What if Michael Keaton Had Left Hollywood in 1985 to Become a Monk?

Michael Keaton Bruce Wayne
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 15th, 2014

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

Whatever your feelings are about the new RoboCop remake, there’s no denying that it’s great to see Michael Keaton up on the big screen again with such a prominent role. The actor hasn’t been in a lot of movies over the past decade, and in those he has done he’s mostly played some young starlet’s father. Or he’s merely provided his voice for a few minor Pixar characters. And now in 2014 alone we get to see him stand out in three movies, including RoboCop, next month’s Need for Speed and, best of all, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, in which he’ll star, reflexively, as a washed-up actor best known for having portrayed a superhero in the movies. If we’re lucky, next in line for Keaton is a return to another one of his most famous characters: Beetlejuice.

Imagine if he’d not stuck with Hollywood long enough to work with Tim Burton and deliver his two most iconic performances? He also wouldn’t have gone on to notably play the same FBI character in two unrelated movies (Jackie Brown and Out of Sight), but then again he wouldn’t have done Jack Frost and Multiplicity either – not that he’s not great in the latter, only that he’s too good for how bad it is overall. If Keaton had left acting in 1985, we would still have his hilarious work in Mr. Mom, Night Shift and Johnny Dangerously, as well as his film debut in an Oscar-nominated industrial short from 1978 called A Different Approach, in which he plays the director of multiple educational films used to teach companies about hiring people with disabilities.

That debut is Keaton’s official short start, which sounds amazing and deserves to be made available online for our enjoyment. Unfortunately, it’s currently nowhere to be seen. So, let’s jump ahead seven years to his next short film, titled But I’m Happy. Keaton produced and starred in this mockumentary for David Letterman’s inaugural Holiday Film Festival in 1985. He plays himself at a time when his ego as a movie star has reached higher than his career actually allows for. The premise seems appropriate for a relative newcomer who’d broken out and been very successful with his first two movies (Night Shift and Mr. Mom) and then disappointed with his third (Dangerously, which I think only I loved at the time). At the start of the short, his agent (Peter Jurasik) tells him that he’s broke and has to get a real job.

First stop is a gig throwing out fish heads and guts, where he meets a weird man played by Clint Howard who does it as a hobby. Ron Howard, meanwhile, plays himself in a cameo. Such a perfect choice, too, and not just because he was the most recognizable filmmaker Keaton had worked with at that point. Howard had directed Keaton’s breakthrough performance in Night Shift and had just collaborated with the actor again on Gung Ho, though that wouldn’t be released until a few months after the Holiday Film Festival special aired, so the audience likely didn’t know they were continuing this partnership (they would go on to work together again for The Paper, Clean and Sober and Inventing the Abbots – the latter two with Howard as producer).

And finally, Keaton ends up in robes at a retreat where he’s supposed to have made a vow of silence. But he’s clearly trying to get back into the business. We can pretend this all happened and that Howard had ultimately decided to give him another shot (good thing, as Gung Ho is an underrated ’80s classic). And similarly, we can be glad that great filmmakers like Jose Padilha and Inarritu (plus the less-great Scott Waugh) are giving him new shots today. We should also be getting another movie (Buttercup) helmed by Keaton, who made a decent directorial debut with 2008’s The Merry Gentleman. Looks like a real career resurgence for Keaton is starting this weekend.

Watch But I’m Happy to see, jokingly, what it might have been like to lose Keaton from the movies almost 30 years ago:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.