Michael Keaton’s dark memories of ‘Batman’ and shining love for ‘Beetlejuice’

May 12, 2011 | 4:44 p.m.

Michael Keaton (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

In cold, final weeks of 1988, there was plenty of hard labor on the London set of Tim Burton’sBatman,” but actor Michael Keaton had it easy, at least as far as inspiration — the star was in a solitary mode, roaming the streets before dawn just like the haunted masked man of Gotham City.

“It was a lonely time for me, which was great for the character, I suppose,” said Keaton, now 59, reflecting on the film that paved the way for the crowds of superheroes in cinemas today. “I would run at night in London just trying to get tired enough so I could sleep. I didn’t talk to people much. My little boy was a toddler, and the woman I was married to at the time, we were not together but we were trying to figure it out and get back together.

Michael Keaton in Tim Burton's "Batman" (Warner)

“It was me in London, alone, and my sleep during that whole movie was never right,” he added. “As often as I could, I was getting on the Concorde and trying to get back to spend some time with my kid.”

With Burton’s boneyard cabaret visions and psychological tints, the June 1989 release co-starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker became a box-office sensation, taking in $411 million worldwide. The movie also created a new template for Hollywood studios and filmmakers, who never looked at comic books quite the same way. But for Keaton, who is being celebrated this weekend an American Cinematheque career retrospective, it was hardly clear during production that everything would work out so momentously.

“It was an extremely difficult undertaking and Tim is a shy guy, especially back then, and there was so much pressure. We were in England for a long time shooting at Pinewood and it was long, difficult nights in that dank, dark, cold place, and we never knew if it was really working,” Keaton said. “There was no guarantee that any of this was going to play correctly when it was all said and done. There had never been a movie like it before. There was a lot of risk, too, with Jack looking the way he did and me stepping out in this new way. The pressure was on everybody. You could feel it.”

Keaton, sitting in his beachside office in Santa Monica, chuckled thinking about Nicholson, who gave the world a truly bizarre, homicidal trickster in a purple suit. “We’re standing there at one point, I’m in my bat suit, Jack is in Joker get-up and I just looked at him and said, ‘We’re grown men, right?’”

“Batman” will screen Saturday as part of a six-film Keaton retrospective at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. On Friday, Keaton will be on hand for “Beetlejuice” and “Multiplicity” and take questions on stage from  Cinematheque programmer Grant Moninger, a fellow Pennsylvania native and Steel City sports nut.

On that Rust Belt topic, Keaton had to smile when he heard that “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman adventure from director Christopher Nolan, will film in Pittsburgh, not far from Robinson Township, where Keaton grew up as the youngest of seven children. It was there that he learned lessons that would carry him forward in Hollywood, putting together a three-decade career working opposite the likes of Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer (“Batman Returns”), Robert Duvall (“The Paper”) and Tom Hanks (“Toy Story 3”).

“I played a lot of sports when I was a kid so I get in that ballgame mindset of being really, really respectful, but at same time saying to yourself, ‘Don’t back down a single inch, hang with these guys if you can.’ If they throw it high and tight you have to stand in there, you can’t take yourself out of that moment.”

Michael Keaton: A career in pictures

Michael Keaton: A career in pictures

During two years at Kent State University, the restless Keaton found himself toying with the idea of a journalism career — he still remains “a news junkie,” as his followers on Twitter know — but in the final analysis the allure of it was asking questions. He held on to that mindset in Hollywood and, in fact, describes it as the defining mechanism of his craft.

“It’s all about asking certain basic questions, but they’re not always obvious questions,” Keaton said. “I have to ask everybody and then listen to the answers. Sometimes it takes me 10 minutes; sometimes I have to go back three or four times over the course of days. It’s not indulgent, it’s just that maybe I’m not smart enough to know how to do it otherwise. Then you do the work and sometimes it doesn’t seem like much work, and other times it seems like an awful lot of work. It depends on the role.”

Keaton is reluctant to spend too much time in a dark theater watching himself, so this weekend’s look-back theme is somewhat unsettling. “I can’t remember the last time I watched one of my movies. When you hear yourself doing that thing or using this trick, you really start to dislike yourself. I always felt like if I made a movie every year or something that people would get bored to death with me. I assumed people are like me, and I get bored with me.”

Even with that, I managed to persuade Keaton to reflect on some titles from his Hollywood highlight reel:

Night Shift” (1982) As Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski, Keaton was the breakout performer in this comedy with the unlikely premise of a prostitution ring run out of the New York City morgue. After its release, his phone kept ringing with offers of con-man roles and eccentric fast-talkers. “The character I invented was a combination of some people I knew and some things I made up, and afterward there [were other projects and offers] that would have meant trying to repeat that over and over, to be the ‘glib young man,’ whatever that is, but that held no interest for me. I literally thought the idea of all this, when you do it for a living, is to play a lot of different things. If you do the same thing over and over, that will eventually start to close in on you.”

Beetlejuice” (1988):  As a scabby, croaky and shady ghost, Keaton was the wild man in this Burton hit that also starred Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. “From an art perspective, I don’t know how you get better than ‘Beetlejuice.’ In terms of originality and a look, it’s 100% unique. If you consider the process of taking something from someone’s mind — meaning Tim — and putting it on the screen, I think that movie is incomparable.” How did Keaton find the tombstone lunacy of the character? He had the wardrobe department at the studio send over a large rack of clothes representing different centuries and he pieced his screwball apparition together in front of the mirror. “I wanted him to be pure electricity, that’s why the hair just sticks out,” Keaton said. “At my house I started creating a walk and a voice. I got some teeth. I wanted to be scary in the look and then use the voice to add a dash of goofiness that, in a way, would make it even scarier. I wanted something kind of moldy to it, too. Tim had the striped-suit idea and we added the big eyes. I think that movie will go forever because it’s 100% original.”

Clean and Sober” (1988): Keaton startled audiences and the industry by leaving comedy behind to portray Daryl Poynter, a man whose life is collapsing around him as his cocaine addiction replaces every other priority and pursuit. Reviewers championed the film – Roger Ebert praised Keaton’s “wild, tumultuous energy” and supporting actors Morgan Freeman and Kathy Bates — and Keaton considers it some of his finest work. “The subject matter was so difficult, but oddly everyone really had fun on the shoot,” Keaton said. “One great thing about being an actor, too, is that if you have a pulse you learn something. That’s one of the great joys and bonuses of it. You’re forced to ask certain questions.”

Batman Returns” (1992): The return to Gotham City, although the massive franchise would move on without Keaton and Burton after this sequel. “We got to be back home [filming in Burbank] so that made me happy. It was quite the cast with Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito and everyone. It wasn’t as satisfying to me when I saw it, but maybe that’s because the bar was set so high on the first one. I think I only watched it one time. I knew we were in trouble in talks for the third one when certain people started the conversation with ‘Why does it have to be so dark?’ ‘Why does he have to be so depressed?’ ‘Shouldn’t there be more color in this thing?’ I knew I was headed for trouble and that it wasn’t a road I was going to go down.”

Much Ado About Nothing” (1993): Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed Shakespearean comedy put Keaton in the role of Dogberry, the odd, oafish night constable who steals scenes and, against all odds, saves the day. Keaton was sick and feverish during the Tuscan shoot and far from his comfort zone. “That’s a movie where I said, ‘I can’t do this’ and it ended up being probably one of my top five experiences ever. I had to find a way in; I didn’t really know what to do, quite frankly…. [In the end, Branagh] didn’t get scared off by my unorthodox approach, he embraced it and was really hands-on, thankfully. It was literally like acting in another language. I had taken maybe one two-day Shakespearean class in my life, so I had no knowledge.”

"Multiplicity" (Columbia Pictures)

The Paper” (1993): Keaton’s third film with director Ron Howard (following “Night Shift” and “Gung Ho“) put the actor in one of cinema’s most authentic newsrooms, the New York Sun, a scrappy tabloid tested by a racially charged shooting and the implacable approach of deadline. “It’s an awful lot of fun to be in an ensemble, especially when you’re talking about Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and that level of actor. It was also the first time I met Duvall. People were nervous on the set when he was coming in; he’s a presence, somebody to [reckon] with. I just loved it. I had a ball being there with him. It felt like the first time I acted with Jack Nicholson. These guys are in their very nature larger-than-life personalities, and then they’re great actors on top of that and then they’re iconic on top of that.”

Jackie Brown” (1997) and “Out of Sight” (1998): In a quirky bit of career crossover, Keaton played the same federal agent, Ray Nicolette, as the on-screen link between two otherwise unconnected adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction. “To work with these directors, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh, just two of my all-time favorites, was awesome. They are totally different approaches and totally different people. [The second time] the hope was that you would feel this guy, Ray, was a real person walking around in the world. These were different studios, different worlds, different stories and tones, but here’s this guy. You start thinking you might run into him at Costco.”

“Jackie Brown” (Miramax Films)

The Merry Gentleman” (2009): Keaton not only starred in it, he made his directorial debut with this wintry tale of a suicidal hitman and the battered wife of a police officer who find a heartfelt connection. Filmed in Chicago, the movie leaves some mysteries intact for the viewer, but the use of the windows, roofs, masonry, streets and sidewalks of Chicago shows Keaton’s affinity for visual composition with straight lines. “Nicholson and I become buddies through the years and he once said to me, ‘You’re very architectural,’ and that was part of my approach in the movie, I think.” Actors-turned-directors seem to have an instinctive approach that Keaton says he observed on the sets of Branagh, Howard and Harold Ramis. “If there is a commonality, it’s that they kind of watch you first to see what you’re doing and then, if they want to or need to, that’s when they start to shape it or tilt it,” Keaton said. “And that’s pretty much what I did, now that I think about it.”

Looking back, Keaton says, there was a period of his career when he turned down a list of projects that might be shocking to read now, but they were never really viable options. The ballpark kid grew up more intrigued by the art of hitting curveballs than by the need to rack up career home runs. He was also more interested in being a father and a citizen of the world than a creature of the red carpet.

“I never saw what I did for a living as who I am,” Keaton said. “But if there’s a job in the world where that can get blurry, this is the one. The line gets really blurry for a lot of people, and for understandable reasons just as you go through life and this business. You don’t have to be especially weak to become extremely self-involved in this business, and I just never wanted to go down that road…. Alan Arkin said to me once that he wanted to have a really big life and a really good career. And I think that’s really sane.”

– Geoff Boucher

Check out more from this interview: Keaton talks about a lost scene from “Batman”

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Comments


42 Responses to Michael Keaton’s dark memories of ‘Batman’ and shining love for ‘Beetlejuice’

  1. Jendo says:

    Great read! Michael Keaton is a fantastic actor! I really wish he'd make more movies.

  2. Mike_CA says:

    Great and insightful article. Always been a fan of Michael Keaton. The guy CAN act. Too bad he doesn't make more films.

  3. cb debris says:

    Keaton as Dogberry is one of my favorite takes on a Shakespearean character. Brings the guy to life and then some. Shakespeare would be proud.

  4. jebmeister says:

    A good read. Thank you.

  5. mabe says:

    Keaton has always shown his stellar talent in everything he does. He has never phoned it in. Even if I don't like the movie he's in, I love to watch him work.

  6. Tyler says:

    No joke, Mr. Mom is my favorite movie. I think Michael Keaton is hilarious. I'd love to see him in more comedy movies.

  7. jag0071 says:

    I loved "One Good Cop" with Rene Russo. It's one of my faves of all time and I think he was a superb Batman. Much better than George "Nipples" Clooney. And he was great in "Dream Team". He definitely needs to be in more movies!

  8. Brett1368 says:

    Michael Keaton is one of my favorite actors ever. The guy's range is incredible: he can play psycho, serious and comedy. His Batman movie(s) with Tim Burton are representative of the definitive Batman. I can't believe to this day Keaton turned down Lost. I too wish he would make more movies.

  9. Chris says:

    Great photo Michael by Jay L. Clendenin. A spot-on visual summation of Keaton's character.

  10. GiantSizeGeek says:

    Great interview! Wish I could hear Keaton's comments on Multiplicity. That film is underrated and his triple threat performance is awesome.

    • Michael J says:

      Ditto that!! That is one of the funniest movies. Keaton is a brilliant actor who stays off of the hollywood radar, thank goodness!

      • Bret says:

        I was thinking the same. That movie would be hard to pull off for any actor playing thee parts. He did it great and seamlessly!

  11. Bill Weeden says:

    Keaton is my favorite living movie star and his one-two 1988 punch of "Beetlejuice" + "Clean and Sober" is one for the books, right up there with Spielberg's 1994 "Schindler's List" + "Jurassic Park" in the "great contrasting projects within a calendar year" sweepstakes. I too wish MK would make more movies, but I respect his right to be the man he wants to be. Whatever his reasons, he's a man I admire.

  12. Matija says:

    I love Keaton!

  13. Mark says:

    Why is it that "Mr. Mom" always seems to get overlooked? It was a great comedy in my opinion.

  14. Apostate says:

    Superb article,Geoff! Michael Keaton aka “The other Michael Douglas” is definitely one of the best-and most underrated-actors in the biz. “One Good Cop”,”Batman” and “Multiplicity” are three movies that show his incredible range and nuanced approach to acting.

    May he continue to amuse,shock and generally entertain us for as long as he deems it necessary.

  15. Reg says:

    I'm kind of surprised/disappointed that he didn't mention "Pacific Heights", a great, multi-faceted, non-traditional antagonist. I'm a big fan, as well.

  16. Reg says:

    Oh! And another thing – for any Nero Wolfe fans: Michael Keaton would be the perfect Archie Goodwin for a non-arch, non-period-specific Nero Wolfe film. As much as I like Timothy Hutton, I really feel that he blew it by anchoring his A&E 'Nero Wolfe' series in a specific 20's or 30's style of acting and writing. Rex Stout's stories and characters are timeless and in spite of Maury Chaykin's wonderful Wolfe, the series, for me, was unwatchable.

  17. Ted Sinclair says:

    Check out this article comparing Keaton and Tom Hanks… http://www.neddihyllausiv.com/2011/04/keaton-hank

  18. Richard says:

    I was fortunate enough just to be in the same film as Michael Keaton which was the mini-series The Company. My work was opposite the also fantastic Alfred Molina who I must say was the dearest, most giving actor I have worked with in my professional career. Yet I still feel sorry that I had no chance to work directly with Mr. Keaton. I have always felt we have not seen enough of this top talent. More please Michael.

  19. Joe says:

    Johnny Dangerously is one of the funniest films ever made. Sad it is overlooked a lot as well.

  20. El Papa Diablo says:

    You just have to love Michael Keaton, I watch anything he is in because he sets the screen on fire in everything he's in. He was also in the first film that made me cry My Life, it still chokes me up thinking about it. I made my girlfriend watch Dream Team just last week as well, its great. So much respect for the guy he is insanely underrated and I hope he gets a new lease of life in some decent films because his talent deserves it.

  21. Rusty says:

    He stole his scenes in the great "the Other Guys", it was great to see him again.

  22. Jawsphobia says:

    There should be a Ray Nicolette movie. That and the Beetlejuice sequel should be on the fast track.
    Those are movies that deserve to be made. God there is so much crap out there and boring actors constantly working and these two Michael Keaton vehicles would be home runs.

  23. kevin smith says:

    i think michael keaton is amazing but i never understood or never explained why he didn't do batman forever?

    • Patricia Connolly says:

      Oh but yes….he did….he said it didn't like where it was going…leaving you assume he opted out.

  24. Danny says:

    That was Kathy Baker in Clean and Sober, not Kathy Bates.

    • Jeremy says:

      I tried to post something about this earlier today and my post never showed up on here, but thank you for pointing that out. I like Kathy Bates, but it was Baker's role and she was great, as was Michael Keaton.

  25. 200 Balloons! says:

    You forgot Gung Ho! C'mon! Essential Keaton!

    I loved his early to mid 80's movies because he was zany and full of energy then. I do appreciate his growth and path as an actor as well throughout the years, a great read and thanks Mr. Keaton for sharing your stories and insights!

  26. JohnnyCakes says:

    Best Batman, best movie….hands down!

  27. oby says:

    He was also great in Desperate Measures man I wish he would do more movies.

  28. Traie says:

    Would love to see Keaton reprise his role as Ray Nicolette on Justified next season, c'mon producers make it happen

  29. Ian says:

    Michael always seemed like a nice guy. Which is a big shock when you see him as the Bat, he completely transforms himself.

  30. Patricia Connolly says:

    Wonderful article! I have followed Keaton's entire career and I must ad that one film not mentioned here that was at least as good as all the above…. was "Pacific Heights". Like others on here….I wish he would make more films. He is a unique and special talent.

  31. Sean says:

    I had an "Aha" moment when I read Michael was interested in Journalism in college. I am sure if the author had asked him about his great work in "Live from Bagdad" on HBO a few years back he would have cited it as one of his favorite roles. In work in that was forceful and nuanced and again worked with an excellent cast which included Helena Bonham Carter and David Suchet.

  32. happyziggy says:

    Just watched Batman with my ten year old son. Pretty fun stuff. Much more comic book style and camp element than I remembered, but Michael Keaton is definitely the best ever to play the role in the post Adam West era. So importantly, he is the only one who ever played a believable Bruce Wayne. The character felt developed and made sense, not just as an after thought to the Caped Crusader.

    • Tim says:

      There is a reason for that. In the late 80s the comic creators began to look at Batman as his true life and Bruce wayne as the mask that he wears. Bruce wayne isn't developed much in media outside of comics simply because of that. He is supposed to be a vacuous playboy.

  33. Fddie Armstrong says:

    The one and only batman,and if you get the chance watch him as Blaine Sternin in the Frasier episode Wheels of Fortune,absolutely hilarious,powerhouse acting.

  34. ugg says:

    You could certainly see your expertise in the paintings you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

  35. boom says:

    as much as i like Keaton, his Bruce Wayne/Batman interpretation was certainly no better than Christan Bale’s.

    and anyone that considers Adam West a worthy representation of the Batman needs to seriously re-examine their entertainment interests.

  36. DeeB says:

    My Life was an incredible performance by Keaton. It punched me in the gut – so much like real life.

  37. @drjoe35 says:

    batman was a great movie i remember in 1988 i was in elementary school at lunch and they put the movie. the entire lunch room went beserk what a great movie. all the kids began to clap and yell. micheal keaton made a great batman and jack nicholson to me was the best joker ever he had the natural evil smile. batman movies have to be dark because batman is a dark character. it is what makes the batman movies so great. a dark man overcoming all his enemies with his bat suit and gadgets.

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