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Buster Keaton Nearly Drank Himself to Death, but This Saved Him

One of the most extraordinary comic talents in Hollywood was Buster Keaton. He came of age during the same time that Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy came about. Yet, he managed to stand out with his own unique style – especially his well-crafted gags and stunts!

But one less known fact about Buster Keaton was his challenging life. His life was perhaps the epitome of the tragic hero who managed to make everyone laugh.

In fact – Buster Keaton nearly drank himself to death, until he was saved.

So, what was it that ultimately saved Buster Keaton and what was his journey like to Hollywood stardom?

Join FactsVerse to look back at Buster Keaton’s life and career and how he nearly drank himself to deathand what saved him…


Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4th, 1895, in the small town of Piqua, Kansas. His father, Joe Keaton was a traveling entertainer. Along with magician Harry Houdini, Joe Keaton performed on stage and even sold patent medicine.

Joe Keaton eventually became a vaudeville performer and even appeared in a few silent films. As one would expect, his son Joseph would follow in his footsteps – and carry the family name even further.

As an infant, Joseph fell down a flight of stairs and managed to get up – seeming unphased. A family friend witnessed this remarkable incident and claimed that young Joseph was a ‘regular Buster.’ Joe Keaton liked this remark and began calling Joseph “Buster.”

At this tender age, Buster Keaton was born, and the world would get to see him doing several dangerous gags and getting on with it – all for the sake of making us laugh!

At the age of 3, Buster began performing in vaudeville along with his parents – in a troupe known as The Three Keatons. Part of the act included Buster disobeying his father and his father grabbing him and throwing him. But young Buster had mastered the art of falling without getting injured and jumping back up. This sometimes controversial act is what helped Buster Keaton master his craft.

There were a few times that Buster would laugh when his father threw him – but he eventually noticed that audiences wouldn’t laugh as much when he did this. He used this as an opportunity to cultivate his deadpan look and his poker face.

While his career continued as he matured, his father began having personal troubles. Joe Keaton eventually became an alcoholic and this took its toll on Buster and his mother, Myra.

Eventually, Myra left Joe and she and Buster moved to New York. Buster soon decided that he wanted to continue his show business career, but he knew that vaudeville had its limits. He wanted to become a movie star.

While he initially had some skepticism toward the relatively new medium of cinema, he soon realized that this was the ideal medium to showcase his comedic skills. Best of all, the technology of film would save Buster’s talents for posterity.

His first major role was in the 1917 comedy film The Butcher Boy – in which he starred alongside the legendary comic performer, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He enjoyed working with Arbuckle and ended up appearing in a total of 14 films with him.

As Buster Keaton became more popular, he was given the chance to star in many short and feature comedy films. Often, he’d have full creative control over these films – though some of his films weren’t always successful when he was in charge.

Nevertheless, Buster Keaton eventually became a big star and even as the sound era came around – he continued to find lots of work, something that some of his contemporaries struggled with.

Later in his career, Buster Keaton also worked as a gag writer for many films and television shows. He often made cameo appearances in feature films as he got older. He even starred in a short-lived television show called Life With Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton had some troubles working with major studios and executives. However, for the most part he’s remembered as a consummate professional and was a joy to work with. Whether he was a side performer as with Fatty Arbuckle, a star in his own films, or a writer – as with The Marx Brothers – there was clearly no end to his talents.

He continues to inspire entertainers to this day and his style of humor and his impeccable comic timing is unrivaled – both by his contemporaries and from entertainers today.

While his career as a major actor was largely confined to the 1920s to the 1940s, this was enough for him to become recognized as one of the greatest comic talents of his generation. Decades after his passing, Buster Keaton is remembered as one of the most iconic entertainers in America.

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Buster Keaton made us all laugh – yet his personal life wasn’t without its troubles. He naturally felt a great deal of sadness after his family broke up and his father succumbed to alcoholism.

Buster’s first marriage was to the actress Natalie Talmadge. She was a silent film actress and the two of them got married in 1921. They had two children together, Joseph and Robert. They both enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in public and it seemed that their life was perfect and enviable.

However, behind the scenes there was a lot of sadness in their relationship. Natalie decided not to have more children after their son Robert was born. This went to such an extreme that Buster and Natalie decided to sleep in separate bedrooms. Buster would have affairs but do his best to keep this quiet in public.

Their relationship wasn’t great, and Buster would often embarrass Natalie in public. Their tumultuous relationship eventually came to an end in 1932 when they divorced – after 11 years of marriage. In fact, after the divorce, Natalie changed her children’s surnames to her own so that they could not have to live under their father’s shadow. She also desired that Joseph and Robert wouldn’t be in contact with Buster ever again.

But Buster Keaton’s troubles didn’t end with his divorce to Natalie Talmadge.

In fact, after this divorce, Buster began drinking. He made the same mistakes that his father had made and eventually became an alcoholic. His alcoholism took over his life and his dedication to his work drastically worsened. He also had to seek medical attention to improve his condition.

He ended up marrying his nurse, Mae Scriven, though even she couldn’t save him from his alcoholism. She ended up divorcing Buster when she found him having an affair with Leah Clampitt Sewell – who was the wife of Barton Sewell, one of America’s most prominent millionaires. They divorced in 1939.

It seemed that Buster’s life couldn’t get better. It seemed that it was all downhill from here. While he continued to work and had a few successful films, there remained a lot of sadness in his personal life.

His alcoholism continued, and he nearly drank himself to death. That is, until he finally saved…



In 1939, the same year he divorced Mae, Buster met Eleanor Ruth Norris. She was a professional dancer who often appeared in variety shows. She was 23 years younger than Buster yet the two of them hit it off as soon as they met.

Buster had steady work as a gag writer for The Marx Brothers, but he still couldn’t control his alcoholism. Eleanor was in love with him and wanted to save his life. They married in 1940 and she managed to help him curb his alcoholism. He never stopped drinking entirely, but he significantly cut down on his alcoholic intake and this made all the difference.

They had a happy marriage and one can credit Eleanor for saving Buster Keaton’s life.

Buster Keaton died on February 1st, 1966, in Woodland Hills, California. He was 70 years old. After his death, Eleanor continued to promote his legacy. She donated much of his memorabilia and possessions to various museums to showcase his life and career. She would often give interviews where she discussed her relationship with Buster and his incredible career.

Eleanor passed away in 1998 at the age of 80.

Buster Keaton left us almost six decades ago. Nevertheless, he’s still remembered as one of the most iconic entertainers of early Hollywood. While best known as an actor, one should also give him credit for his writing – not only for his own productions but also for other comic talents such as The Marx Brothers.

Buster Keaton was also a huge influence on other comic performers – ranging from Woody Allen to Jackie Chan. His life wasn’t without its troubles. But we should remember him for his incredible legacy.

If you haven’t seen any of Buster Keaton’s films, make sure you do! While often overshadowed by some of his contemporaries, his incredible comic timing, talent for gags and stunts should never go unnoticed.


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Are you fan of Buster Keaton?

In fact, here’s what we’d like to know:

Do you think that he’s still recognized as one of the greats of early Hollywood comedy?

Or has his career been overshadowed by his contemporaries?

Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.

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