In 1951, Charlie Chaplin met Buster Keaton for the first time in decades when the Great Stone Face arrived to discuss their ultimately memorable scene in LIMELIGHT. Apparently presuming that Keaton would arrive looking haggard and destitute and grateful for the bone the former Tramp was throwing him, Charlie was genuinely shocked when his long ago silent comedy rival showed up—in Buster’s own words—“in fine fettle.” A confused Charlie asked, “How do you manage to stay in such good shape? What makes you so spry?”
“Television,” was Buster’s reply.
Buster Keaton’s career had certainly fallen from grace since the heady days of his silent comedy success. Blame it on the talkies. Blame it on his alcoholism. Blame it on his nightmarish personal life. Blame it on MGM. Blame it on whatever you want. But contrary to what many think, Keaton continued working throughout and had largely put his demons behind him over time. As television began its pervasive intrusion into American life, Buster embraced it right from the beginning, appearing with comic Ed Wynn as early as 1949. In the early 1950s, Buster had his own sitcom on the West Coast and began appearing in an ever-increasing series of commercials for various clients, both regional and national. Buster, in fact, became widely known for his inventive and funny beer commercials...in spite of his previous and well-known reputation as an alcoholic!
While Keaton was busy becoming a familiar face to TV viewers of all ages, a forgotten cache of his old silent films turned up. In some cases unavailable for reevaluation for nearly three decades, critics and fans alike suddenly hailed him as one of cinema’s true geniuses! He was lauded at film festivals and started writing his autobiography.
For the last decade of his life, Buster Keaton was humble but happy. He was finally married to a wonderful wife, the work he had put so much effort into so long ago was finally recognized and given its due, and—perhaps best of all—Buster was still working! He didn’t just sit back and talk about the past. He didn’t just coast on his own reputation. No, he adapted to the times and thus remained a viable entertainer right to the end and not just a novelty act trotted out for nostalgia (although there was definitely a little of that, too.)
The beginning of the 1960s saw Keaton at a bit of a late-career peak. As his age-related health issues began to increase, though, his professional output began to slowly diminish. He is said to have asked his agent to price him out of commercials. He didn’t want to do them. He was, however, so GOOD at them that no matter how much his agent asked for...he got it!
As a matter of fact. as he began appearing in the big screen Beach Party movies as well as continuing with making industrial films, print ads, commercials, TV guest appearances, and film festival tributes, one is hard-pressed to see any slow-down at all!
In January of 1960, Buster Keaton’s first TV appearance of the decade was probably on NBC’s TODAY where he promoted his autobiography, MY WONDERFUL WORLD OF SLAPSTICK. Over the next few years, Buster would go on to appear as himself on game shows (including MASQUERADE PARTY, IT COULD BE YOU, PLAY YOUR HUNCH and TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES), talk shows and variety shows (including THE REVLON REVUE, THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE) and even a return to TODAY in 1963 where the entire program was done as a tribute to his career. He’s even listed as performing in what is described as a 007-inspired sketch on a 1965 episode of THE JONATHAN WINTERS SHOW.
In 1961, a slightly disguised Buster Keaton was involved in one of the best-remembered stunts from Allen Funt’s CANDID CAMERA in which he pranked a number of lunch counter customers by sneezing his toupee into his soup! He would appear several times on that series.
He did a few pilots—some of which aired and some of which didn’t. Few if any of them had him as the lead. Buster was frequently cast as an Indian throughout his career—presumably due to his unflinching cigar store Indian expression—and that’s the role Buster played in an Ernie Kovacs pilot called MEDICINE MAN that was being shot just as Kovacs was killed in a car accident.
Keaton was also called on to appear in character roles in a number of TV dramas and comedies as well, making those episodes immediately noteworthy and memorable.
In 1960, he played Santa Claus in an hour-long episode of the anthology series, SUNDAY SHOWCASE.
A now-beloved 1961 TWILIGHT ZONE episode written specifically for Buster by Richard Matheson was “Once Upon a Time,” a light-hearted, silent film style episode featuring Keaton as a time-traveling janitor.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was a weekly TV version of the classic Frank Capra film that starred the folksy Fess Parker between his more successful runs as Davy Crockett and Dan’l Boone. Buster played an old acquaintance from back home who visits Jefferson Smith in Washington.
There were also visits to BURKE’S LAW, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, a TV movie with Hoagy Carmichael and even a return appearance on THE DONNA REED SHOW where he had winningly co-starred in an early season.
Buster Keaton’s best showcase amongst his TV appearances was probably his ROUTE 66 appearance. The conceit of that long-lasting series was that its stars traveled the country by car, stopping in a new location each week for a new adventure with an all-new cast. It was genius, really, allowing for an anthology show and yet with continuing characters—Martin Milner, George Maharis, and their cool sportscar.
Airing early in the show’s third season, the boys were by that time secure in their roles and perfectly comfortable with letting some veteran scene-stealers have their way with the episode, “Journey to Nineveh.” Early talkie comic Joe E. Brown (best-remembered today for the classic closing line of Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT) gives a perhaps surprisingly ingratiating performance as a small town man accused of theft by some locals. Buster is his brother, believed to be a well-known jinx and out fishing when we first meet him, giving him long minutes of perhaps improvised outdoor humor, much of it silent up to a point. Like many a show attempting to invoke the spirit of silent comedy, the normally straight program added some out of place “humorous” sound effects. While all eyes are on Keaton whenever he’s on screen, Brown is equally wonderful and Edgar Buchanan has some choice bits toward the end. A pre-Gomez Addams John Astin even shows up for a funny bit. Not bad at all for what was normally a serious show.
Speaking of scene-stealers, Buster’s other important TV show was called THE SCENE-STEALERS. It was a one-hour public service special promoting awareness of the 1962 New March of Dimes program. The premise reunites Ed Wynn with Keaton as a hapless pair of comic characters on the loose in a TV studio collecting coins for that year’s March of Dimes campaign as they stumble from set to set. Along the way, they meet celebrities including James Garner, David Janssen, Ralph Edwards and even Lorne Greene and Dan Blocker in an episode of BONANZA, probably TV’s hottest show at that time. Specialty bits come from Jackie Cooper, Eartha Kitt, Jack Lemmon,
Nanette Fabray and others. The real treat is seeing Buster Keaton reunited with his one-time MGM partner Jimmy Durante for a brief few moments.
Keaton’s fellow comedy legend Stan Laurel, long retired, passed away in 1965 and it hit Buster hard, perhaps reminding him of his own mortality. In televised footage from the funeral, he’s seen tearing up over the loss of his old colleague and friend.
Buster’s final TV appearance—other than perhaps a still-running commercial or two—was in a CBS television variety special done in tribute to Stan Laurel that aired in November of 1965. The show spotlighted a diverse guest list but had little of nothing to do with Laurel or his style of humor. Buster’s sketch, though, was easily the highlight, and featured Lucille Ball and Harvey Korman.
Just a few months after that special aired, Buster Keaton’s literally lifelong career came to an end with his passing...and that’s when his legend REALLY started to grow, as it still does today!
For more Buster Keaton, go here for the complete list of blogs participating in the Buster Keaton Blogathon!