9 Fascinating Facts About Buster Keaton

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 4, 1895, Buster “The Great Stone Face” Keaton was born as Joseph Frank Keaton, in Piqua, Kansas—the small town where his mother, a dancer and singer, was when she went into labor. Keaton was born into a vaudeville family: His father, also Joseph, was a performer and actor who worked with Harry Houdini. Buster himself joined the family business and began performing with his parents on stage at the age of three; they were known as The Three Keatons.

In 1917, when he was 21 years old, Buster began transitioning into silent films, making his first onscreen appearance in The Butcher Boy with Fatty Arbuckle. Just a few months later, Keaton partnered with Arbuckle again on The Rough House, which the two wrote, directed, and starred in together. Over the next nearly 50 years, Keaton became one of Hollywood's most famous faces, starring in nearly 150 pictures—many of which he also wrote and/or directed. Among those films was 1926’s The General, which Orson Welles deemed one of the greatest films ever made. Welles described Keaton as “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of cinema.”

Once “talkies” arrived in the late 1920s, Keaton’s star began to wane. But in the 1940s and 1950s, he made a comeback with feature films (including a worthy cameo as himself in ) and starring on TV shows. In 1959, Keaton received an honorary Oscar. Along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, Keaton is known for being one of the three great silent-era comedians; even today, Keaton's unique comedic stylings continue to influence many filmmakers, from Mel Brooks to Jackie Chan.

1. Harry Houdini gave Buster Keaton the “Buster” nickname.

A 1905 photo of Buster Keaton as a child with his parents, Joe and Myra, with whom he formed a family vaudeville act.
A 1905 photo of Buster Keaton as a child with his parents, Joe and Myra, with whom he formed a family vaudeville act. / Express/Getty Images

When Keaton was born, his parents were performing with Harry Houdini in a medicine show (touring acts that promoted "miracle cures"). In a 1963 interview, Keaton explained how he got his nickname from Houdini: "I fell down a flight of stairs when I was around six months old. They picked me up … no bruises, didn’t seem to hurt myself, and Houdini said, ‘That was a Buster.’ And the old man says, ‘That’s a good name; we’ll call him that.’”

2. Buster Keaton didn’t like to work with a script.

Keaton believed in the art of improvisation. In an audio interview played over Tony Zhou’s 'Buster Keaton—The Art of the Gag' video essay, Keaton stated: “As a rule, about 50 percent you have in your mind when you start the picture and the rest you develop as you’re making it.” He hired “gag men” to write for him, including sportswriter Clyde Bruckman, who co-directed The General. According to The Dissolve, Keaton and his writing team started with gags and visual stunts and conceived the rest from there. But sometimes the improvisation started from a visual. On The Navigator (1924), Keaton rented an ocean liner and reportedly told his writers: “There’s the boat. Now write me a comedy.” Keaton also felt gags should be accomplished in one shot, and if not, the gag should be thrown out.

3. Buster Keaton did most of his own stunts.

In the 1920s CGI didn’t exist, so actors either had to hire stuntpeople or do their own stunts; Keaton chose the latter. One of his most remarkable stunts was done in the 1928 feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., where a 4000-pound facade of a house fell on the actor. "Keaton’s position on the ground had to line up exactly with an open window in the top of the house; thankfully for him, it did," The Guardian wrote. However, Keaton did injure himself a few times.

On the set of The Electric House (1922), he broke his ankle. On Sherlock Jr. (1924), Keaton broke his neck—and somehow he didn't even realize it. A water spout knocked him unconscious on train tracks, and despite suffering from headaches, he didn’t know the extent of the damage until years later when an X-ray revealed the breakage.

4. Buster Keaton didn’t use many title cards.

In an interview later in his life, Keaton explained that "The average [silent] picture used 240 titles. And the most I ever used was 56." Instead, he preferred to convey plot through action and pantomime—visual comedy, as it’s known—and found "humor in the geometry."

5. Buster Keaton fashioned his porkpie hats from Stetson hats.

American actor and comedian Buster Keaton visits the Frankfurt television studios of the local radio station which is broadcasting his old films in 1962.
American actor and comedian Buster Keaton visits the Frankfurt television studios of the local radio station which is broadcasting his old films in 1962. / Keystone/Getty Images

One of Keaton’s most recognizable features was the porkpie hat he wore in his films. “In those days, almost every comedian you saw affected a derby hat,” Keaton said. “Even Harold Lloyd, when he was playing his Lonesome Luke character in 1917, wore a derby.” Keaton decided he needed his own brand of hat. “I took a good Stetson and cut it down, then I stiffened the brim with sugar water. My recipe calls for three heaping teaspoons of granulated sugar in a teacup of warm water. You wet the top and bottom of the brim, and then smooth it out on a clean, hard surface and let it dry to a good stiffness. I did the earliest ones myself, always—and then I trained my wife. Now she does them for me.”

6. Buster Keaton influenced Mel Brooks.

In a 1997 interview with The Keaton Chronicle, Mel Brooks talked about how Keaton influenced his movies, especially 1976’s Silent Movie. "He gave me things that you can’t put your finger on," Brooks said. "He kind of said, ‘Never play a crazy scene with anything but reality.' He was always intensely and desperately true. He never winked at you. He never said, 'Aren’t we having fun?' That was a great lesson for me. He and Chaplin were my mentors." Brooks described Keaton's work as "astonishing ... I’ve never seen any human being able to perform as brilliantly and gracefully with such unusually gifted timing. There was only one Keaton."

7. Buster Keaton thought The General aged pretty well.

Even though The General is known as Keaton’s masterpiece, when United Artists released it in 1926, it opened to mixed reviews, and poor box office receipts resulted in the studio forcing Keaton into a restrictive deal with MGM. But in 1965, nearly 40 years after its initial release, Keaton commented on how The General was still funny. “Comedy does not change,” he said. “Here’s the best proof in the world: Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany, using old-fashioned subtitles with a written score. This was The General … But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first released.”

8. Buster Keaton starred in a series of beer commercials.

In 1962, Keaton—then 67 years old—partnered with Buffalo, New York's The Simon Pure Brewery to film a series of beer commercials. He aped his silent film-era films in the ads while drinking beer.

9. Michigan hosts an annual Buster Keaton convention.

The International Buster Keaton Society—members are called Damfinos—hosts an annual Buster Keaton convention in Muskegon, Michigan, where Keaton owned a summer home. The three-day convention screens Keaton’s films and hosts panel discussions and live performances.