The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Michael Keaton

The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Michael Keaton

By Mother Brain

I find it very hard to believe that it was 22 years ago when Tim Burton’s Batman hit the big screen. I was 5 years old at the time and I remember seeing all the bat symbol logos at movie theaters, bus stops, Times Square, etc. I even collected the first set of toys when they hit shelves. What I was not aware of at the time was the controversy surrounding the actor who was playing the title character and his name was Michael Keaton.

Of course Batman made Michael Keaton an international superstar in 1989; however, his career has been that of a journeyman actor always looking for a new challenge. Whether it’s comedy, drama, or even a superhero flick, Keaton demonstrates a discipline in his work that makes his performances so memorable. Perhaps that explains his hit or miss track record as far as box office is concerned. Having just turned 60 years old this year, he may well be in line for a comeback very soon.

Michael John Douglas was born in Coraopolis, PA in 1951 and was the youngest of seven children. His blue collar, Catholic family would live in the Robinson Township where Keaton was raised and was a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He attended Kent State where he studied speech only to drop out, move to Pittsburgh, and take a stab at stand-up comedy. When his stand-up career went nowhere, Keaton landed a job  as a television camera operator at a local Pittsburgh station which gave him the spark to go in front of the cameras rather than stay behind it.

Among some of Keaton’s earliest appearances included a role as one of the “Flying Zucchini Brothers” on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood where he also worked as a production assistant. Then in the late 1970s, he moved out to Hollywood when due to SAG rules, he had to change his name since there were two famous actors with the name Michael Douglas. He would read an engaging article on Godfather actress Diane Keaton that ultimately led to changing his last name to Keaton. He had planned to eventually change it but never did.

Keaton landed a number of guest spots on major primetime shows before landing his first but short-lived sitcom Working Stiffs opposite James Belushi in 1979. But stardom in movies came around with Ron Howard’s 1982 comedy romp Night Shift. Keaton played the wild-man morgue attendant Bill Blazejowski who starts a prostitution business with his insecure ex-Wall Street stockbroker co-worker played by Happy Days’ Henry Winkler. Critics responded unanimously to Keaton’s infectious comedic energy on screen and was the kind of living cartoon persona that preceded most of Jim Carrey’s earlier films.

Knowing that the Blazejowski role could cause him to be typecast, Keaton sought after different kinds of comedic roles including Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously, and Gung Ho. His turns in darker comedies like Touch and Go and The Squeeze, however, went without a trace. Then in 1988, Keaton was cast in the title role of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. The horror comedy about a ghost helping and manipulating a dead couple into forcing a living family out of their home was the first signature Burton film with its unique production design and macabre-looking characters. But for the 17 minutes of screen-time that he spends in the film, Keaton was electric and deceptive at the same. It would be his most favorite performance:

“I wanted him to be pure electricity, that’s why the hair just sticks out. At my house I started creating a walk and a voice. I got some teeth. I wanted to be scary in the look and then use the voice to add a dash of goofiness that, in a way, would make it even scarier. I wanted something kind of moldy to it, too. Tim (Burton) had the striped-suit idea and we added the big eyes. I think that movie will go forever because it’s 100% original.”

On the heels of Beetlejuice’s success, Keaton would work with Burton again as the Dark Knight himself in 1989’s Batman.

Initially, the announcement of Keaton’s casting drew a firestorm of controversy among long time fans of the character who judged him for his comedic efforts and thought it would be another camped-up adaptation like the 1960’s Adam West series (Of course most people overlooked Keaton’s dramatic turn as a recovering cocaine addict in 1988’s Clean and Sober). But to everyone’s surprise at the time of Batman’s release, Keaton became the Bruce Wayne/Batman that was inspired by Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns comic series.

While the more recent series of films starring Christian Bale are more sophisticated and grounded in reality, the 1989 Batman film worked on several levels which included Keaton’s performance. He had the look of an everyman as Bruce Wayne, mysterious without extroverting his playboy status. One look at him on the street and he’s the last guy you’d believe as the Dark Knight. Of course Keaton had the advantage of stuntmen in costume for the action scenes; however, whenever we saw Keaton in the costume, his eyes alone revealed the darkness inside him and his brooding voice was quietly natural without being over the top as Bale would do in the Christopher Nolan-directed series.

After Batman made him an international superstar, Keaton would play another dark role as a sinister con artist terrorizing the lives of Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith in 1990’s Pacific Heights. Then he turned 180 degrees as a hero cop supporting his dead partner’s children in 1991’s One Good Cop. Although Keaton won critical praise for his performances, the public still could not shake the image of Batman and neither film got close to its success. Keaton was so identified with the role that young kids would go crazy when they saw him on other film sets.

Keaton immediately returned as the Dark Knight in 1992’s Batman Returns which pit him against Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. But at that point, Keaton felt as if he was impersonating his earlier outing as Batman with lacking character development. Despite the film’s success, he felt discouraged by the harsh public and studio reaction to Burton’s more darker direction which lead to Burton being ousted from the series and ultimately Keaton’s departure from the role.

Without Batman, Keaton tried to return to his character actor roots with roles ranging from Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a dying husband in My Life, media journalists in The Paper and Speechless (which also co-starred Superman’s Christopher Reeve), a serial killer in Desperate Measures, and a man who clones himself in Multiplicity. None of these films were successful and even his role as a dead dad-turned-snowman in Jack Frost was a far cry from the $50 million he was offered for Batman Forever.

In 1997, Keaton landed a significant role as ATF Agent Ray Nicolette in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel. While not extremely memorable, he would reprise the role in a cameo for another Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight, in 1998. Afterwords, Keaton mostly appeared in forgettable movies like White Noise and Herbie: Fully Loaded.

By 2010, comedy helped to get Keaton back on the a-list beginning with his voiceover work as a living Ken doll in Toy Story 3 and reprised the part in the Pixar short, Hawaiian Vacation, which was screened with Cars 2. Then there was the part of Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell’s TLC quoting captain in the buddy cop comedy, The Other Guys.

Even now at 60 years old, the future remains promising for Michael Keaton. He’s rumored to be working with Tim Burton again not only in a remake of Burton’s Disney short, Frankenweenie, but he also seriously interested in reprising his role as Beetlejuice in a possible sequel currently in development. Despite his years of huge success and movie stardom, Keaton still remains that blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who enjoys the Pirates, the Steelers, and saltwater fishing.

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