique shorts were a bit too “Stoogey” for me.

    Pardon my English for I’m not a native speaker :)

  • Jordan Franklin

    I have heard his name before but I have until just recently became obsessed with him. Buster Keaton was magnificent and every time I watch him, I find myself in awe!!! He was truly a genius and you can not beat him!!!

  • Donald Jones

    Keaton also wrote “gags” as he called them for the Marx Brothers. Gags were physical humor and if you study the Marx Brothers you can see a Keaton influence.

  • Janet Furman

    As a lover of Buster Keaton for most of my long life, I was pleased, years ago in the late 80s to unexpectedly catch the last portion of a documentary, hopefully this one, on Mr. Keaton. As a musician, I was pleased to hear a beautiful piece, a waltz, playing over the ending credits. I never got the name of the documentary as I ran to get a tape recorder to record the music. I now perform the lovely, haunting piece and have entitled it “The Buster Keaton Waltz”. I hope to find out who composed it and get permission to use it in a planned recording. Does anyone have any idea on how I can find out this information? I have literally tried on and off to achieve this over the past several years. Does “American Masters” monitor these postings? Can PBS/American Masters help me with this search. Thank you in advance.

  • Janet Furman

    My personal favorite of his films is THE GENERAL (1926) and if you are not aware, he was the opening motivating character for the finely woven interplay of one of the funniest modern films “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”; I recommend it to all. As a lover of Buster Keaton for most of my long life, I was pleased, years ago in the late 80s to unexpectedly catch the last portion of a documentary, hopefully this one, on Mr. Keaton. As a musician, I was pleased to hear a beautiful piece, a waltz, playing over the ending credits. I never got the name of the documentary as I ran to get a tape recorder to record the music. I now perform the lovely, haunting piece and have entitled it “The Buster Keaton Waltz”. I hope to find out who composed it so I may credit the composer and hopefully spread the word about the wonderful world of the talent of Buster Keaton. Does anyone have any idea on how I can find out this information? I have literally tried on and off to achieve this over the past several years. Does “American Masters” monitor these postings? Can PBS/American Masters help me with this search. Thank you in advance.

  • Sara Grimmett

    To Janet Furman:
    I think you may have caught the end of a documentary called “Buster Keaton, A Hard Act to Follow,” Produced by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, released by the Thames Video Collection in cooperation with HBO Video. The music on this Three-Part documentary was written by Carl Davis, who, in my humble opinion is the greatest composer to ever write scores for Buster Keaton. If you like his music, I recommend the Carl Davis score for “The General,” also produced by Brownlow/Gill available on the Thames Video Collection “Legendary Silents” series (in cooperation with HBO Video.) I think they are both OOP (Out Of Print) as they were both released in 1987. You might be able to get them on ebay.

  • Sara Grimmett

    To Janet Furman,
    The documentary you saw might be “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow” (3 parts) from 1987 scored by the great Carl Davis. You’ll love his score of “The General.” They were released on Thames Video/HBO Video. Both are out of print but you might be able to find them on ebay. Good luck! -Sara

  • Tim Hendrixson

    I sure wish that the three part “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow” (1987, Season 2, Episode 10) was available for purchase. I used to own a copy on VHS, but loaned it out one time too many (no regrets!), and I would love to have it back in my Keaton library. The three hour program is superb and is the best way to introduce the uninitiated to Keaton’s fascinating story and his unique genius.

  • Mark Thanas

    This was an excellent portrait of a really overlooked artist. I would love to see American Masters also do a segment on the Marx Brothers and John Steinbeck, but the Buster Keaton segment was a classic. It really opened my eyes to how great a talent he was and how fortunate we are to still have his films avaliable, I only wish this episode, as well as all the other American Master shows were avaliable to purchase on DVD.

  • Sandra Koponen

    CORRECTION TO KEATON BIO ABOVE: According to two biographies I’ve read on Buster and interviews with him that I’ve read Buster met Fatty Arbuckle in NYC where the first films he was in with “Roscoe” were made BEFORE they moved Comique Films to Hollywood.

  • Jordan Franklin

    Oh yeah, correction: he died at the age of seventy not sixty nine!

    It is because of him that I am a film major! He is one of my greatest inspirations!!!

  • Deb

    I’m old enough to have heard of Buster Keaton, but haven’t ever seen one of his films.

    Last night, The General was on and I was riveted. I just could not believe the shear genious and athleticism of Mr. Keaton. I was completely captivated and instantaneously hooked, and I loved the accompanying soundtrack!

    Thanks so much to all of you who have commented and provided further info. I’ve bookmarked this page! I plan on iadding some Buster to my personal library.

  • Jerry

    Saw The General not too long ago on TCM and wish TCM would show more of Keaton. Loved the scene in The General where his rescued girl friend was bored just standing on the engine while Keaton manned the controls, so she started sweeping. That scene was so perfect, so unpretentious- so naturally done. Have not see The Camera Man yet. Hope to soon.

  • Heath

    @Jerry

    I agree with the train scenes with Annabelle Lee, the humor is timeless! I literally was rolling on the floor when Keaton mockingly picks up a small fragment of wood no bigger than a fireplace matchstick and throws it in the boiler furnace of the train, after observing his lady companion selectively tossing the wood with a hole in it.

    I am a young man at 38, when you consider the antiquity of the silent era, but I find Keaton’s films breathtakingly timeless. This as opposed to the campy, overly dramatic, unnatural feel of other silent films. When I watch movies of this era, I often think that the actors and characters seem so contrived that they stick out like a sore thumb. When I watch Keaton, I see a man and character who could step off the screen and Interact, speak in a natural voice, and be as real as the nose on my face. Other actors just seem to be lifeless pages in an old and archaic book. Btw, I recently rediscovered Buster Keaton on YouTube. I have recently done away with cable television and all of my video entertainment is streaming via the internet. What jewels can be discovered.

  • roxanne

    buster keaton is my favorite actor of all time. his films and work still hold up today. once you see a movie like steamboat bill jr. you are smitten with his work. he was the most talented actor, and was a master of the cinema in every way. i feel he was way ahead of his time. keeping him remembered is essencial for the new movie lovers.

  • Sally and Sophie Justamante

    just went to see a screening of “The General” today with my 7 year old daughter and her friend. They sat mesmerised through the whole hour or so of the film. Considering it is nothing like they have ever seen before; silent, in black and white, from a very different era…. The film made a big impression on them. After we talked about the film with the cinema club organiser and lots of the other children in the cinema club; said how they hadn´t even noticed it was a silent film. I think the children and me found the film entrancing and funny. I´m really glad to have rediscovered Keaton and his genius, and deeply happy to have my daughter become a fan.

  • V

    To me,Buster is surely the best silent actor,I prefer him to Chaplin and Lloyd.I mean he IS THE most silent of them all,we rarely see him smile or frown.
    I think it’s wonderful that he broke his neck filming but continued working and didn’t realize it was broken for more than a decade.I even read that the day before he died,he was in the hospital playing cards with his friends.I find that really inspiring.

  • lafou

    I just saw “The Cameraman” with live music at Film Forum in NYC. The house was packed. Every generation of filmmakers has new Buster fans! Viva Buster!

  • Crazzy Girl

    Dose anyone know of a trick or routine he used in his performanses or movies?

  • Georgiasaraann

    Tom Cruise and any other actor who brags that they perform their own stunts needs to watch Keaton’s films and just shut up. Jackie Chan excepted. Keaton did ridiculously dangerous feats. All before modern safety devices. I like Harold Lloyd, but come on. He used trick photography to make his stunts look worse than they were. Watch Keaton in the General. He just runs all over a moving train. A train can go 1 mile an hour and be very dangerous. He is flying down the track. And his facial expressions are priceless. He was not a stone face. You can tell what he is thinking every time he has a closeup.

  • Dixie

    Another correction to the bio above: it is not certain that Harry Houdini gave “Buster” his nickname. It has been said that Keaton was being called that before the Keatons ever met Houdini, although Keaton himself told this story more than once.

    That said, I concur with everyone else who has commented here about Keaton’s genius and universal appeal. I always liked him, all my life. My parents were the first to inform me, when I was a child, that he was known as “The Great Stoneface.” That intrigued me even then, but I more recently re-discovered him when I decided to watch some of his movies and short films on Turner Classic Movies, as he is their “Star of the Month” of October. I was absolutely mesmerized, captivated! I have never seen anyone do the dangerous stunts that he did. I would watch and think to myself, how could he do that stuff and not get seriously injured? At any point he could have easily been killed, but he seemed to execute each stunt with the ease of climbing out of bed! Wonderful stuff. Now I can’t seem to get enough of Buster!

  • Emanuel Willemsen

    GENIUS! I can’t get over the jump rope. You are brilliant!

  • Idunnogal

    I had heard of Buster Keaton but really didn’t know much about him. In October TCM played a month long homage to him. The silent movies didn’t disturb anyone else at 4:00 AM so I watched and laughed so much! My Mother, who is 83, had never seen any of his shows! I Must Buy All His Movies!

  • Tracy Wolfe

    I knew of Buster Keaton before watching the TCM October festival of him, but I never realised how truly great he was. My daughter is now completely obsessed with him. I wish American Masters would rerun the Keaton episode.

  • Dixie

    And, by the way, he was 70 when he died–not 69. He died the February after he turned 70, in October, 1966.

  • Dixie

    Someone menrioned that American Masters should do a special on the Marx Brothers. Ummmmmm, just as a heads up, many of the gags in their movies were created by none other than (drum roll…………..cymbal crash!!) Buster Keaton! True. During his lean years with MGM, Keaton was an uncredited gag writer for The Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, and for many comedy (and musical) movies at MGM. There are too many to mention here, but suffice it to say that it is a crying shame that he received no credit for those classic, funny moments in those classic comedy movies, and at only $300.00 a week! Hard to forgive MGM for that injustice.

  • Pigbitin Mad NY

    What are the odds that this program will ever be shown again? I knw it is from the 80’s, but I would like to see it.

  • James C Hunt

    Buster Keaton also was a writer or consultant for Red Skelton. Go to Utube and look up the ‘This Was Your Life’ when they portrayed Buster’s life. Very interesting. Also check out the interview with his widow. She said the film on his life story was “pitiful”. She said very little of what they said about him was true – ie. the drinking, the loss of work due to the talkies. She said Hollywood had done a previous movie in which a famous person had turned to alcohol and hit the skids and it was a huge success so they tried to do the same in Buster Keaton’s life story. The narrator said then it wasn’t true that the talkies killed his career (to paraphrase) and she said absolutely not. He kept working throughout his life. Also check out the Buster Keaton on ‘Candid Camera’. One of the funniest Candid Camera pieces I’ve ever seen. I remembered it from over 30 years ago until I saw it again here. The main thing I like about Buster Keaton is that he describe Charlie Chaplain’s character as a hobo. He said he had a hobo mindset. If you turned your back to him he would have stold from you. But Keaton said his characters were always a guy just trying to work his job. He was honest and just trying to get ahead. He was a regular guy.

  • BeckyBusterFan

    I, too, would LOVE to be able to see this 3-part documentary, as I missed it when it was shown back in the 80s. Too bad it’s not for sale on DVD! American Masters – PLEASE RE-RUN THIS SERIES!

  • J.R.Harris

    The genius of the man will stand as long as we can see it. His creativity is unsurpassed.I LOVE the house in “Seven Days”. Keep restoring his stuff and showing it.

  • M.R.

    I would like to see this. I wish PBS would re-run this.

Inside This Episode

  • About Buster Keaton

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