Any Buster Keaton biography will likely include trivia tidbits like his birth name being Joseph Frank Keaton (with Harry Houdini possibly being responsible for the change) and fun facts about his silent comedy films of the 1920s. But he was also an actor, writer, director, special effects wizard, acrobat, and stunt man - in fact, Buster Keaton is considered by many to be a silent comedy legend either greater than or second to the beloved Charlie Chaplin.
Why is Buster Keaton so famous? Some credit the amazing stunts he completed, all without breaking his famous "Great Stone Face," while others argue that his impact came from the originality and comedic construction of the nineteen shorts and eleven feature films he made before he entered the studio system and lost control over both his movies and his life.
Buster Keaton passed away in 1966 from lung cancer, but thankfully we can still watch him in action running across the tops of trains, walking on the bottom of the ocean, and making us laugh. Who was Buster Keaton? Clearly a lot more than a guy who never seemed to smile.
- Photo: United Artists
He Successfully Completed One Of The Most Dangerous Stunts Ever Filmed
In the film Steamboat Bill Jr, a cyclone causes cars to spin around, buildings to be torn from their foundations, and part of a house to fall on top of Keaton. He escapes death through a conveniently open window in a stunt he used previously in his short films and that has been parodied many times since. However, this instance was a lot more dangerous.
The 4,000 pound building piece would have likely killed him if the calculations were off, so the mark for his standing spot was nailed into the ground. Most crew members refused to watch the filming out of fear, either closing their eyes or just not showing up. If you watch the film closely, he doesn't even flinch when the edge of the window grazes his arm.
- Photo: Metro Pictures
Making Sherlock Jr Literally Broke His Neck
During the filming of a scene for Sherlock Jr, Keaton engaged in a stunt where he hung off of a railroad water tower spigot. The crew underestimated the power of the water and Keaton was knocked to the ground, his neck landing on the rail below. He finished the scene without an issue, but years later discovered that he had actually fractured his neck during the accident. This stunt can be seen in the finished film.
- Photo: Metro Pictures
Keaton Allegedly Escaped From A Sanitarium
In 1928, Keaton was forced to give up his own production studio and decided to join MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), despite advice from Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. They turned out to be right, as the studio took away much of his creative control and no longer allowed him to do his own stunts. Dissatisfaction with his career as well as marital problems led Keaton to begin drinking heavily. MGM tried pairing him with Jimmy Durante, but eventually fired him.
Keaton's alcoholism became so bad that he was eventually institutionalized and confined in a straitjacket. According to one story, he had learned some tricks from Houdini and eventually escaped both the straitjacket and the sanitarium.
- Photo: Metro Pictures
Harry Houdini Supposedly Gave Keaton His Name
Born Joseph Frank Keaton, he was supposedly nicknamed "Buster" by the famed illusionist Harry Houdini, who was a former performing partner of Keaton's father and a friend of the family. According to the story, a young Keaton fell down some stairs but stood up unharmed, prompting Houdini to exclaim, "That was a real buster!" This story has never been confirmed as true, but it is also believed to be the first time a person was given the name "Buster."
- Photo: Joseph M. Schenck Productions
Keaton Once Demolished A Locomotive
The General was Keaton's favorite film and his last feature as an independent filmmaker. It was a commercial disappointment at the time of its release, but years later it was praised by critics and is still considered to be one of the top 20 best comedy films ever made.
This historical parody is set during the Civil War, with one scene calling for a bridge to be blown up in order to stop a train from reaching its destination. Instead of using a model, Keaton insisted on destroying a real train in a stunt that is considered the most expensive in silent film history.
- Photo: Metro-Goldwyn Pictures
He Completed Stunts For Other Actors As Well
His training in how to take a fall as a child served Keaton well. Throughout his films, he would take increasingly larger risks with his stunts, such as jumping between buildings or escaping boulders rolling down a hill. Keaton often put himself in danger and didn't always escape unharmed, sometimes breaking his ankle, being knocked unconscious by a cannon, and almost drowning in a river. However, he never refused a stunt and often doubled as a stunt person for his other actors. Here you can see Keaton in Sherlock Jr doubling as the motorcycle driver falling off the back of the bike.