Buster Keaton was born Joseph Keaton Jr. on October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas. His parents were members of a traveling vaudeville act called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company that included the great performer Harry Houdini. The group traveled all over the United States and sold medicine between acts.
At the age of six months, he fell down a flight of stairs and was dubbed "Buster" by Houdini, who was also his godfather. When he was three years old, he joined his parents in an act called "The Three Keatons". The act was centered around Buster, who took daring stunts without injury. In the show, he would misbehave or disobey his father, then be thrown into the audience, in the orchestra pit, or wherever else he could land.
Buster getting tossed around did not look good to certain groups, however, and the family was accused of child abuse. However, Buster refuted the claims, saying that the act was enjoyable and entirely safe due to his expertise in stunts. The family also came under attack for violating laws against underage performers, but the government never fully intervened.
Unfortunately, Buster's father was an alcoholic and grew progressively worse over the years. Eventually, his reliability in the acts was so poor that Buster chose to leave with his mother to Michigan in 1916. Shortly after, Buster moved to New York City to pursue screen acting.
In New York, he met the famous silent film actor Fatty Arbuckle at Talmadge Studios. Buster was subsequently hired to costar in the films and also write the jokes. The two become very good friends and Buster credited him with jump starting his film career.
In 1920, Buster was given his own production unit and named it the Keaton Studio. His first several films included "One Week" in 1920, "The Playhouse" in 1921, and "The Electric House" and "Cops" in 1922. All of these films were very short with an average length of twenty minutes, but they proves popular and encouraged him to produce full length feature films.
In 1921, he married a woman named Natalie Talmadge, who was the sister-in-law of Joe Schenck, a studio executive. They had two sons, but she became increasingly paranoid that he was cheating on her. Eventually, it got to the point where she was hiring private detectives to follow Buster to see who he was meeting with.
In 1923, he began producing his first feature films, starting with one called "Our Hospitality". In the film, Buster played the role of Willie McKay, a city slicker who travels to the country in order to collect his inheritance. Unfortunately, he gets involved in a southern feud and has to avoid getting shot by the rival families.
In 1924, he starred in another film, "The Navigator". He also made another film called "Sherlock Jr." in which he played a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams that he is Sherlock Holmes solving a case. His father made a cameo in the film after their relationship was reconciled.
In 1927, he produced his most famous film "The General". In the film, he portrays a Confederate train engineer who pursues Union soldiers that steal his train. Although the film was a comedy, it was actually based on real events that occurred during the United States Civil War. The film was not considered his best film by audiences, but today it is considered his finest work.
His next notable film was "Steamboat Bill Jr." in 1928. This film follows Buster as he returns to his hometown from college to meet his father, Steamboat Bill Sr., who is a steamboat captain. He also finds out that a rival steamboat captain is also the father of his female love interest. Chaos follows as the two young lovers are kept apart by their fighting fathers. The film was a large hit and featured some of the most amazing stunts ever put on screen.
That same year, Buster allowed his movie studio to be bought by MGM. He later described it as the worst business decision of his life since it removed much of his creative freedom. He also blames his lapse into alcoholism on stress from the buyout. The stress removed his desire to make films and he worked mainly as a writer during the 1930s.
In 1932, Buster was divorced by his wife Natalie, who was awarded most of his fortune in court. She also took their sons and refused to allow them to contact their father. In 1933, Buster married his nurse, Mae Scriven, while intoxicated and later claimed that he had no memory of the affair. They divorced in 1936 and she took half of what was left of Buster's possessions.
In 1940, Buster surprisingly decided to marry again, this time to a woman named Eleanor Norris. She was twenty-three years younger than him and Buster's friends had strongly advised him against the union based on his past failed relationships. However, he went through with it and they managed to stay together for the rest of his life.
In 1950, he was given the opportunity to create his own television series, "The Buster Keaton Show" and later "Life with Buster Keaton". The shows proved to be popular with audiences, but he decided to cancel them citing writer's block. By this time his celebrity status had greatly decreased to the point of obscurity. He made numerous cameos in feature films, like 1952's "Limelight", but led a mainly solitary life until his death on February 1, 1966.