"It takes me a long time sometimes for things to come into focus," Michael Keaton said in 1988. At the time, he was talking to the Los Angeles Times about how spending time working on a Navajo reservation in the early '70s gave him the clarity to commit to being an actor.
"After being alone in the desert in an unusual circumstance, and removing myself from everything and everybody, I came back and said, 'This is what I'm going to do.'"
It also took a long time for his first Golden Globe win and his first Oscar nod to come into focus — for "Birdman" in 2014 — but when that happened, it was for a role that seemed tailor-made from the many threads woven through the versatile performer's career.
The actor, who was born Michael Douglas but changed his name when he came to Hollywood because that one was taken, was one of seven children in a Pennsylvania family where his dad worked two jobs and his mother was a devout Catholic. After graduating from high school near Pittsburgh and studying at Kent State University in Ohio for a couple of years, plus spending that time on the reservation, he started plying his craft in Pittsburgh and then in Hollywood.
He tried stand-up comedy in both cities, along with a few odd jobs and small acting gigs — including some work on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," where he was on the crew at the public television station where it filmed.
Keaton got noticed in L.A. doing sets at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, but those gigs were more about convenience, not about becoming the next George Carlin. "There is more access to finding a stage in New York than there was here when I first moved here," Keaton told The Times in '88. "Out here, the easiest venue was the comedy club."
He wound up being cast on several short-lived TV shows, and then in 1982 came "Night Shift," on which he was teamed with a red-hot Henry Winkler — and often stole the show. Michael Keaton, comic actor, entered the Hollywood spotlight.
In 1982, he also married actress Caroline McWilliams; their son, Sean Maxwell Douglas, was born in May 1983.
For a while he was on a tear, putting out a half-dozen films in a half-dozen years, starting with "Night Shift" and including "Mr. Mom," which costarred Teri Garr and saw its title quickly become a part of the American conversation about the family dynamic. But not everything was as well-received, and by the time "The Squeeze" came out, Keaton was ready for a change.
Enter "Beetlejuice" and "Clean and Sober," the latter of which was a dramatic departure, literally, from the comedic fare that had defined him to that point.
"At a time when I should have been playing it as safe as I possibly could, I said, 'These parts are just what I want to do,'" Keaton told The Times. "What was my next movie going to be — another script that starts, 'He's young and handsome in an offbeat way?' Two of those make me bored."
"Michael Keaton can be very subtle. Filmmakers have to be able to tap into that," said Tim Burton — Keaton's director for "Beetlejuice," a movie that hardly brings the word "subtle" to mind — talking to The Times in 1988 as "Clean and Sober" was playing in theaters. Against public opinion, Burton had already cast Keaton in "Batman," which would lead to "Batman Returns" but not to "Batman Forever" — that one Mr. Mom turned down. His super-creepy 1990 turn in "Pacific Heights" was sandwiched in between the superhero flicks.
During the 1980s, Keaton bought a ranch in Montana, where he still lives most of the time. He and McWilliams divorced in 1990. Since breaking out in "Night Shift," Keaton has worked steadily, putting out one or more films almost every year since 1982.
Highlights along the way include the sweet comedies "Multiplicity" and "Jack Frost," a turn as the U.S. president in "First Daughter," a couple of journalist roles in "The Paper" and the gripping TV movie "Live From Baghdad." He voiced animated characters in "Cars," "Minions" and "Toy Story 3," where he brought Ken (of Barbie and Ken fame) fabulously to life.
And while "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," about an actor who got famous playing a superhero and later in life is trying to figure out what's next as he produces and stars in a serious play on Broadway, wasn't written for or about Keaton, facts of his life are clearly in the mix. Oddly, he said while doing awards-season promotion for the film, it was the character he'd related to least in his life.
The next year would find him stepping into a journalist's shoes again in the 2016 best picture, "Spotlight." A sequel to "Beetlejuice" has also been announced, and Keaton just keeps working.
In 2015, when he accepted the Golden Globe, he made it very clear in his speech where he came from and what he's been about through his solid career.
"In the household in which I was raised, the themes were pretty simple: Work hard, don't quit, be appreciative, be thankful, be grateful, be respectful, also to never whine ever, never complain, and, always, for crying out loud, keep a sense of humor," Keaton said as he accepted his Golden Globe for "Birdman." He talked about his parents, and growing up, and his brothers and sisters and his "tremendous, tremendously loving and generous" friends all over the world.
"My best friend," he added, right before tearing up, "is kind, intelligent, funny, talented, considerate, thoughtful — did I say kind? He also ... he also happens to be my son, Sean. I love you with all my heart, buddy. This is for 'all those people.'
"Sorry, shoot. Two things I said I wasn't going to do — cry and give air quotes. Damn."
|2014||Best Actor||Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)||Nomination|