Buster Keaton lived such an extraordinary life that boiling it down to a 10 item list would be both unfeasible and offensive to the memory of a man we really don’t want to be haunted by. So we’re going to tighten our focus and list 10 facts about Buster Keaton that prove what we’ve suspected all along — that in addition to being a comedic genius, he was a ludicrous badass.
10. He Was Used as a Human Missile
Before he was a famous actor, director and owner of a butt that just wouldn’t quit, Buster Keaton was a pint-sized child performer who called himself “the human mop.” Keaton’s act went as follows: his father would walk on stage and perform a variety of simple tasks while Buster copied his movements in a mocking manner. After a few minutes of becoming increasingly frustrated, Buster’s father would pick him up using a secret handle sewn into his tiny overcoat and throw him several feet through the air into a piece of scenery, all while Keaton wore a blank expression.
Keaton would then stand up, revealing to the audience that he was completely unharmed. While that may sound cruel, Keaton himself has always defended his father and insisted that at no point was he badly hurt. What can we say? It was a different time back then. A different, child-throwing time.
Because Keaton had performed this routine since he was able to walk, his father had no qualms about using him as a makeshift weapon when people in the audience wouldn’t shut the hell up. As we’ve mentioned before, one time Keaton was actually thrown at an unsuspecting audience member so hard that he broke the viewer’s nose. And if you can’t crack a smile at the image of a small child flying through the air with a stoney expression seconds away from headbutting a loud-mouthed idiot in the face, you’re in serious need of a sense of humor.
9. He Could Be Pushed Down a Flight of Stairs Without Injury
Keaton enjoys a reputation as one of the finest physical comedians the world has ever known, and his ability to take a beating without it affecting his performance is so impressive Nokia 3210 phones worship him as a god. There are many amazing stories about Keaton’s seemingly inhuman ability to survive falls and accidents that would kill lesser men, and they began when he was just an infant.
Babies aren’t really known for being sturdy, but Keaton wasn’t your average infant. According to Keaton, at the age of just six months he fell down a huge flight of presumably pointy stairs, much to the horror of his mother. Less concerned was Harry Houdini, who just so happened to be visiting the family. Houdini noticed that not only was Keaton unhurt, he actually appeared to be smiling at the idea that something as trivial as a 20 foot drop could damage his supple yet amazingly toned baby-flesh.
After witnessing Keaton’s fall, Houdini exclaimed “that was a real buster!” (buster being slang for a bad fall). From that point on, Keaton was referred to by everyone he knew as “Buster,” a nickname so inherently awesome that few people are aware his actual name was Joseph. Which is understandable, because that name is hardly befitting of a man who could be picked up by the legs and used as a human billy club.
8. He Took Apart the First Camera He Saw to See How it Worked
Along with his ability to walk off injuries that would cripple a horse wearing shin pads, Keaton was quite handy when it came to all things film related — he spent decades kicking ass both in front of and behind the camera. What separates Keaton from most other people to accomplish this feat is that his formal education was incredibly limited.
That didn’t stop Keaton from being curious about most of the things he encountered, including a newfangled film camera he was able to get his hands on after a chance encounter with Fatty Arbuckle. Arbuckle thought Keaton had potential and wanted the young comedian to work with him on some films. Keaton — who had never seen a camera in his life — agreed, and literally the first thing he did was take the camera apart to see how it worked.
Keaton then put it back together without any instructions and turned up to work the next day boasting that he now understood the “basic mechanics” of the moving picture, and was thus ready to start making movies. Which would be considered cocky and almost certainly “kind of dickish” if anyone but Buster Keaton did it.
7. He Inspired Jackie Chan
We’re just going to jump straight into this one. If it wasn’t for Buster Keaton we wouldn’t have Jackie Chan, and if we had our way there would be a Kickstarter campaign to have a high five machine attached to Keaton’s tombstone for that gift to the world alone.
Chan has repeatedly professed his love for Keaton in numerous interviews, citing his jaw dropping and incredibly dangerous stunts as one of the reasons he got into movies. So technically Keaton is responsible for all three Rush Hour movies and that one amazing scene where Chan insisted on doing 2900 takes to get it right. A legacy any man would be proud of, and many would kill to have.
6. He Fractured His Neck Without Realizing It
If you could plot the various injuries it’s possible to sustain on a sliding scale of intensity, “fractured neck” would appear somewhere near the upper end, just before “third degree burns to the colon.” So what do you think Buster Keaton’s reaction was when his face was smashed into a metal railing with enough force to fracture his neck?
If you answered “he did nothing,” congratulations — Keaton didn’t notice that he’d suffered what would normally be considered a crippling injury because he was just that much of a baller. The injury occurred during a stunt for the epic silent film Sherlock Jr., and it called for Keaton to be hit in the face with a burst of water from a huge waterspout. Both the crew and Keaton had sorely underestimated the pressure in the spout, and the water ended up hitting Keaton with enough force to push him to the ground and fracture his neck.
Ever the perfectionist, Keaton shook off the injury and finished the scene, only complaining of a mild headache which supposedly faded after a few days. It wasn’t until a few years later that Keaton discovered the torrent of water and the resulting fall had actually fractured his neck. Before you ask, yes, the take that made it into the final movie is the one in which his neck was fractured.
5. He Was His Own Stunt Double
Due to the fact he was often the only person on set physically capable of doing the things his scripts required, up until he signed with MGM Buster Keaton did all of his own stunts — often without any safety equipment, or “coward’s paraphernalia” as he almost certainly referred to it. The only reason he stopped was because MGM insisted on protecting their investment by hiring a stunt double who was almost certainly less qualified that Keaton to do any of his stunts.
But prior to that Keaton performed all of his own stunts and then some, by which we mean along with performing all of his own stunts Keaton was a stunt double for other people. In some cases he played multiple people in a single scene because he was the only one with the balls and know-how to do the stunt without catching on fire or something. For example, in Sherlock Jr. there’s a scene where Keaton’s character sits on the front handlebars of a motorcycle while it drives itself after the rider falls off. During that scene Keaton, along with doing his own part, acted as a stunt double for the rider.
We don’t know why MGM even bothered to hire a stunt double for Keaton when he was already good enough at his job to be a stunt double himself. Hell, if we were at MGM at the time Keaton was working there, we’d have petitioned to just pay him double and let him appear in every scene twice.
4. He Once Escaped From a Straightjacket In a Mental Hospital
While we’d certainly like to believe that Buster Keaton’s life was a consistently awesome, never-ending party, we know that just isn’t true for him (or anyone in history). The great man spent a great deal of his time depressed and angry, and it reached a head in 1934 when Keaton was forced to spend a night in a sanitarium in an ill-conceived attempt to stop him drinking.
Keaton didn’t respond well to this, and five minutes after he was left alone he escaped his straightjacket using a technique taught to him by Houdini. He walked out the front door intent on defeating his alcoholism on his own by strangling it to death with his own two hands. Just let that stew in your mind for a moment. Even at the lowest point in his entire life, Buster Keaton was as capable and resourceful as MacGyver armed with Batman’s utility belt.
3. His Stunts Were So Dangerous Film Crews Couldn’t Watch Them
According to the many people who worked with him over the years, Buster Keaton was a genuinely warm and friendly guy who most people liked and secretly wanted to high five. This made many of his stunts hard for members of the crew to watch, because there was more often than not a very real chance of Keaton dying while attempting them.
The most extreme example of this came during the filming of Keaton’s most famous stunt, a scene in Steamboat Bill Jr. where a damn house falls on his head. We’re not going to describe it more than that, because even if you don’t think you’ve seen it it’s been parodied so many times that you’ve definitely seen it.
When the time came for Keaton to film the scene, 50% of the crew refused to turn up for work. Of those who did turn up, it’s reported than none of them, including the guys operating the camera, were able to bring themselves to watch the stunt. It wasn’t until after the dust settled that people realized Keaton had survived. What makes this even more amazing is that if you watch the scene you can see that the building brushed Keaton’s arm and he didn’t even flinch. We once flailed and lost a glove at the thought of a bee flying near our ear. Keaton was just on another level.
2. He Gave Away Priceless Works of Film for Free
As we’ve mentioned, film and tape is pretty hardy stuff, but it doesn’t last forever. That’s a big problem for archivists who want to preserve really old and really kick-ass films, and over the years countless films have been lost as the tape they’re recorded on has degraded beyond repair. Thankfully, this shouldn’t happen to Keaton’s films, because the man himself gave away some of the last remaining copies to a fan in the ’60s.
Here’s the kicker. Keaton literally gave the copies away for nothing because, to quote him, they were “valueless” to him because he “didn’t own the rights” anymore. So rather than hold onto the copies, which he could have sold for a small fortune or swapped for someone’s liver, he gave them away just to annoy the people who did own the rights to them. Those would be the same people who wouldn’t let him do his own stunts or have creative control over his movies. We can’t help but feel that if they’d just let Buster do what he wanted, he would have been way less trouble for them in his later life.
1. He Could Float In Mid-air
We started this article with a story about Keaton’s prat-falling abilities at a young age, so we’re going to end with a story about how in his ’50s Keaton was still able to float.
Early in his performing days one of Keaton’s favorite tricks was to prop one of his legs on a table and then grab his other leg. He’d then count to three and awkwardly place his grounded leg onto the table, leaving him floating in the air for a moment before he crashed to ground. Which, as you’ve probably guessed, didn’t hurt him at all.
According to his family and friends, Keaton was still able to do this trick well into his 60s, a feat that we can only describe as Jack LaLanne-esque. And that’s the image of Buster Keaton we want to leave you with, a 60 year-old man who could fly for a split second and then walk away uninjured from a fall that would break the hips of most other old people if they heard about it over the phone.