Although his career lacked the resilience of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton may well have been the most gifted comedian to emerge from the cinema's silent era. And while his skills as a gag writer and physical comic were remarkable, Keaton was one clown whose understanding of the film medium was just as great as his talent for taking a pratfall. Keaton, however, had a roller-coaster career in which he fell just as far as he rose, though he was fortunate enough to enjoy a comeback in the later years of his life.
Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895, to Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler Keaton, a pair of vaudeville performers. Spending his childhood on the road with his family, he earned the nickname Buster at the age of six months; as legend has it, after the young Keaton fell down a flight of steps at a theater, a magician on the bill, Harry Houdini, said to the lad's father, "What a buster your kid took!" The name stuck, and, by the age of three, the youngster was appearing as part of his parents act whenever they could evade child labor laws. In vaudeville, Keaton developed remarkable talents as an acrobatic comedian with a superb sense of timing, and became a rising star by his teens. His father, however, had developed a serious drinking problem, which strained his relationship with his son and caused serious problems with their very physical stage act, which, in early 1917, Buster left. He appeared in a Broadway comic revue later that year, but the key to Keaton's future came when he met a fellow vaudeville comedian. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was starring in a low-budget two-reel screen comedy, The Butcher Boy, and invited Keaton to play a small role in the picture. The two hit it off and became a successful onscreen team, starring in a long string of comic hits. Fascinated by the medium of film, Keaton soon began writing their pictures, and assisted in directing them; Keaton was soon starring in his own films, as well, though he and Arbuckle remained lifelong close friends.