This is my own post for the Ninth Buster Keaton Blogathon. Please enjoy, and don’t forget to check out all the other wonderful posts, too!
If there was an official “gentle giant” of silent comedy, in my book it would have to be “Big” Joe Roberts, of Buster Keaton film fame. The jowly, 6-foot-3-inches performer played a number of intimidating “heavies”–and at least one bashful farm hand–in nearly twenty of the famed (and more diminutive) comedian’s films.
But Buster and Big Joe weren’t just coworkers but long-time pals, vaudeville veterans who spent their summers in the same quiet neighborhood of Muskegon, Michigan and shared countless memories of lakeside fun and hijinks. In fact, Big Joe’s house was just down the hill from the Keaton family.
Much like Buster, Big Joe had spent much of his life living and breathing stage comedy. Born Joseph Henry Roberts in Amsterdam, New York in 1871, he reportedly started acting on the stage at age 17. By the 1899 he was married to Lillian Stuart Feld, a fellow performer, and they teamed up with their friend William Hayes to form the comedic “singing and talking act” Roberts, Hayes and Roberts.
They tried out sketches like “On the Road,” a comedy “based on incidents in a country hotel.” Their careers started taking off in the early 1900s once they came up with the sketch “The Infant,” where Big Joe apparently dressed up as a ridiculously oversized young boy. Their ad in the New York Clipper described it as “one of the most laughable comediettas that ever happened behind a curtain line. ‘The Infant’ is its title, but it is a giant as a destroyer of the blues.”
In 1906 Roberts, Hayes and Roberts performed overseas at the London Hippodrome. During the next few years they would revive the “On the Road” sketch (which included the song “Nobody Loves a Fat Man,” written for Big Joe) and debut another one called “The Cowboy, the Swell, and the Lady,” with Big Joe featured in the cowboy role.
In 1910 Big Joe and Lillian joined an actor’s colony started by Buster’s father Joe Keaton. While touring in Muskegon, Michigan, the Keaton family had taken a liking to the area, which had the mighty Lake Michigan on one side and placid Lake Muskegon on the other. They decided to build a summer home in the peaceful Bluffton neighborhood and encouraged other vaudevillians–who usually spent years doing hectic touring schedules–to do the same. Big Joe and Lillian not only became friends with the Keatons but decided to build a home on an adjacent lot. Both cottages had a lovely view of Lake Muskegon and plenty of friendly neighbors just around the corner.
The Actor’s Colony provided the Roberts with an active and fun-loving social circle. The Colony had an official clubhouse, the Cobwebs and Rafters, a lively place where many an elaborate practical joke was planned–often by the prank-loving Buster. Buster remembered Big Joe doing comedic performances at the clubhouse, “dressed like Buster Brown…he’d scare an audience half to death, like Man Mountain Dean romping around with a lollipop.”
Plenty of social events were sprinkled throughout the summer and Big Joe also enjoyed fishing and being part of the colony’s yacht club. Around 1915 the agent Eddie Sawyer was visiting Bluffton and tied his boat up to Roberts’s dock. The name of the boat, DAMFINO, caught Buster’s eye and would famously resurface in his short film The Boat (1921) a make a cameo in College (1927).
Roberts, Hayes and Roberts would last several more touring seasons until disbanding in the spring of 1914. Big Joe kept performing, but unfortunately Lillian would pass away suddenly in 1918 (they had one son named Bobbie together). He would eventually remarry another fellow vaudevillian, Nina Straw, and they would also perform together on the stage. But perhaps the timing was right for a new career challenge.
Buster, fresh from several years of supporting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in his wildly popular short comedies, convinced Big Joe–now a close friend for nearly a decade–to appear in his new solo series he was filming in Los Angeles. The towering trouper was a perfect choice to play heavies and of course had decades of comedic acting experience under his belt. His first role was in Buster’s classic One Week (1920), playing a small part as a furniture mover casually balancing an entire piano on his shoulder.
Big Joe would be in the majority of Buster’s shorts, from his memorable turn as a menacing sheriff in The Goat (1921) to a hulking member of a boisterous Irish family in My Wife’s Relations (1922). He was also an ideal partner in the rural-themed The Scarecrow (1920), where he and Buster performed a perfectly-choreographed scene involving numerous space-saving conveniences in their tiny farmhand home.
While not working for his friend Buster, Big Joe turns up in a supporting role as a cowboy in Constance Talmadge’s The Primitive Lover (1922) and also appeared in short comedies for Fox. There was also an interesting publicity story concerning the Fox comedy The Fourflusher (1923), a parody of Foolish Wives (1922). A frequent visitor to the set was Major Philip Prideaux, who was in the Ordnance Department of the British Army. Enjoying his experience watching the filming, he asked Big Joe to take a picture with him. To thank him for the photograph, he sent him an unusually prestigious gift–a bronze coat of arms that had been chiseled from one of Czar Nicholas II’s state carriages.
By 1923 Buster was transitioning from comedy shorts to features, starting with Three Ages, where Big Joe was naturally brought onboard for a supporting role. For Buster’s second feature Our Hospitality he was given the meatier part of Joseph Canfield, patriarch of the Southern Canfield clan. The carefully-crafted period comedy was not only Buster’s most ambitious film to date, but it was Big Joe’s chance to show his skill at a more subtle, dramatic role.
And, sadly, it was a role that would be his last. Filming for Our Hospitality took place in the summer on 1923, and on August 17 Big Joe suffered a stroke. A blood test confirmed that he had late-onset neurosyphilis, with little time left to live. Production ground to a halt, and Buster was so distraught that he even considered scrapping the picture. But despite his illness Big Joe would have none of it, insisting on returning to the set to finish his scenes even in his weakened state. In many of his shots, you can sense his determination to deliver a skilled final performance.
On October 27, Big Joe attended a preview of Our Hospitality in Glendale. Too weak to stand, he had to be carried into the theater. Happy to see the good response to his final film, he would pass away in his sleep from another stroke later that very night, in the wee hours of October 28th.
Rudi Blesh’s book Keaton gave a touching summary of what an impact Big Joe’s friendship had on Buster’s life:
He had been with Buster three years, in every film from the second one on, twenty films in all. With his passing, Buster lost a great heavy. He lost too a friend from his childhood days in vaudeville, one who could share his memories of the stage and of summers at Lake Muskegon, one who had played pranks with him and manned the Clown Pole, the big star of the hijinks at the old Cobwebs and Rafters…Perhaps even more, still, than a friend, Buster had lost one-third of an image, one of the three Big Joes in his life. With Joe Keaton and Joe Schenck, Joe Roberts had made up a kind of tripartite paternal figure upon which he had come to rely.
A familiar face to Buster Keaton fans today, Big Joe would no doubt be proud to know that he’s regarded as a key figure in some of cinema’s greatest comedies. And perhaps we can still sense a bit of the joy and camaraderie from old Muskegon shining through in their onscreen partnership.
Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1966.
Curtis, James. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
“Roberts Corrals Late Czar’s Coat of Arms.” Camera! vol. 5, no. 50, March 24, 1923, page 16.
Camera! vol. 5, no. 25, September 30, 1922.
New York Clipper
San Francisco Dramatic Review
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What a lovely and poignant piece, Lea. It must have given some comfort to Buster and others who loved Joe that his final hours were happy and he most likely went to sleep that night feeling proud of his work and happy at the reception.
Yes, I agree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was able to make that preview so soon before his death.
The James Curtis bio covered Joe’s final days beautifully, btw. It was one of the inspirations for this piece.
I loved reading this – his earlier work sounds so funny! How hilarious the way he used his size for comedy. He really seemed like a great guy.
He does! Especially since he was so close to a great guy like Buster.
Very sweet write-up. I adore his performance in Our Hospitality: it’s a lot more layered than your usual heavy in silent comedy.
It really is. What a fitting finale to his career, even if it ended too soon. Makes you wonder what future roles he could’ve had, and whether his absence affected what types of stories Buster chose…
Thanks for reading!
Love this info and lov joe roberts. Yu rock lea
🙂 Glad you enjoyed it!
A fantastic, well-researched and detailed piece. Your depiction of Early Big Joe actually made me laugh when I really needed it. Congratulations.
I’m very glad to hear that! 🙂
I didn’t realize the history between Buster Keaton and Joe Roberts went back so far.
This was a really nice account of a friendship and working partnership. I was a little weepy to read about Joe making it to the Our Hospitality premier, then passing away later that night.
It’s very sad that he passed away so young, but if he had to go, at least he had that little gift right at the end.
I’ve always enjoyed coming across stories about the different friendships in old Hollywood, it helps bring the era to life and remind us that these were real, living people, not just “shadows” onscreen.
Hi Lea. It was nice to learn more about Big Joe and Buster’s long relationship. Big guy as menace to little guy is one of the foundations of comedy. I did not remember that comment in Blesh’s book about Buster having three Big Joes in his life. That you for the essay and for all the hard work running this blogathon. I learn new things every year.
You’re so welcome! I enjoy running it and learn a thing or two myself.
This is a lovely tribute! Supporting actors deserve just as much celebration as stars, since they play such integral parts in a film. Big Joe had an incredible work ethic up to the very last. It seems like one of those times where a very sick person (or animal) pushes oneself to stay alive until a certain thing happens, in this case living long enough to see his final film in the theatre.
What a great story! It just makes me like Buster even more–he seemed really good at making friends.
Yes, and keeping them too!
Beautiful post about a beautiful friendship! I didn’t know that Buster and Big Joe were friends long before. They made an excellent team. The pictures are amazing, you did great, as always. 👍👏👏
Thank you! Knowing about their friendship makes their scenes together extra special. 🙂