What the Hell Happened to 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.