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He’s already been Batman, and this summer, Michael Keaton gives life to another American icon, none other than Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, in Toy Story 3.

"He’s fantastic," the actor says of the plastic doll he plays in Pixar’s latest extravaganza. "He’s a really, really swell fellow, let’s put it that way."

You could say the same about Keaton, except there has never been anything plastic about him, or the characters he plays.

He was born Michael Douglas on September 5, 1951 in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. The youngest of seven children, his father was a civil engineer and his mother a homemaker. He was obsessed with baseball as a young man, and continues to be a fan of the sport, but rather than become an athlete himself, he entered show business, starting out as a standup comedian. Achieving little success, he went to work for the local PBS station in Pittsburgh where he was a cameraman before becoming a production assistant on the beloved children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where he also made several appearances as one of the Flying Zucchini Brothers.

Leaving for Hollywood, he changed his name to avoid confusion with that other Douglas, the son of Kirk, then co-starring on TV’s The Streets of San Francisco.

"I had to change my name because there were two actors registered at Equity with the same name," he recalled. Jokingly, he added that "one of them is doing quite well from what I understand, the other is making cheap porn movies . . . like Basic Instinct."

He landed an occasional TV role, including several appearances on All’s Fair, a short-lived Norman Lear sitcom starring Richard Crenna and Bernadette Peters. During the same period, he did an episode of Lear’s more successful Maude with Beatrice Arthur, and played a bank robber in the producer’s soap opera parody, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. There were two episodes of The Tony Randall Show, and, with David Letterman, Keaton was part of the repertory company on Mary Tyler Moore’s failed 1978 variety show. His quirky humor was attracting notice, and the next year he scored a sitcom of his own, playing a janitor alongside Jim Belushi in Working Stiffs. It didn’t score many viewers, though, and was cancelled after six episodes.

It wasn’t his role in the sitcom, but a standup routine he performed at the Comedy Store that led to his casting in Night Shift, the 1982 comedy that marked the end of Henry (The Fonz) Winkler’s attempts at launching a big-screen career, and the beginning of Keaton’s rise to movie stardom. It was director Ron Howard’s first effort for a mainstream studio after several low-budget productions for Roger Corman, and he was so impressed with Keaton’s audition that he cast him against the objections of the studio.

"They saw the dailies and they were telling Ronnie I had to stop chewing gum, I had to get my hair cut," he told The Guardian. "Eventually, they were, like, ‘We have to fire him!’ They didn’t get it. To Ronnie’s credit, he told ‘em to wait and see until it was all cut together."

The comedy set in a morgue featured Keaton as a self-described "idea man" whose madcap schemes turn his colleague’s life upside down. The movie’s laughs were frequently as dead as the setting, but Keaton came through with a star-making performance that won praise even as the movie was roundly panned. Roger Ebert recognized him as a "fast-thinking, wisecracking actor, sort of a young Jack Nicholson. . ."

He solidified his success the following year with Mr. Mom, a comedy with Teri Garr in which he played a husband who stays home to raise the children while his wife goes out to work. Once more, critics were impressed with Keaton, who, Roger Ebert observed, "gives the uncanny impression of being able to think faster than he can talk," but the movie was strictly sitcom material stretched out to feature length. Despite the critical barbs, Mr. Mom was a major box-office hit, joining more expensive and high-profile blockbusters like The Return of the Jedi, Superman III, and the James Bond adventure Octopussy, among the summer’s most lucrative attractions. Keaton was now a star whose name carried box-office clout.

Sticking to comedy, he was a ‘30's gangster in the zany Johnny Dangerously, and re-teamed with Ron Howard for 1986's Gung Ho. Like Tom Hanks, whose star was also on the rise at the time, Keaton was a favorite of the director for his superb comic timing. He was hot enough at this point to pick and choose his projects, and among the films he turned down were Ron Howard’s Splash, which helped put Tom Hanks on the map, and the role in Ghostbusters that passed to Bill Murray.

Amid all this success came some disappointments. Cast by one of his heroes, Woody Allen, opposite Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton was replaced by Jeff Daniels only days into filming when the writer/director decided his star’s performance wasn’t quite what he had in mind for the role.

1988 would prove to be one of the most important years in Keaton’s career with two very different films in release, one that reinforced his comedic genius, and the other offering him a chance to demonstrate his straight dramatic skills.

Keaton originally turned down Beetlejuice when director Tim Burton made the offer, but eventually reconsidered and made what remains his favorite of all his films. He spent a mere two weeks filming his scenes, and appears in the finished product for only 17-and-a-half minutes, but it’s Keaton’s performance as the cantankerous ghost who tries to frighten away the dwellers in a haunted house that stays in the viewer’s mind. In The New York Times, Joe Morgenstern hailed Keaton for "one of the most explosive comic turns in recent years," even as his colleague, Janet Maslin dissed the movie, calling it "about as funny as a shrunken head." To Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, it was "a comedy classic."

The same year, Clean and Sober showed that Keaton was also a fine dramatic actor. As a cocaine addict facing up to his demons, Keaton held his own in a cast that included such formidable actors as Morgan Freeman, Kathy Baker, and M. Emmet Walsh. "Keaton makes this general story into a particular one," Roger Ebert wrote, "and a touching one." For his performance, he won the prestigious National Society of Film Critics award as best actor.

Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober would be significant in Keaton’s greatest success, starring as Bruce Wayne, the millionaire with an alternate identity as the crime fighting Batman. The news that the mega-blockbuster had been green-lighted had fans salivating with as much anticipation as an earlier generation had awaiting the release of Gone With the Wind. With Tim Burton at the helm, he chose his Beetlejuice star for the title role, a decision that set off a firestorm of protests from Batfans who could not imagine the lanky comic actor as Bob Kane’s muscle-bound, square-jawed Caped Crusader, except in a spoof similar to the campy 1966-68 TV series with Adam West.

"Most people think of the TV show when they think of Batman," Maggie Thompson, co-editor of The Comic Buyer’s Guide, told The New York Times. "But that was a series Batman fans saw as ridiculing the art form."

In those pre-Twitter days, outraged fans flooded Warner Bros. with letters of protest, but even some of those on the inside were concerned that the casting of Keaton would clip Batman’s wings.

The film’s co-executive producer, Michael Uslan, who had spent a decade trying to bring a serious Batman to the screen, "went haywire" when he learned of Keaton’s casting from a studio executive. "Mr. Mom as Batman. Very funny, I said," Uslan reminisced to the Batman on Film website. "Seriously, it took him over twenty minutes before he could convince me that he wasn’t just playing some kind of joke on me." After instructing Uslan to see Clean and Sober to prove that Keaton was a fine dramatic actor, and telling him that "a square jaw does not a Batman make," Burton managed to persuade Uslan that Keaton was the best man for the job.

"I’d considered some very good square-jawed actors," Burton recalled, "but I couldn’t see them putting on a Batsuit. You look at Michael and you see all sorts of things going on inside." Co-producer Jon Peters concurred. "I wanted a guy who’s a real person who happens to put on this weird armor. A guy who’s funny and scary. Keaton’s both. He’s got that explosive, insane side."

The fans were won over when a trailer debuted several months before the film’s June 1989 release. This was, indeed, a dark, brooding Batman, and even without a square jaw, Keaton cut an impressive, even menacing, figure as the Dark Knight.

Variety thought that "Keaton captures the haunted intensity of the character, and seems particularly lonely and obsessive without Robin around to share his exploits."

Though everyone hailed Anton Furst’s stunning (and Oscar winning) production design that made the film a visual masterpiece, some critics thought this dark Batman was a little light on story and characterizations. "Batman is a triumph of design over story," Roger Ebert wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, "a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about."

It hardly mattered. With Keaton's superhero squaring off against Jack Nicholson's madcap Joker, Batman was a phenomenon. Even before the film’s release, baseball caps, T-shirts, and other merchandise adorned with either the Bat signal or the Joker’s hideously grinning visage were everywhere, and the film was the cinematic event of the summer of 1989, smashing box-office records to become, for awhile anyway, the sixth biggest grossing film of all time.

For an actor who just played the hero in one of the biggest films in history, the safest course to take would be to play another good guy role, but Keaton took a risk with John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights, playing a psychopath who rents an apartment in an old Victorian house, then gets to work terrorizing his yuppie landlords.

"Mr. Keaton is particularly good at playing the sneaky, diabolical charmer," Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. Some observers later suggested that Keaton was uncomfortable with the megawatt stardom that was one of the side-effects of Batman’s success. In 2009, The Guardian, calling Pacific Heights "absurd," and observing that "Keaton remained so charismatic that you couldn’t help rooting for him against the apparent victims," suggested the thriller was Keaton’s "cry for help from inside Batman’s suffocating mask."

He donned that suffocating mask a second time in 1992's inevitable Batman Returns.

"In some ways, this one was harder," Keaton said, "because I felt like I was doing an impersonation of myself. Which, aside from being nearly impossible, is really weird."

Batman Returns, once more directed by Tim Burton, was another box-office smash, but, like the first film, it’s reviews were mixed with some critics and fans disappointed that the script emphasized the villains (Catwoman, Penguin, and Christopher Walken) more than the hero.

"One of the pic’s drawbacks," Todd McCarthy observed in Variety, "is that Bruce Wayne/Batman remains a relative cipher, a symbol of the force of good rather than a psychologically dimensional character on a par with the evildoers." Roger Ebert "always thought it would be fun to be Batman. The movie believes it is more of a curse - that Batman is not a crime-fighting superhero but a reclusive neurotic who feels he has to prove himself to a society he does not really inhabit." He found the movie "odd and sad, but not exhilarating."

Keaton also had misgivings about the sequel. "I liked it," he said years later, "but I didn’t love it. I thought we needed to regroup, to go back to the core."

In 1993, he starred in One Good Cop which The Washington Post dismissed as a "shamelessly maudlin load of horse hockey." Keaton played a police officer whose partner is killed, and then becomes the legal guardian of the man’s three daughters. Even if the premise made it sound like an attempt at a grittier Mr. Mom, Keaton won over the critics with what Variety called "his remarkable range and dexterity." It was, the showbiz bible said, "his best performance since Clean and Sober."

The touchy-feely mood prevailed in the next year’s My Life, an effective weepy with Keaton as a dying man who documents his life for his unborn child. He also joined Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, and Emma Thompson for Kenneth Branagh’s energetic re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann described the film as a "flawed gem. Certainly, regrettably, flawed; still, a gem." The biggest flaw, in his opinion, was in the casting.

"The disaster is Michael Keaton as Dogberry. I simply have no idea of what he was doing, what person he was trying to play." Roger Ebert reacted more positively. "Dogberry here becomes a recycled grotesque modeled on Keaton’s performance in Beetlejuice," he wrote. "Does the approach work? Probably not as Shakespeare . . . But viewed by itself - and Dogberry is, after all, a self-contained character - it’s quite a job of work, and Keaton gets points just for trying so hard." Richard Corliss in Time observed that "Branagh encourages Michael Keaton to play Dogberry, the lame-brained lawman, as a triumvirate of Stoooges," and concluded that "it works."

1994's The Paper worked, too. Heading a cast that included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, and Jason Robards, Keaton reunited with director Ron Howard as the assistant managing editor of a struggling New York newspaper. Almost nostalgic in its portrayal of an industry whose future now looks bleak, the film was as fast-paced as its star. As Roger Ebert observed, Keaton "may be the best in the business at showing you how fast he can think. He projects smartness, he sees all the angles, he sizes up a situation and acts on it while another actor might still be straightening his tie."

The same year’s Speechless, a romantic comedy pairing him with Geena Davis as speechwriters for opposing political candidates, was more interesting due to the presence of Superman’s Christopher Reeve in the cast. It wasn’t quite a World’s Finest meeting of DC’s most legendary superheroes, but it almost guarantees that the film will survive as the answer to a trivia question in years to come.

Batman was still casting his long shadow over the actor, and, around this time, Keaton made what remains his most daring move. Disappointed with the script of the next Batman movie, and feeling that the character was heading in a direction far removed from the serious tone established with the first two films, Keaton walked, declining Warner Bros.’ offer of $35 million to don the cape and cowl a third time.

"You know, you get a script," he told Jeff Otto of IGN FilmForce. "Here’s the first one, here’s how it works. . . I read it, I go, ‘Wow, this is pretty good! This could be really good." He had a similar reaction to the first sequel, but when he read the third one, "I go, ‘Oooh, that’s not too good . . . I go, ‘Nah.’"

When Batman Forever, a lighter, more colorful, film directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Val Kilmer in the title role, was released in summer 1995, Keaton said, "I saw enough to know that I made the right decision."

Passing on 1998's Jack Frost might have been the right good decision, too, but Keaton went ahead and played a dead musician who is reincarnated as a snowman, a situation that improves the relationship with his son. The cute fantasy was not among his more memorable projects, nor was it particularly successful. Multiplicity, in which he played a man who clones himself, was an improvement, but, by this time, Keaton was having better luck in drama.

He played Ray Nicolette, a drug enforcement officer in Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation that represented the director’s follow-up to the Oscar nominated smash, Pulp Fiction. A year later, Steven Soderberg adapted another Elmore Leonard featuring the same character, and Keaton agreed to reprise the role uncredited in Out of Sight.

Somewhat mysteriously, Keaton began a slow fade once the '90s wrapped up. He was appearing less often on screen, and the parts were less challenging. "I think I was becoming boring as well as bored," he told Stella Papamichael in 2005. "Also, I would get scripts and think, ‘What’s the point of this?’"

It’s a question that some of Keaton’s fans might have asked when he appeared as the president of the United States in First Daughter, the title of which made it clear that co-star Katie Holmes was the principal star. The question arose again when he played Lindsay Lohen’s dad in Disney’s Herbie: Fully Loaded, a revival of the studio’s talking Volkswagen concept from 1969's The Love Bug that inspired several ‘70's sequels.

One of his best roles in the 2000s came on television in the 2002 HBO movie, Live from Baghdad as former CNN senior producer Robert Wiener in the story of the network’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.

"I feel guilty to say it," he told Hardball’s Chris Matthews, "but sometimes it’s stimulating and exciting, the idea of being a war correspondent."

Live from Baghdad was stimulating and exciting, too, as was Keaton’s performance, disproving his claim that he was "becoming boring as well as bored." He certainly didn't seem bored in The Merry Gentleman, a 2008 film that marked his debut as a director in which he played a hitman who falls in love. Hopefully, that film, along with the almost guaranteed success of Toy Story 3, will rekindle Keaton's passion for filmmaking and he'll return to the screen as frequently as he did in the '80s and '90s. Like Ken, he's a really, really swell fellow, and a great actor to boot.



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