Born Joseph Frank Keaton into a vaudeville family. His father was Joseph Hallie Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana, known in the show business world as Joe Keaton. Joe Keaton owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to be when she went into labour.
Keaton told interviewer Fletcher Markle that Harry Houdini happened to be present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" According to Keaton, in those days, the word buster was used to refer to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury. Thereafter, it was Keaton's father who began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster.
At the age of three, Buster began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons; the act was mainly a comedy sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely. He was rarely injured or bruised on stage. Nevertheless, this knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse. Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. He claimed he was having so much fun that he would begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. This drew fewer laughs from the audience, so he adopted his famous deadpan expression whenever he was working.
In February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room, dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-
After Keaton's successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-
Keaton's silent films are characterized by clever visual gags and technical trickery. His writers included Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were often conceived by Keaton himself. The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, also performed by Keaton at great physical risk; during the railroad-
Buster Keaton's most enduring feature-
The General, set during the American Civil War, is considered his masterpiece, combining physical comedy with Keaton's love of trains. Keaton took his crew on picturesque locations and painstakingly re-
Keaton's loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films and mounting personal problems, and his full potential in the early sound era was never realized.
Keaton's career as a performer and director is widely considered to be among the most innovative and important work in the history of cinema. He was recognized as the seventh greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.