Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was, as legend goes, given the nickname “Buster” by none other than the great Harry Houdini. Houdini was partner with Buster’s father Joe Keaton in a traveling vaudeville show called the “Mohawk Indian Medicine Company”. At the age of 18 months, the legend goes, Houdini saw the young Keaton take a nasty fall down a flight of stairs and emerge totally unscathed. Such a tumble, in its day, was called a “buster”. The name stuck.
Thus began a lifetime of tumbling, falling, leaping, and other dangerous activities. At the age of 3 Buster began appearing in his father’s traveling vaudeville show. The routine went as follows: Buster disobeyed his father. His father threw Buster around the stage.
As the young Buster got better at taking falls his father got better at throwing him. A handle was sewn onto his clothes to assist in the throwing. At first Buster could be heard laughing out loud as he tumbled about the stage. But this ruined the effect so the youngster was taught to take his throwings with stoic deadpan. The deadpan was to last for life, becoming his trademark expression and earning him the nickname “The Great Stonyface”.
Buster first came to the emerging art form of cinema by working with Fatty Arbuckle, whose fame he quickly surpassed. A series of hit short films in the early 20’s earned Buster Keaton great fame and fortune. His comic genius, physical athleticism and daring were unsurpassed by any other figure of the period. Each success spurred him onto even greater stunts. Facades of buildings fell on him with the open window perfectly spaced so as to leave him standing unscathed. Falling from the 2nd story of a building became a common place stunt. He climbed around the exterior of speeding trains.
His move into feature length films brought classics like “The General” and “Steamboat Bill Jr.”. As talkies became the rage Keaton moved into the sound era with them. Management problems and personal problems plagued his career at times but he continued to produce stellar performances, even landing his own TV show in the 50’s.