20. Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966)
It is difficult to make mention of Buster Keaton without also mentioning his biggest rival, Charlie Chaplin, as their intended demographic was essentially the same. But even in the 1920s, audiences were split between the two camps. Those who know both of the comedians’ work know that, though the on-screen image was similar, their methodology and intentions were completely different. Born into a family of vaudevillians, Keaton was first put on the stage as a child, becoming the third player in his
parents’ act, which revolved around disciplining a misbehaved young boy.
In 1917, Keaton moved from stage to screen, starring in a slate of Fatty Arbuckle shorts, and bringing the physical comedy that had been instilled with him. But unlike Chaplin, Keaton was willing to take physical risks for his comedy, performing all of his own (often life-threatening) stunts, including jumping onto a moving train and setting up a house to fall on top of him, all in pursuit of a laugh.
Says actor Bruce Campbell: “Buster was the ballsiest of all the silent era guys, bar none. His genius was very simple: he used the magic of movies to showcase his outrageous physical abilities better that anyone else. It’s one thing to be a great physical comedian, but it’s another thing to know how to capture that on film.”