Biography: Michael Keaton

Ryan Loftis By Ryan Loftis, 5th Sep 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

A biography of Michael Keaton, who achieved great success starring in "Batman" and earned an Oscar nomination for "Birdman."

Early Years

The youngest of seven children, Michael Keaton was born Michael John Douglas in Coraopolis, Pa., on Sept. 5, 1951. His father was a civil engineer and surveyor, his mother a homemaker. "There just is not one person in my family who is not funny," he told a Pittsburgh newspaper early in his career. "I had the advantage of being the youngest - I had a built-in audience. Once you get the assurance that what you do is funny, you begin thriving on it."

That assurance wasn't enough to get him onstage until he reached Kent State University. "My curiosity probably just got the best of me," he said. "I thought, why not? I was never surprised when I found out I could do it. It was always in the back of my head, I think." After studying speech for two years, Keaton dropped out of Kent State.

Stand-Up and Mr. Rogers

He achieved his fame and fortune as an actor, but Keaton started in show business as a stand-up comic. An actor named Michael Douglas and a broadcaster named Mike Douglas were already well-known, so the aspiring performer adopted the moniker Michael Keaton (he has never legally changed his name). The Big Apple's comedy clubs naturally beckoned. "I never lived in New York," he said. "I'd work on my material at home and when I had enough, I'd go to New York and stay a while. I never had any money." Keaton later performed at Los Angeles clubs, including the legendary Comedy Store.

A notable early job of Keaton's was as a crew member on the classic children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood earning $2.25 an hour. He also appeared onscreen as one of the "Flying Zucchini Brothers." Following Fred Rogers' death, Keaton hosted a special paying tribute to the iconic host. Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor aired on PBS in 2004 and was nominated for an Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special Emmy.

"Night Shift"

Keaton made his film debut in 1978's Rabbit Test, directed by Joan Rivers. The comedy starring Billy Crystal as the world's first pregnant man was a flop. In 1979, Keaton landed a regular role on the short-lived variety series The Mary Tyler Moore Hour. Later that year he co-starred with James Belushi in the sitcom Working Stiffs, which was also cancelled quickly.

Keaton's breakthrough film was 1982's Night Shift. He played entrepreneurial Bill Blazejowski, who convinces fellow morgue worker Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler) to turn their workplace into a brothel. "It was an electrifying debut, typified by Keaton's killer entrance: his distinctive silhouette coming into focus in the opaque glass of an office door as his crescendoing voice belts out an off-key rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," " film critic Scott Foundas wrote in Variety more than 30 years later. Keaton followed Night Shift with a starring role in the even more successful comedy Mr. Mom, the ninth highest-grossing film of 1983.

Best Actor

Keaton's star soon dimmed.His next four movies - Johnny Dangerously (1984), Gung Ho (1986), Touch and Go (1986), and The Squeeze (1987) - were all box office disappointments. The Squeeze was a particularly embarrassing failure, grossing only $2.2 million.

1988 saw an uptick in Keaton's fortunes. The comedy-horror film Beetlejuice was released in April to big success (it ended up the year's 10th highest-grossing movie). Despite playing the title character, the self-described "ghost with the most," Keaton appeared in a less than a quarter of the film's 92 minutes. The drama Clean and Sober, starring Keaton as a cocaine addict, opened in August. His performances in these two movies earned him best actor honors from the National Society of Film Critics.


It took 50 years for the superhero Batman to get his own movie. A campy Batman TV series had aired in the 1960s, but director Tim Burton and screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren wanted something very different for the big screen. Their film would be in the spirit of Frank Miller's book The Dark Knight, "in which the Caped Crusader is portrayed as a lone vigilante wreaking his revenge on the various malefactors of a lawless Gotham City," Iain Johnstone wrote in the British film magazine Empire. "As with Bob Kane's original model, this Batman would be a troubled soul, mentally scarred by the brutal slaying of his parents and determined to sort things out."

Fans were outraged when Keaton - whom Burton had directed in Beetlejuice - was cast as Batman. Warner Bros. received 50,000 letters protesting the decision. Pressure came from other sources as well. "One of the most powerful men in Hollywood went as far as to call Warners chairman Steve Ross and tell him casting Michael was such a horrible idea it would bring Warners to its knees," Jon Peters, one of the film's producers, told Empire. "The entire studio would crash. Heaven's Gate revisited."

The protests failed and Batman's three-month shoot began in England in October 1988. Jack Nicholson was cast as the Joker, while Kim Basinger replaced Sean Young as the Caped Crusader's love interest, photographer Vicki Vale. "It was long, difficult nights in that dank, dark, cold place, and we never knew if it was really working," Keaton told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "There was no guarantee that any of this was going to play correctly when it was all said and done. There had never been a movie like it before. There was a lot of risk, too, with Jack looking the way he did and me stepping out in this new way. The pressure was on everybody. You could feel it."

All doubts vanished when Batman was released in June 1989. The film that was supposed to sink Warner Bros. earned $251 million domestically - roughly seven times its budget - and was easily the year's highest-grossing movie. One of the 10 most successful films ever when it completed its theatrical run, Batman is currently the 51st highest-grossing movie off all time adjusted for inflation.

Keaton and Burton reunited for 1992's Batman Returns, which earned $162 million domestically - twice its budget - and was the year's third highest-grossing movie. Even with these successes, Warner Bros. wanted Burton replaced and the tone lightened for the third entry in the series. Unhappy with these requests, Keaton turned down a $15 million offer and walked away from the role.

Fading Away

After starring in box office disappointments including Speechless (1994) and Multiplicity (1996), Keaton had a supporting role in 1997's Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino's eagerly awaited follow-up to his classic Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown earned more than three times its budget but was nowhere near as successful or influential as Pulp Fiction had been.

Keaton starred in two film in 1998. The thriller Desperate Measures was released in January and grossed only $13.8 million domestically. Jack Frost, a family comedy starring Keaton as a dead father reincarnated as a snowman, was released in December and grossed less than half of its $85 million budget.

Following the disappointment of Jack Frost, Keaton's days as a leading man were seemingly over. He earned his first Golden Globe nomination for starring in HBO's 2002 movie Live From Baghdad, but he spent years without appearing in any notable feature films. None other than President Barack Obama asked Keaton upon meeting him, "Why don't you make more movies?" The reason, Keaton would later say, was that many of the films he was offered simply didn't appeal to him.

Cops and Dolls

Having already lent his voice to Cars (2006), Keaton returned to the Pixar universe to voice Barbie's boyfriend Ken in 2010's Toy Story 3. Like its predecessors, Toy Story 3 was an enormous box office success: It was the year's highest-grossing film, earning $415 million, and adjusted for inflation it's the 92nd highest-grossing movie of all time. Toy Story 3 was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song.

Two months after Toy Story 3's release, Keaton played an NYPD captain supervising bumbling detectives Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys. Keaton felt the comedy demonstrated he "could still hit." The Other Guys grossed $119 million domestically, making it a modest success.


Keaton's career reignited after he starred in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which premiered on the opening night of the 2014 Venice Film Festival. The similarities between his character Riggan Thompson - an actor who was once famous for playing a movie superhero and is trying to become relevant again - and himself were obvious to everybody. Well, everybody except Keaton. "In terms of the parallels, I've never related less to a character than Riggan," he said in Birdman's press notes.

Whether that was true or not, there's no denying the massive acclaim Keaton received for Birdman. His performance earned him Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, and Critics' Choice Movie Awards wins for best actor. He made history as the first in the Critics' Choice Movie Awards' 20-year history to win three awards in one year. Although he lost best actor to The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Birdman won for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Keaton also lost the Best Actor Oscar to Redmayne, but Birdman won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Keaton's voice-over success continued when Minions was released in July 2015. As of Sept. 1, Minions had grossed $325 million domestically, more than four times its budget. His next big film, Spotlight, is scheduled for release on Nov. 6, 2015. Keaton, who once considered a journalism career, plays real-life Boston Globe investigations unit editor Walter "Robby" Robinson in this drama based on the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning exposure of child abuse in the Catholic Church.


Batman, Birdman, Michael Keaton

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author avatar Ryan Loftis
I graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism degree and have been a freelance writer for various print and online publications since then.

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26th Sep 2017 (#)

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