Still, Keaton took considerable pride in the craft aspects of his work, in knowing what was funny and how to make it happen on screen. "He'd talk about what a delicate operation it was having the whole 6,000-pound side of a building fall on him in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' " Eleanor Keaton says. "He had 2 1/2 inches of clearance on each shoulder and four inches clearance on his head for his body to get through an open window. His mark was a brass nail pounded in the dirt. If he didn't hit it, that would be all she wrote."
An added factor in Keaton's uneasiness with acclaim was personal. "He was extremely shy, he did anything to keep away from the limelight," his widow remembers. "He especially couldn't stand mobs of people coming at him. At a showing of his films at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, the lights went up and he took off up the aisle in as close to a dead run as he could get. When I finally caught up to him, he was in an alley, upchucking his dinner."
Part of Keaton's shyness came from embarrassment at his almost complete lack of formal schooling; he had lasted half of a single day, and later was taught to read and write by his mother.
A child of knockabout vaudeville, Joseph Frank Keaton was almost literally born in a trunk Oct. 4, 1895, and officially joined the family act when he was 4. His father soon billed him as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged" and his nickname, Buster, was related to his ability to take the kinds of daunting falls the act demanded.
It was an old vaudeville pal, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, who introduced Keaton to two-reel comedy in 1917, and he took to it immediately. Within four years he was starring in his own two-reelers and, in 1923, Keaton began a remarkable string of a dozen silent features in seven years, including such classics as "Sherlock Jr.," "The Navigator," "Seven Chances," "Go West" and Keaton's personal favorite, "The General."
What Keaton--and the team of gagmen he never worked without--brought to these films was a lifetime of experience in humor that led to surprisingly sophisticated methods of engaging viewers. "I always wanted the audience to outguess me," he told one interviewer, "and then I'd double-cross them."
Equally important was Keaton's exceptional physicality, a preternatural grace and agility that the actor, who never used a double in his prime, refused to fake. His astonishing stunts were often as dangerous as they looked. Keaton broke his neck in "Sherlock Jr." but didn't know it until years later. How close he came to being drowned doing a stunt in "Our Hospitality" can be seen in the finished film: his cameramen were told to keep shooting no matter what.
Then everything changed. At roughly the same time that sound came in, financial reasons led Keaton to forsake his independent status and sign a contract with mighty MGM. The studio neither understood nor particularly appreciated his talent, and the frenzy for talking pictures made it impossible for executives to let Keaton be purely himself.
"He was bitter at MGM--he just hated it so much being there," Eleanor recalls. "He said they'd put as many as 17 writers on one of his films, all of them working on jokes for him. That drove Buster up the wall.
" 'You can talk, I can talk, anybody can talk,' he'd say. 'Why don't they just give me five minutes to do something by myself?' But he had no choice. He didn't own his own company; it was either do that or not work."
One of Keaton's few pleasures of those years was his passion for bridge. It was through her own desire to learn the game that a teen-age Eleanor Norris, a dancer at MGM in 1938, met Keaton, the veteran of a pair of unhappy marriages and several serious battles with alcoholism. Not until some months later, when she "lashed out at" someone who was rude to her at the table, did Keaton notice her, she says; "before that I was just a pair of hands holding cards to him."
In 1940, when Norris was 21 and Keaton was 44, they decided to get married.
"A lot of his friends worked me over pretty good about that," Eleanor Keaton remembers. "His doctor, an Army colonel, worked on me for about an hour one day, telling me Buster didn't need to go through anything more, he'd had enough.
"I listened politely and ignored them. I knew Buster's temperament and his character by then. And when you love somebody, you forget what other people say."
Now a vibrant, energetic 77, Eleanor Keaton still has the forthrightness and agreeably no-nonsense personality that must have attracted Buster.
"I'm a yammerer and a gabber and he was quiet," she says. "He hated confrontation. He would just walk away from it."
The couple were a good fit in other ways. "I was never young," Eleanor Keaton says matter-of-factly. "My father was killed when I was 10 and I went to work when I was 14. I never went through that giggly, teen-age thing; I went from child to adult overnight."