Michael Keaton has revealed that he was the one who created the iconic look of his titular character in Beetlejuice. Keaton played the role of the obnoxious poltergeist in Tim Burton’s 1988 horror-comedy, offering to aid Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis’ recently deceased ghosts rid their home of family who had moved in, including Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz. Despite the character’s uncouth elements, ones that be deemed to controversial today, Beetlejuice proved to be a critical and commercial hit, spawning an animated series and a stage-musical, as well as helping to reignite Keaton’s career.
Prior to playing the role, Keaton had been known for his comic leads throughout the 1980s after appearing in Ron Howard’s comedy Night Shift. The success of the film led Keaton to be pigeon-holed in comic roles before the darker-tone of Beetlejuice allowed the actor to reach a greater level of acclaim – something that would only increase when he reunited with Burton to play the lead role in 1989’s Batman. Nowadays, Keaton is probably best known for appearing in Oscar-nominated films like Birdman and Spotlight, as well as portraying Adrian Toomes/Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming; although Keaton is set to return as Batman in the upcoming The Flash.
In an interview with Charlie Rose from 2014, recently shared by The Hollywood Reporter, Keaton explained how he had met with Burton three times prior to agreeing to star in the film, with the director attempting to convince him to star in it. Keaton noted he was unsure what the film was about, saying: “I had no idea what he was talking about, but I liked him.” Keaton eventually had the costume department throw together a rack of clothes as he experimented with the character, eventually leading to the iconic appearance we all know today. You can read Keaton’s full statement below:
“I said, ‘Give me the night or two days’ and I called the wardrobe department at the studio and said, ‘Send me a bunch of wardrobes from different time periods, randomly. Just pick a rack.’ … And then I thought of an idea of teeth and an idea of a walk and I knew it had been there, and I called and said ‘I got an idea, and I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, so let’s just go do this thing.’ Here’s the amazing part about it: He never saw any of it. We discussed it. I said ‘I want hair that looks like I stuck my finger in an electrical socket.’ And to the great Ve Neill in wardrobe, I said ‘I want mold because Tim said he lives under rocks.’ So I showed up for work and I walked on the stage and said, ‘This is either going to be way off the mark, or he’s going to — I don’t know what he’s going to do. He got it immediately.”
The unique design of Beetlejuice has become so iconic that it’s hard to imagine him appearing any other way, and it’s interesting to hear that it was thanks to Keaton. He is such an accomplished actor that it’s unsurprising he was responsible for creating the unique mannerisms as well as the look, and it’s good that Keaton’s vision for Beetlejuice worked so well, adding minor details such as the mold, as they are what helped to bring the character to life. The original version of Beetlejuice’s script was much darker, with the character bordering on a racist portrayal of Middle Eastern men. Thankfully, that was changed significantly, although the character is highly unsavory, but it’s partially thanks to Keaton, we have the version we know today.
While it was a risk for Keaton to sign onto the role considering he still didn’t have a full grasp of the story, or confirmation that his vision for the character would be accepted, it ultimately paid off. Beetlejuice is one of the actor’s most beloved characters and the film was key to helping Keaton reaching the status that he is known for today. Fans still clamor for a Beetlejuice sequel, but plans were unfortunately shelved back in 2019 meaning its unlikely we will see Keaton return as the iconic poltergeist, but at least there are still fun stories such as this one to fall back on.