What the Hell Happened to Michael Keaton?

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton started out as a manic comic and grew into an unlikely leading man and an even more unlikely super hero.  As the first big-screen Batman, Keaton was able to make deals that secured him A-list work.  But when he walked away from the Bat-franchise, Keaton’s opportunities dried up.  Eventually, he all but disappeared from the spotlight.

What the hell happened?

Michael Keaton – Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood - 1968

Michael Keaton – Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood – 1975

After failing to break into stand-up comedy, Michael Keaton worked as a cameraman at a public television station in Pittsburg.  He started appearing onscreen in TV shows like Where the Heart Is and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood where he played one of the Flying Zucchini Brothers.  Keaton was a production assistant on Mr. Rogers and hosted a tribute show on PBS following Fred Rogers’ death in 2004.

I kind of blew past that stand-up comedy career, didn’t I?  Wanna see a clip?  Of course you do.  Here’s an early Michael Keaton stand-up routine.

Keaton left public television to start a career as an actor.  He appeared on TV shows like Maude and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour.  Here’s a clip of Keaton doing a song and dance number with a pre-fame David Letterman and Mary Tyler Moore.

Man, I do not miss variety shows.  But that was pretty awesome.

As Keaton was entering this phase of his career, he was asked to change his professional name.  Keaton’s real name is Michael Douglas.  In fact, it is still his legal name.  But there was already a famous actor named Michael Douglas and Mike Douglas was a famous TV host.

Ironically, Michael Douglas’ father, Kirk Douglas, was born Issur Danielovitch.  If he hadn’t changed his name to Douglas when he came to Hollywood, the name Michael Douglas would have been available for Keaton to use.  If that had happened, Michael Douglas would have been Michael Danielovitch and Michael Keaton would have been Michael Douglas.

The internet insists that Keaton chose his stage name after reading an article about Diane Keaton on a plane.  However, this is not true.  It’s funny how the internet feeds off of itself some times.  Someone posted the original story without citation and soon it became cited all over the place including Wikipedia.  But Keaton has publicly denied the story.  Keaton picked the name without giving it much thought.  But he has said Buster Keaton was an influence.

rabbit test

In 1978, Keaton had a cameo role in his first movie, Rabbit Test.  Rabbit Test starred Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man.  There was nowhere to go from here but up.

keaton working stiffs

Michael Keaton – Working Stiffs – 1979

In 1979, Keaton starred opposite Jim Belushi in the short-lived sitcom, Working Stiffs.  Keaton and Belushi played brothers who lived together and worked as janitors.  Nine episodes of the show were produced, but only four episodes were aired.

I’m not sure which is worse.  A pregnant-man film directed by Joan Rivers or a sit-com co-starring the lesser Belushi.  Fortunately for Keaton, one of the writer’s on Working Stiffs was also working on a screenplay for Ron Howard and introduced them.

Michael Keaton - Night Shift - 1982

Michael Keaton – Night Shift – 1982

That screenplay was Night Shift.

Night Shift was released in 1982 and starred Henry Winkler as an accountant-turned-pimp  and a pre-Cheers Shelley Long as a hooker with a heart of gold (a novel concept if ever there was one).  Ron Howard directed his former Happy Days co-star in what was intended to be a career change for both of them.  Howard was a novice director and Winkler was trying to get away from his Fonzie persona.

Keaton absolutely stole the show.  His motormouth idea man, Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski never stopped rattling off one crazy idea after another to the point where even the Fonz lost his cool and told him to shut up.

But Keaton’s over-the-top performance made the studio nervous.  According to Keaton,

“They saw the dailies and they were telling Ronnie I had to stop chewing gum, I had to get my hair cut. Eventually they were, like, ‘We have to fire him! What the fuck is he doing?’ They didn’t get it. To Ronnie’s credit, he told ’em to wait and see until it was all cut together.”

Night Shift got mostly favorable reviews and performed reasonably well at the box office.  It set off a string of prostitution-themed comedies in the 80’s that included Risky Business and Doctor Detroit.

Keaton - mr mom

Michael Keaton – Mr. Mom – 1983

Following Night Shift, Keaton was offered the John Candy role in Ron Howard’s Splash.  But he turned it down fearing that the role was too similar to the side-kick he played in Night Shift.

Instead, Keaton opted for a starring role in Mr. Mom in 1983.  John Hughes’ script for the high concept domestic comedy appealed to Keaton as did the fact it allowed him to grow as a leading man.

Reviews at the time were mixed to positive.  Many noted that the film felt a little like a TV sitcom.  But Keaton elevated the material.  Mr. Mom was a hit at the box office.

Next: Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho

Posted on March 16, 2011, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 528 Comments.

  1. forrestbracket

    he has oscar bait movies comingup the founder and spotlight.


  2. Michael Keaton dies for our tears:

    By Nick Schager@nschager
    Jun 15, 2015 1:00 PM

    Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The recent teen weepie Me And Earl And The Dying Girl—as well as the emotional new Pixar movie, Inside Out—has us tearfully recalling movies designed to make you cry.

    Manipulative to the point of shamelessness, My Life remains one of the most effective mainstream tearjerkers of the past two decades, in part because—for all of its mawkish flourishes—its premise and heartrending power remain universal. Shot with a straightforward blandness that reflects its bluntness, Bruce Joel Rubin’s film concerns detached Los Angeles PR exec Bob Jones (Michael Keaton), who’s dying of kidney cancer that’s now spread to his lungs, and which hasn’t been stymied by various medical treatments. This is anguishing enough to Bob and wife, Gail (Nicole Kidman). Compounding matters is that Gail is pregnant, and Bob fears that he won’t survive long enough to see the birth of his child—a dilemma that compels him (in an act that presages today’s smartphone-recording culture) to begin incessantly videotaping messages to his unborn offspring in an effort to communicate with the kid in the future, once he’s gone.

    Those VHS dispatches are the maudlin lifeblood of My Life, and far more effective at wringing tears from viewers than subplots involving Bob’s visits to a Chinese healer (Haing S. Ngor) and his efforts to reconcile with his estranged Detroit family. The film is concerned with Bob’s reconciliation with his past and confrontation of his failings, all of which culminates with a Fellini-esque surprise that helps heal one of Bob’s decades-old primal wounds. Still, more than those threads, it’s the portrait of the bond shared by Bob and Gail during this unbearably trying ordeal that really elicits the uncontrollable waterworks. A great, nuanced Keaton and an understated Kidman fully and compellingly commit themselves to characters whose thoughts and feelings—about each other, themselves, and the future they can no longer share together—vacillate wildly between hope and despair. Treating their all-too-common scenario with respect for the arduous emotional toll such fatal diseases take on everyone involved, My Life pulls at the heartstrings with abandon, but in a manner that stays true to the pain of death, and the means by which everyone tries to find some way to live on through those left behind.

    Availability: My Life is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.


  3. forrestbracket

    Minions is currently doing well in the box office .


  4. I’m surprised that LeBeau hasn’t done a “What Might Have Been” on Michael Keaton yet (like he did for his “Batman” co-star, Kim Basinger) since we all immediately wonder where his career would’ve gone had he done what would become “Batman Forever”:


      • Roles turned down by Michael Keaton:

        Batman Forever
        After originally accepting, Keaton decided not to do the third movie because he reportedly did not like Joel Schumacher’s direction.
        Actor who got the part: Val Kilmer

        Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
        Keaton was considered to play Willy Wonka.
        Actor who got the part: Johnny Depp

        Cutthroat Island
        Keaton was turned down for the role of William.
        Actor who got the part: Matthew Modine

        The Fly
        Michael Keaton was considered for the role of Seth Brundle.
        Actor who got the part: Jeff Goldblum

        Get Shorty
        Keaton was Considered To Play Chili Palmer
        Actor who got the part: John Travolta

        The Getaway
        Michael Keaton turned down the lead role of Doc McCoy.
        Actor who got the part: Alec Baldwin

        Keaton was considered for the role of Kazinski.
        Actor who got the part: Chris Cooper

        Was considered for Jim Garrison.
        Actor who got the part: Kevin Costner

        Michael Keaton was considered to play the lead role.
        Actor who got the part: Woody Harrelson

        Leap of Faith
        Steve Martin took over the lead role after Michael Keaton quit.
        Actor who got the part: Steve Martin

        Michael Keaton was considered for the lead role of Andrew Beckett.
        Actor who got the part: Tom Hanks

        Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
        Michael Keaton was considered for the Capt. Jack Sparrow role.
        Actor who got the part: Johnny Depp

        Police Academy
        According to an article by Entertainment Weekly, Keaton was one of the actors considered for the lead.
        Actor who got the part: Steve Guttenberg

        The Purple Rose of Cairo
        Keaton was originally cast in the role of Tom Baxter but was replaced by Jeff Daniels.
        Actor who got the part: Jeff Daniels

        The Silence of the Lambs
        Considered for the Jack Crawford role.
        Actor who got the part: Scott Glenn

        Michael Keaton turned down the lead that went to Tom Hanks.
        Actor who got the part: Tom Hanks

        Vanilla Sky
        Keaton was considered for the psychiatrist role.
        Actor who got the part: Kurt Russell


        • If Keaton did Batman Forever….


          I liked Val Kilmer in the role. Michael Keaton’s version wouldn’t have worked for it or that story. Keaton played sad, angry, sometimes in love, but also off psychologically Batman. It worked for Burton’s Batman. But Schumacher’s was very much heroic, redemptive, hopeful and romantic. From Bruce saying to Harvey that he needs help instead of setting him fire to the moment where the movie ends on him smiling with a newfound hope for batman as a hero, instead of looking slightly perplexed out the window of his car about what he is.

          God bless you! God bless everyone in your life!

          « Reply #4 on: Yesterday at 16:18 »

          It actually would have fit the progression though;

          In the first film Bruce Wayne is a mystery to the public so much that Vale and Knox don’t recognize him. The only other time we see him go out in public was to crime alley to pay his respects.

          In the second film we see more of the industrious side of Bruce Wayne; he goes to meet with Shreck and implies he’s discussed power issues with the Mayor. Perhaps having a female relationship and killing his parents killer as well as saving Gotham gave Bruce the confidence he needed?

          So introducing Wayne enterprises and making Bruce a statesman was the next logical choice for the third film.

          Note that Bruce isn’t acting quite as tortured in the second film. I know people like to read a lot into the first shot of Bruce but all that’s implied there is that he’s a man who sits and thinks to himself. He’s more confident but he does in a way relive the dark part of his past noticing that Oswald was orphaned as well. In the third film he again would have relived it with Dick’s parents dying. While many believe Bruce isn’t acting dark and tortured in the fourth film because the third film cures him, it is also possible that is the only film in which there are no events paralleling his parents death.

          Now the jokes are a little bit of a tough one, I have a hard time seeing Keaton delivering the goofy lines a la “I’ll get drive thru” I do think Keaton would have cut the overall dialogue; saying the same things but in fewer words.

          Lastly, Keaton did indicate that Batman Returns (the only time he ever reprised a character) was difficult because he was felt as though he was imitating himself. Perhaps to help him in the next film he would have tried to play the character differently and thus tried to expand to a more comedic approach. I think if he went along with it, he would have been fine, we know Keaton can do comedy.


  5. forrestbracket

    kingpin good movie but flopped box office and got mixed reviews at the time. Being in that movie wouldnt help keaton career. Clean and sober a keaton movie people like was box office flop at time so that movie didnt help him as much as bettle juice


  6. batman forever made money didnt flop it wouldnt hurt keaton career it would been better coming from moives such as much ado my life paper speechless all were not hits


    • Not to be a jerk or smart ass or anything, but I really wish that you would proofread. I guess what you’re trying to say is that the ’90s movies that Michael Keaton made outside of the Batman franchise didn’t exactly connect or resonant w/ most people. There’s always going to be a “What if…” or “What could’ve been” had Keaton done a third Batman film.

      I do think that rightly or wrongly or for better or for worse, Keaton leaving the Batman franchise when he did in hindsight, seriously hurt his career. It gave off the perception that such a thing was beneath him (even though it kind of helped “make his career”).

      I said recently in Jason Patric’s WTHHT entry, that I got the vibe that Patric ticked people off w/ his rather fiercely independent approach to film-making. With Michael Keaton, he was too blindly loyal to Tim Burton to see otherwise and was pretty much weary or uncomfortable w/ the prospect of having to play the same character (i.e. “repeating”/”imitating himself”) anyway.

      Keaton didn’t exactly have any other hits (at the time) to fall back on (the same sort of thing pretty much happened w/ Val Kilmer after “The Saint” flopped) so he pretty much got lost/directionless.


  7. Keaton should have at least wited till he had other hits to fall back on before leaving franchisee. I am sure he could have balanced other films and batman at same time. Hugh jackman had other hits during his tenture as wolverwine. Like reel steel ,prestige,prisoners and les miserable


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