In light of Michael Keaton’s Academy Award nomination for best actor in the new film Birdman, we’re launching Michael Keaton Week here at borg.com. Last year Keaton played a dramatic role as a business executive trying to sell America on bipedal drone security and law enforcement that led to the creation of a well-known cyborg in the remake of RoboCop, reviewed here at borg.com. Everyone first thinks of Keaton from his role as Batman in the original superhero film that re-launched modern superhero blockbusters. Before that there was his over-the-top, ghost-with-the-most in Beetlejuice. But how did he get here and what steps helped him become the beloved actor he is today?
Born Michael Douglas, he would use the stage name Michael Keaton on-screen in light of potential confusion with Academy Award-winning actor/producer Michael Douglas (Wall Street, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Coma, The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone) and TV show host Mike Douglas (if Keaton wins this year for Birdman, he’ll be the second Michael Douglas to win the coveted prize). The year 1982 was a perfect time for the entry of someone like Michael Keaton into popular culture. A young Tom Hanks was on TV in Bosom Buddies and Robin William’s Mork & Mindy was in its final season–these kind of zany comedies were just what early 1980s audiences were after.
With Happy Days winding down, Ron Howard was beginning his directing career, and in his second film he tapped Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler to play against-type as Chuck Lumley, an uptight night shift morgue attendee who would find himself not biding away his nights quietly, but stuck with an over-eager, loud and talkative “idea man” named Bill “Billy Blaze” Blazejowski, played by Keaton. In the strangest play on The Odd Couple formula to hit the silver screen, Winkler and Keaton, with a strong performance by Shelley Long as an entrepreneurial prostitute named Belinda, all come together to provide a light-hearted comedy romp that still holds up today.
Part of Billy’s shtick was carrying around a tape recorder so he wouldn’t forget any of his ingenious ideas–ideas he could never turn into action. Keaton was instantly likeable as Billy–clueless and well-meaning, endearing and engaging as he puts forth his all to change Chuck from a dull, put-upon quiet man to someone who could take charge of his destiny. When Chuck encounters Belinda, the trio decide to run a business managing the operations of Belinda’s co-workers–in essence pimps running a brothel from the morgue.
With the same spirited ability to physically bounce around and throw about funny lines as a young Robin Williams mastered in his role on Mork & Mindy, Keaton showed he was willing and able to take on parts your typical dramatic actor might pass over. It was the first step that would lead to roles in Beetlejuice, Batman, and now Birdman. And it earned Keaton a Kansas City Film Critics Award for best supporting actor.
Look for the first film appearance by Kevin Costner (in a scene with Keaton) and a great 1980s soundtrack by Burt Bacharach.
Check out Night Shift on Netflix and it’s also available on DVD at Amazon.com here.