My earliest memory of Michael Keaton on screen was as the overly energetic idea man in Night Shift (1982), a popular Ron Howard comedy that starred Henry Winkler — though Keaton stole the film right from under his nose and was at once a rising star. From the moment he bursts into the morgue, his eyebrows bouncing, his eyes alight with joy, ready for anything, the movie was his. Announcing more than once he was an idea-man, he drove the narrative, no question. He did well with popular mainstream comedies, Mr. Mom (1983), Johnny Dangerously (1984) and Gung Ho (1986), and when challenged by a director or role displayed volcanic comedic chops that could single handedly walk away with the movie.
Tim Burton cast him in the horror comedy, Beetlejuice (1988) and he did just that, stealing the film from the entire cast and reminding we critics what a major talent he was. That same year he stunned audiences with a powerful dramatic performance as a recovering addict in Clean and Sober (1988) which rather shockingly won him Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics.
And then there were howls of protest when Tim Burton cast Keaton as the Dark Knight/Bruce Wayne in the blockbuster Batman (1989). Even the producers of the film felt Keaton might not be the right choice, but with Jack Nicholson as the Joker how far off the path could they really go, so they trusted their director, the whiz kid of the moment. Though Batman fans grumbled for more than a year, no one could deny the excitement they had about the film, you could feel it with each preview of the movie, though they kept Keaton under wraps.
There was a lot of apologizing to be done when the film opened and critics got a look at Keaton as Batman; he was terrific. In fact, he was more than terrific; he was dynamite, though Burton let Nicholson run away with the film, he did allow Keaton to ground it. With a gravelly voice as Batman, he chose to portray the super hero as something of a nut, and it worked. The picture was a massive success, and Keaton signed on for the a sequel, provided Burton direct.
Batman Returns (1982) was even better than the first, this time with a sexy Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and Danny De Vito as Penguin, the film had something for everyone, and again Keaton was excellent, bringing something unique and dark to the role. He and Pfeiffer had a strong sexual chemistry that added immensely to the film, giving each something unique to play off. Believing he had done his time in the bat suit, feeling better roles would flood in now, his name bringing money he chose not to be part of the third film, Batman Forever (1995) yielding to Val Kilmer and director Joel Schumacher (the beginning of the end for the franchise) Keaton found good work hard to come by. Though the Batman films had made hundreds of millions, Hollywood did not feel Keaton’s name could open a film.