It’s almost as if Michael Keaton slipped on to Hollywood’s A list, where no one saw him. We were just looking. Collectively, Keaton’s movies have grossed billions of dollars at the box-office. Keaton has starred as Birdman, Batman, and “Spiderman.” Ironically, Keaton is best known for portraying the everydayman. Keaton is the salesman, FBI-man and put-upon journalist. Keaton, an actor who has been fighting against typecasting for a long time, is unpredictable when choosing roles. He is however consistent at executing them. As we first reported last October, at age 70, he’s still at it. He’ll find a Michael Keaton character that he likes and it will be time for showtime.
Forget meeting in a Malibu bistro, or at a film set. Michael Keaton asked us to meet him at his natural habitat, which we did. It was a thousand-acres of streams and mountains, under Montana’s great sky. It’s not difficult to feel overwhelmed by the vastness of this place. This is not a film star who needs to be humbled by the sheer size of this place.
Michael Keaton – It hit me as soon as it happened. It was obvious that I didn’t own any property. We are renters, you don’t own it. This is not something I own. It’s just–I just happen to be making a transaction.
Jon Wertheim – Just passing through.
Michael Keaton: Passin’ through.
After a short drive up a dirt path we discussed range of a different sort. Keaton spoke to us about his incredible versatility and the secret of his Hollywood success.
Jon Wertheim – Scroll down to your IMDB Page and you will get whiplash. This archetype is American male. It’s also lawyers, newspapermen and doctors.
Michael Keaton : It’s possible. Yes, I think so. I was there, but I haven’t seen my IMD. IMBD or IMBD Or IMBD? Which one is the first? If you say it that way, I would go “Yeah pretty much.” It’s just a representative of the many, many people within this job. But, who is that person doing this job? It’s obvious. You know.
Jon Wertheim: Right, right, right, right.
Michael Keaton – People love to talk about range. It’s flattering, you know? It doesn’t actually–range, schmange. It’s —
Michael Keaton : Yes, well range Jon Wertheim : That’s something I think you would take great pride in.
Michael Keaton: I do. It’s not like you said, “Well, that was funny.” You were then funny. Then you became a sad, sour man. Then you– “You know what? That’s not to me-range. It’s like you get inside the–the person.
Jon Wertheim – Is range possible within a character.
Michael Keaton: Yeah. They’re humans, after all.
This includes one super hero – it may have been the ranch Batman built. Keaton bought it in 1989 the same year as his biggest blockbuster. He had by that time established his M.O. His M.O. was to deliver a sense of belief to many characters. Stay-at-home father, crazy-haired actor, founder. Keaton is a good Keaton person in each one. His brows are arched, and his eyes close. We instantly buy his personality even before the staccato patter.
Michael Keaton – I thought I needed to run from me. But then, it changed. I have something within me that is–that’s okay. Never once was I afraid of going to dark, scary, or truly, really, very raw areas. However, I also didn’t want anyone to think that they were “kind of– sort of stupid.” Sometimes it’s okay to say, “This is quite easy.” Simply open your mouth and speak the truth. This sixth sense of authenticity. Keaton was the first to experience it. It came from his home in Western Pennsylvania. His family was the lucky winner of a black and white television in a raffle. It was an important moment in Keaton’s childhood.
Michael Keaton : What I watched, learned, and– which is what I grew up with and that I still love, was television. I loved old Westerns. I wanted to be like them.
Jon Wertheim – You did not want to be Gene Autry. It was your dream to become a cowboy.
Michael Keaton : Yes. You know what? I didn’t buy those men even when they were young. They’re just too beautiful, I replied. They are too neat. You probably won’t even notice that they smell. Since I was young. Everything I saw was true.
Michael Keaton grew up the youngest of seven kids, raised in a working-class town outside Pittsburgh. He was the son of a civil engineer and his mother managed the home show. Keaton was an altar-boy–literally–and he says, a decent student — as long as there were nuns around. After a year at Kent State University, he became serious about what was, until then, a vague plan of performing stand-up comedy and acting.
Michael Keaton – Everyone has bad memories and embarrassing times. You know what? No–no money. That’s not an issue to me. That’s part of the deal.
But his nostalgia is not without its limitations. He remembers the dangers of open mic.
Jon Wertheim – I was able to hear a story. You followed an Irish singer onstage?
Michael Keaton: Ugh.
Jon Wertheim – What’s the matter?
Michael Keaton : First of all, the f ‘ man would be wearing a knit sweater, as in July. One of those fisherman sweaters.
Jon Wertheim – he is committed to this role.
Michael Keaton – Yes. Completely committed to your role. He will sing the song in which all of the children in the family were rescued from the frigid f Irish Sea. Then I will say, “Hey everybody. What are you doing? “
Jon Wertheim : This is a good warm up act.
Michael Keaton: No.
Keaton honed his skills in improv at nightclubs and small screens. After his breakthrough, Keaton was recommended to an experienced comedy writer and he got a job as a director.
Michael Keaton: I got an audition. Then I received a callback and another callback. Another callback was given, but another one. I believe I have at least five to six.
Jon Wertheim – All to play the part of Billy Blaze.
Michael Keaton : Yes, Billy Blaze. Yeah.
“NightShift” was Keaton’s debut movie. It marked a breakthrough comedic performance by Keaton, and one that has lasted. He is a master of improv and steals scenes as Bill Blazejowski (an antic-frantic, paranoid morgue attendant who moonlights as a pimp).
Jon Wertheim – You seem to have that man.
Michael Keaton : Yes, that’s what I did. It was just there. It was just there on the page.
Michael Keaton : They were open to all improv.
Jon Wertheim – You can bring your improv skills.
Michael Keaton: Yeah, yeah. They were very good at that.
Jon Wertheim : It’s a combination of best and worst. It’s not stand-up. But, like…
Michael Keaton: 100%.
He will use those skills one-year later when he is called “Mr. Mom.” But right before Hollywood could corner Keaton solely as a comedic actor, he swiveled in the opposite direction – with movies like “Clean and Sober” and the thriller “Pacific Heights. “
Jon Wertheim – Not much typecasting. Accident or design?
Michael Keaton – I wanted more shots. It was important to me to have the ability to do many different types of things. It was because they said, “Oh, he likes when he does this.” You should get him to do this. Let’s get him hired to do this. Then I realized, “Oh, boy! That could I imagine, honestly, I would be out of this business.” If they weren’t already bored, I would be bored to tears with them.
This overlay of light and dark convinced director Tim Burton that Michael Keaton was right for the lead in his next big budget movie: “Batman.” Keaton would portray Bruce Wayne. As a complex, and even tortured tycoon bent on justice, Keaton was cast as Mr. Mom will play the Caped Crusader.
Michael Keaton – You know what? I have a lot of memories. There were a few occasions when people did more than just doubt you. You go, “Okay. I’ll wait. “
Jon Wertheim – Peers, reviewers or?
Michael Keaton – These are just things that have happened a few times. You just kinda clock it.
Jon Wertheim : That stuff is yours.
Michael Keaton: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim : You’re coming in’ to this role. You’re now the Batman.
Michael Keaton: Yeah, yeah. No, I am the– Batman.
Jon Wertheim : You are the Batman. But you’ve got this lineage…
Michael Keaton: Yeah. This is the truth. No, I’m kidding.
Michael Keaton: “Batman,” the first “Batman” I think Tim and I both knew if that doesn’t work– that one, I had awareness of. This could fail, I thought. “
Jon Wertheim : It strikes me that there’s another type of risk, isn’t it?
Michael Keaton: Yeah. Yeah. That movie was very stressful for everyone.
Holy gamble-that-paid-off, Batman. The movie made more than $400 million and catapulted Keaton to a new plane of stardom – proof that resisting conventional Hollywood wisdom had its advantages. Keaton continued his game of character hopscotch in another 30 movies from Shakespeare to “Spotlight.” Certain movies were more successful than others at the box office. But when he wasn’t acting, Keaton was a hands-on dad to his son, Sean– who is now 39 and a successful songwriter in Los Angeles. Keaton was at a place where he felt free to be picky. In 2014, enter “Birdman” and Keaton’s almost absurdist role that earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor.
Jon Wertheim – What’s the most difficult role that you have ever played?
Michael Keaton: Mostly, yeah. You had to make it so exact and precise. It had to place you exactly where it was needed. You could say, “on–in a corridor or down a set stairs.” Particularly, perfect. It was hard. Every day was scary.
Jon Wertheim – Do your colleagues have any rivals? You know what I mean? “
Michael Keaton – I’m not sure. That’s it. We can’t do anything. We can’t box one another, you know. (LAUGH) I know what you mean. You know, we’re all part of a brotherhood and sisterhood in some way. You know what I mean? The criticisms of other people’s performance is really what makes me mad, you know. You’re like “What do you know?” It’s not like I know everything. This is not a humble statement. I’m being honest. It’s true. “
Keaton returns to American masculinity with his new project “Dopesick,” which was released in October on Hulu. It is an Hulu miniseries that focuses on the nation’s opioid crisis. Keaton portrays a doctor who works in an oxycontin-infested coal town. He admits that there is more to his role this time.
Michael Keaton : That means a lot, because, you know. I lost my nephew to heroin and fentanyl.
Jon Wertheim – What is it like to have such a personal connection with a job?
Michael Keaton – You need to get rid of the emotions and say, “What’s-” what’s the job? I don’t know. I am just a storyteller.
A man who switches from one role to the next, Keaton was delighted by Pittsburgh’s transformation from steel to technology. Keaton is a frequent visitor to Pittsburgh and invites us to visit a renovated steel mill that has become an innovation center. Keaton, who is an investor in Nexii Construction Company, plans to create eco-friendly concrete alternatives here in Pittsburgh.
Michael Keaton : This is what I understand. It’s actually something I like. This summer is proof that I am a man. If there is a chance to make a difference, I will. Climate change is not something you can just say. It is, as it seems, right now.
Jon Wertheim – The bill is due.
Michael Keaton: That’s right. It’s due.
Keaton could happily spend more time in Montana and here if it wasn’t for his day job. He finished filming “The Flash,” reprising his role as Batman, 30 years after he left the franchise. We also had to learn Jon Wertheim. Is this Bruce Wayne the same tortured, dark man he used to be?
Michael Keaton: Ish. It’s kinda–you know what? I won’t reveal too much. One of the guys that says, “Well I-I-I– I won’t give this saway.” See the film.
Jon Wertheim – How does the costume fit you?
Michael Keaton (LAUGH). I’m proud to report that it was easy for me to slip back in.
Jon Wertheim: You’re 70 years old, and you’re still kicking bad guys’ ass. It must feel great.
Michael Keaton: Yeah. Don’t contact me if you don’t know anyone who needs their ass kicked. (LAUGH)
Produced by Michael Karzis. Associate producer, Katie Kerbstat. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Craig Crawford edited.