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. 539 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


    • You probably don’t have to worry about Keaton finding work. He’s got to be in demand after what he did in Birdman.


      • The thing about Keaton, and I know I’m repeating myself here, is that he turns down a lot of work. He’s pretty much set for life thanks to the two Batman films. And he doesn’t care to take jobs that pull him away from his family or whatever else he is interested in at the time. Not too long ago, he left Skull Island. If he was worried about star-status, he wouldn’t have walked away from such a high profile project. He’s obviously not concerned with such things.

        As for Batman 3, they offered him essentially a blank check. He walked away from a massive payday because 1. He didn’t like the script and 2. He was showing solidarity with his friend Tim Burton who was more or less fired after Batman Returns. If he had taken that paycheck, he’d have even less reason to work than he does now. He may have retired from movies entirely.

        The truth of the matter is, I don’t think Birdman changes much for Keaton because I don’t think he was looking for much of a change. He’s happy with things the way they are.


        • I wonder if Michael Keaton did what he figured Christopher Reeve should’ve done when the Salkinds fired Richard Donner from the Superman franchise? Like w/ the Batman franchise under Joel Schumacher, the Superman series (under Richard Lester and w/ the Cannon Group producing the fourth movie) got decidedly sillier and campier.


        • I doubt he gave Reeve or Superman any thought. I get the impression that Keaton is his own man. He just follows his internal compass and doesn’t look back. His gut said to walk away from Batman Forever no matter what they offered him. So he did. I think it’s just that simple.


  8. True unlike his birdman character he never wanted the spotlight . He not like sam l jackson who has to work alot. In a business that pays alot where one can afford not to work as much why not take it easy. Hes like Tobey maguire he picks 1 film every few years


  9. reeve kept doing it for 4 movies and his career turned out worse then keaton. At least keaton had few hits outside superhero franchise. I cant think of any hits reeves had outside superman. Plus keaton was already kind of famous before batman he was comic actor in hits. In fact director of other guys called him jim carrey of 80s


  10. Another key difference is keaton was briefly a list for a certain time. Reeves couldnt really capitalize on supermans success. Even before his tragic accident his career wasnt so hot . HE was finding work but flops like keaton reeves didnt wnat to be typecast so took roles strayed away from superman


  11. Lebeau in 2005 keaton was scoring with his lead hit white noise and supporting role in box office hit herbie yet barely worked after that. I wouldnt be surprise if he got tons of offers since then but turned it down if he did care about being a list he would capitalize on success of white noise but diidnt.


  12. spotlight is getting great reviews. I think keaont being picky with scripts means while people will see less of him it means the few movies he does maybe quality will be good. I dont like keaton as actor but i thought he was amazing in birdman.


  13. Category: Guilty Pleasures Created on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 14:24 Written by George Rother


    While watching The Squeeze this past weekend, I observed how much better bad movies from back in the day seem compared to today’s bad movies. The Squeeze, an action-comedy starring Michael Keaton and Rae Dawn Chong, is what I call a “one-week wonder” meaning that it was in and out of theaters in a week. I saw it on the very last night it played at the old Lawrence Park Theater. Although the reviews were unanimously bad, I didn’t think it could be as bad as the critics claimed. So much for youthful optimism. It was terrible! It was almost as bad as Hot Pursuit. I didn’t laugh once; I didn’t even smile. It made my bottom 10 list for ’87. Now flash forward to this past Sunday.

    Since The Squeeze isn’t yet available on DVD, I procured a transfer copy from a friend. So why, after all these years, did I decide to rewatch it? I figured after enduring the likes of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and Mortdecai, it might not seem as bad as I initially thought. My experiment produced the expected results. The Squeeze is better than I remember it being. I hate to admit it, but I actually kind of like it now. Kind of.

    Down-on-his-luck artist Harry Berg (Keaton, Night Shift) and ambitious skip tracer Rachel Dobs (Chong, Commando) find themselves mixed up in a conspiracy connected to a mysterious package that his ex-wife Hilda (Langland) asks him to retrieve from her apartment. In addition to the parcel, he also finds a body. Is it possible that his ex murdered somebody? It soon becomes apparent that whatever is in the package is valuable. A lot of people want to get their hands on it like wealthy Bulgarian businessman Rigaud (Guttman, Little Nikita) and his two thugs, Joe (Gerdes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Titus (rocker Meat Loaf). The latter has a glandular disorder that causes him to sweat non-stop. So what is this thing that everybody’s after? It’s an electromagnetic device that the bad guys plan to use to rig the state lottery, currently at $58 million. Will Harry and Rachel work together to stop the bad guys? Will they fall in love along the way? If you hesitate on either question, you need a refresher course in Basic Screenwriting 101.

    The Squeeze was originally titled Skip Tracer after the female lead’s profession, but the producers changed it on the presumption that not too many people know what the term means. For the record, it refers to a person that tracks down missing or hard-to-locate people for the purposes of collecting debts or serving summonses. In the movie, Rachel tries in vain to serve Harry a summons on behalf of his ex-wife seeking back alimony. Here’s where The Squeeze becomes educational. In order for a summons to be valid, the served person has to actually physically touch it. In other words, the server can’t just slip it under the door or something. Good to know. In any event, this situation serves as the movie’s meet-cute moment.

    I guess the main problem with The Squeeze is that it isn’t funny, an especially disappointing thing with gifted actors like Keaton and Chong in the lead roles. Keaton has amazing range as an actor, but I’ll always think of him first as a comic wild man. Look at his debut, the 1982 comedy Night Shift. Classic! He followed that up with 1983’s Mr. Mom, not a great movie by any means, but made better by his presence. Chong more than held her own against Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. She has great timing. There appears to be some chemistry between the two, but the flawed screenplay makes it hard to measure with any degree of accuracy. The plot is muddled and indistinct. At times, it’s unclear what’s going on. When you stop and think about it, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, why does the big lottery drawing take place on a battleship? Director Roger Young (Lassiter) never bothers to explain this. Even the look of the movie is a bust. I understand The Squeeze is a comic take on film noir, but instead of enhancing the suspense (of which there is none anyway), it only makes it harder for the viewer to see what’s going on. This isn’t an example of style; it’s an example of poor lighting.

    The supporting cast is kind of interesting. John Davidson, host of That’s Incredible (1980-84) and the revived Hollywood Squares (1986-89), plays “Honest Tom T. Murray”, the host of the lottery program. Wait until you get a load of his helmet hair. He’s actually the only funny thing in The Squeeze. Him and the sculpture Harry is building in his apartment for a gay Puerto Rican night club owner (Portnow, Tin Men). It’s a dinosaur constructed of lights and old TV sets. Joe Pantoliano (the killer pimp from Risky Business) shows up as Harry’s friend Norman, but isn’t given all that much to do. While it’s always great to see Meat Loaf, his character is pretty gross and unappealing. The tone of The Squeeze is uneven, but usually dark. I give Keaton and Chong a lot of credit for doing their best with such weak material. BUT, like I said at the onset, it seems like a much better movie in comparison to much of what passes for comedies at multiplexes these days. I was actually entertained this time around. I like how wrong-headed, misconceived and just plain weird this movie is. It’s almost innocent in its incompetence. I wish they still made bad movies this good. Does that make sense?

    Incidentally, the movie that replaced The Squeeze was none other than Jaws: The Revenge. Like that did any better!

    TRIVIA TIDBIT: Jenny Wright (St. Elmo’s Fire, Near Dark) was supposed to play the female lead, but was replaced by Chong.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,460 other followers

%d bloggers like this: