Today is the birthday of “Big Joe” Roberts (1871-1923), best known as the heavy in 16 Buster Keaton shorts and Keaton’s first two features.
Roberts was a family friend of the Three Keatons from their vaudeville days; he’d been part of an act called Roberts, Hays and Roberts. When Keaton began making his own solo comedies at Comique in 1920, he drafted the 6’3″ Roberts to be a key member of his stock company. In addition to his bulk, Roberts made a striking visual impression by virtue of his pale blue eyes, which read almost as white on camera. In addition to the Keaton films, he made a handful more with Constance Talmadge, Bobby Dunn, Poodles Hanneford, Clyde Cook and others.
Roberts was felled by a series of strokes while making Keaton’s feature Our Hospitality though he was able to complete the feature before the final stroke took him. That film gives us a sense of what was lost, for in addition to being very funny, Roberts actually has several opportunities to be quite moving in the film. Chaplin, too, lost his best heavy (Eric Campbell) early on. In both cases, the star comedians soldiered on and flourished, but we’ll always wonder “what if…”. The right heavy is magic to a comedian.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc