Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American actor, comedian, and filmmaker. He is best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname “The Great Stone Face”. Critic Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton’s “extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929” when he “worked without interruption” as having made him “the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies”. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly recognized Keaton as the seventh-greatest film director, and in 1999 the American Film Institute ranked him as the 21st-greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.
Working with independent producer Joseph M. Schenck, Keaton made a series of successful two-reel comedies in the early 1920s, including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922). He then moved to feature-length films; several of them, such as Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928), remain highly regarded. The General is widely viewed as his masterpiece: Orson Welles considered it “the greatest comedy ever made…and perhaps the greatest film ever made”. His career declined when he signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and lost his artistic independence. His wife divorced him, and he descended into alcoholism. He recovered in the 1940s, remarried, and revived his career as an honored comic performer for the rest of his life, earning an Academy Honorary Award in 1959.
On May 31, 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, his leading lady in Our Hospitality, and the sister of actresses Norma Talmadge (married to his business partner Joseph M. Schenck at the time) and Constance Talmadge, at Norma’s home in Bayside, Queens. They had two sons: Joseph, called James (June 2, 1922 – February 14, 2007), and Robert (February 3, 1924 – July 19, 2009).
After Robert’s birth, the marriage began to suffer. Talmadge decided not to have any more children, banishing Keaton to a separate bedroom; he dated actresses Dorothy Sebastian, and Kathleen Key during this period. Natalie’s extravagance was another factor, spending up to a third of her husband’s earnings. No penny-pincher himself, Keaton hired Gene Verge Sr. in 1926 to build a 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) estate in Beverly Hills for $300,000, which was later owned by James Mason and Cary Grant. After attempts at reconciliation, she divorced him in 1932, and changed the boys’ surname to “Talmadge”. On July 1, 1942, the now-18 year old Robert and the now-20 year old Joseph made the name change permanent after their mother won a court petition.
With the failure of his marriage and the loss of his independence as a filmmaker, Keaton descended into alcoholism. He was briefly institutionalized, according to the Turner Classic Movies documentary So Funny it Hurt. He escaped a straitjacket with tricks learned from Harry Houdini. In 1933, he married his nurse Mae Scriven during an alcoholic binge about which he afterwards claimed to remember nothing. Scriven claimed that she didn’t know Keaton’s real first name until after the marriage. She filed for divorce in 1935 after finding him with Leah Clampitt Sewell, the wife of millionaire Barton Sewell, in a hotel in Santa Barbara. They divorced in 1936 at great financial cost to Keaton. After undergoing aversion therapy, he stopped drinking for five years.
On May 29, 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years his junior. She has been credited with salvaging his life and career. The marriage lasted until his death. Between 1947 and 1954, the couple appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris as a double act. She came to know his routines so well that she often participated in them on television revivals.
Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, aged 70, in Woodland Hills, California. Despite being diagnosed with cancer in January 1966, he was never told he was terminally ill. Keaton thought that he was recovering from a severe case of bronchitis. Confined to a hospital during his final days, Keaton was restless and paced the room endlessly, desiring to return home. In a British television documentary about his career, his widow Eleanor told producers from Thames Television that Keaton was up out of bed and moving around, and even played cards with friends who came to visit the day before he died. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California. (Wikipedia)