"He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply 'silent' of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell... No other comedian could do as much with the dead-pan. He used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things; a one track mind near the track’s end of pure insanity; mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances; how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood."
— James Agee, LIFE magazine (5 September 1949)
Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton, Jr. (October 4, 1895 — February 1, 1966), was the original Stoic, also known as The Great Stone Face. Possibly the toughest man in show business history; during one film shoot, he broke his neck and continued with the day's shooting.Buster literally grew up on stage as part of the Three Keatons, one of the roughest acts in vaudeville. Their most famous shtick was when Pa Joe Keaton would react to Buster's mischief by literally throwing him around the stage and occasionally into the orchestra pit or the audience — once, Joe threw Buster at hecklers who made the mistake of criticizing the saxophone playing of Myra Keaton, Joe's wife. Oh, and did we mention that they started this act when Buster was three years old?Eventually, when the act's fortunes declined and Joe got too drunk and disorderly to work with safelynote Speaking of safety, Keaton repeatedly stated in interviews that he never suffered an injury as a result of being thrown; their act was designed to look improvised and violent, but in reality was quite planned and controlled., Buster Keaton struck out on his own. He got into film with his good friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, then one of the top comedy movie stars. Following Fatty's tragic fall from grace, Keaton formed his own production company, starring in and directing some of the most innovative comedy films of his day. From this period, his full-length film The General is still considered one of the best silent films ever made. He was also never afraid of new technology: for instance, for a major silent movie star at the dawn of sound films, he wanted to get into them right away. After his company was dissolved, Keaton signed a contract with MGM. The best of his MGM films are the silents The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. He then began making sound pictures in which he was often teamed with Jimmy Durante.Unfortunately, stress from repeated clashes with MGM management, the loss of his independence and artistic control, and a divorce from his first wife, Natalie Talmadge (in which she was awarded sole custody of their two sons), caused Keaton's drinking to develop into outright alcoholism. During the 1930s, Keaton slipped from the spotlight. He made two-reel comedies for low-budget outfits like Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures (the latter has since become a major film production and distribution company), and worked for MGM as a gag man (where he mentored Lucille Ball before she got her break as a television comedienne and worked as a gagman for the Marx Brothers' At The Circus). At one point he was institutionalized because of his drinking. He wed one of his nurses, Mae Scriven, possibly during an alcoholic blackout; the relationship ended disastrously (among other things, she stole his dog and sold it).Things turned around for Keaton in the 1940s. He met and married his third wife, Eleanor Norris, who helped him get his drinking under control and sometimes worked as his partner in comedy routines. This led to Buster's engagement at France's Cirque Medrano, where he drew enthusiastic audiences. A 1949 article by James Agee in LIFE magazine (see quote above) renewed interest in Keaton, and his career picked up: he starred in a short-lived TV series; guest-starred on other shows, including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, and Candid Camera; appeared in many commercials; and performed memorable cameos and supporting roles in such films as In The Good Old Summertime, Sunset Boulevard (playing himself), Around the World in Eighty Days, Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Beach Blanket Bingo. He lived to see his silent films preserved,(including some supposedly lost films actor James Mason found in a house that Keaton previously owned) and reintroduced for a new generation, and received a Career Oscar.
Played with in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Steamboat Bill (Sr.) is looking for his son, Willie (played by Buster), whom he hasn't seen in years, at the train station, with only the information that Willie will be wearing a white carnation. He goes up to a man bent down to fiddle with his luggage, such that only the hat and a white carnation is visible, whom he assumes to be his son, only to find that the man is black. The second time is when he's having Willie try on new hats at the haberdasher's. Every other hat that Willie tries on is a variation of the similar-looking boater (larger, and typically straw), which his father continues to veto. One hat that gets vetoed harder than the rest by his father is a miniature derby, placed rakishly on Willie's head a la Charlie Chaplin. When the trademark porkpie hat does appear, Buster sees it in the mirror and quickly ditches it, as seen here.
In Our Hospitality, Keaton plays an early-1800s dandy - riding an early, bumpy train, he keeps hitting the ceiling and crushing his top hat down past his eyes. He finally takes it off and replaces it with his usual flat hat.
Self-Deprecation: His short stature is frequently brought up as a laughing point, even in his own films. In Seven Chances, he's laughed off and ridiculed by every woman he asks to marry him, apart from his sweetheart.
Vocal Dissonance: People who expect him to have a rather high or soft voice are surprised to find that his voice (in his rare talkie roles) is rather deep and gravelly, much more than is expected from a man of his stature.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Buster Keaton played the role of the blind old man Erronius in the screen version. It was one of his last movie roles. He was dying of cancer. He did his own stunts. He was Awesome. Unfortunately, there was one stunt he couldn't do: The jogging through the chariot race scene was too strenuous for him and had to be done by a stunt double. So the only time he was ever doubled was his last stunt on his last film. Reportedly the entire cast and crew were in tears
Several Jackie Chan movies imitate Keaton's stunts almost shot for shot. Chan was a huge fan as a kid, thanks to America's silent movies being easier to understand without speaking English.
The Goodies did an episode that was part silent-film parody, including an ersatz Buster. When the Goodies have a wall fall on them and are saved by the window, they don't even notice and leave — then the Buster lookalike comes into the scene, looks around, and takes out a small notebook to write a note to himself before leaving.
During the barn-raising shot of the music video for "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Amish Paradise," The front wall frame falls on Al in this fashion.
The eponymous character played by Peter Boyle in The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is named after a writer/director who worked with Buster Keaton (and committed suicide with a gun he'd borrowed from Keaton), while Detectives Cline and Havez are references to other Keaton collaborators, writer/director/actor Edward F. Cline and writer Jean C. Havez.
In DC Specials Series #15, the story "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three" is about a race between the Batman and the Gotham mob to find a blind accountant willing to testify against the gangster who employed him. The accountant's hiding place — a theater showing Buster Keaton films (he reasoned that no one would look for a blind man at a silent movie).
In 1632, the first movie the uptimers share with the downtimers once they get the TV station up and running is The General. While the people who run the studio want Rebecca Abarbanel to explain the film's plot beforehand, she refuses because "Keaton's comedy is timeless". She's right.
An All in the Family episode opens with the Bunkers and Stivics returning home from seeing a Buster Keaton film at a revival house. Significantly, it's depicted as one of the rare activities that Archie and Mike enjoy equally.
In The Phantom Menace, some of Jar-Jar Binks' antics, particularly during the Battle of Naboo, were modeled after Keaton's films, such as The General.
In the end of The Fall, Alexandria recounts various dangerous and legendary stunts as she imagines them all to be Roy; some of Keaton's most memorable stunts are showcased in the montage, and the movie ends with a scene from Three Ages.