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. 725 Comments.

  1. Michael Keaton: ‘There was a lot of bad taste in the 90s and I contributed to that’

    From Beetlejuice to Batman to Birdman: the actor on superheroes, surprise roles and his second act

    I interviewed Burton a few years ago and, meeting Keaton, it is obvious why the two men feel such an affinity (they are currently working together again, on Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo). Although Keaton isn’t as outwardly eccentric, he has a similar tendency towards unmediated stream-of-consciousness responses, and blunt plain-speaking – both the opposite of slick Hollywood schmooze. It must have been particularly hard for them, facing so much scrutiny during Batman, but Keaton insists he wasn’t aware of it – or not until he happened to pick up the business section of a newspaper and saw a cartoon of his face in an article suggesting that he, personally, would damage Warner Bros’ stock. “I truly didn’t understand why people cared one way or another, and I can’t believe people still care. I just thought, ‘I know what I’m doing, and I could be wrong, but in terms of what Tim and I discussed for the movie, I knew we were right on,’” he says now.

    And they were: Burton’s first Batman film remains one of the most interesting big-budget movies ever made, with Keaton’s psychologically subtle performance a major part of that. But unlike Riggan, the Birdman character who becomes obsessed by his superhero alter ego, Keaton walked away, refusing to make Batman 3 when Burton wasn’t rehired as director. Was he also just sick of the bat-suit by then?

    “[The film] just wasn’t any good, man. I tried to be patient, but after a certain point, I was like, I can’t take this any more, this is going to be horrible. But, look, there was some really horrible taste in the 90s, and I probably contributed to that, unfortunately. It was a time of nouveau riche excess – everyone was known for their jets and their stuff. And I thought, I’m in this job for the long run, I don’t want this. And the truth is, I’m not boasting, but I was correct. There are a whole load of people who ran things that are long gone.”

    Joel Schumacher’s two Batman movies were notoriously terrible, starring first Val Kilmer and then George Clooney. A few years later, Keaton had a cameo as a detective in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight with Clooney. Did they swap bat tales?

    “I didn’t,” he says, “but he used to shout at me, ‘Hey, the brotherhood!’ And I’d go, ‘Hey!’ But I had no idea what he meant. Swear to God! And he did it a bunch of times: ‘Brotherhood!’ And then someone explained it to me and I was like, ‘Ohhhhh!’ I mean, I think I’d forgotten he was in [Batman].”

    After Batman, Keaton took a series of notably unstarry roles – a tenant from hell opposite Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine in Pacific Heights, a hammy Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. There was a run of comedies, including Harold Ramis’ Multiplicity, in which he played a man who clones himself, that were smart and funny, but never going to set the world on fire. Was he deliberately trying to get out of the shadow of the bat signal, or did he just like the scripts?

    “It was both,” he says. “I do what interests me.”

    So he would never do anything just for the money?

    “Look, it’s not like I don’t think about the business – I am cognizant of that side of things – but if you overthink the money part, you tend to mess it up. I actually thought [Birdman] might not work, but I also thought, even if it doesn’t work, I want to be a part of this kind of creativity. I want to be around this. It’s like making movies with Tim [Burton],” he says, those eyebrows rising in various directions. “Being around that is so much fun, you just want to be in that environment.”

    After Out Of Sight, he pretty much disappeared for next 16 years. What happened?

    “Look, there’s two different things here,” he says, leaning forward and tapping my knee, emphasizing his points in a manner that feels more paternal than creepy. “There’s me taking a pause: I really like life, doing things, having a normal life. So there was that. And there was me getting bored, hearing the sound of my voice, seeing the same old tricks. So I may have lost interest, combined with a whole lot of people not knocking on my door. It wasn’t just me. But I also consciously started to slowly change things internally, and it worked.”

    What does he mean by changing things internally? Dealing with the mental side of things?

    “Yeah, yeah. Just thinking about things, asking what you want, what you don’t want, how am I going to get to there? And it takes a lot of stumbling around, and it takes discipline.”

    He spent those years hanging out in Montana, hunting with neighbors and walking in the woods. His family visited him, and there have been girlfriends (he is in a relationship now, but it’s the one subject he refuses to discuss), but in the main he was on his own. It’s the life, he says, that he dreamed of as a little boy.


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