Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton has entertained audiences for decades. Between “Spotlight” (2015), “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014), “Batman” (1989) and “Beetlejuice” (1988), Keaton’s on-screen performances are indelibly imprinted on the minds of movie lovers, so given his penchant for captivating crowds, the Coraopolis native was tapped to assist the city in last Friday’s rally at Point State Park.
After emceeing the event, Keaton, 67, spoke about once residing in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s presence on a national stage and how the city can continue inspiring others to develop a spirit of togetherness.
“I used to live on Darlington for a minute,” said the former WQED-TV crew member who once worked on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” “You know, it’s funny. I was going to get up early this morning and try to drive up there and try to find my old place [but] I forget where my apartment was.”
Despite an ability to recall where exactly on Darlington Road he once resided, Keaton remembered certain aspects of the neighborhood.
“Squirrel Hill is just, even if you remove the Jewish community, the place physically itself is such a nice part of Pittsburgh; but that culture adds such a whole other level to it up there. One of my friends is a really good writer [Iris Rainer Dart, author of “Beaches”], and her family used to own Ratner’s. I don’t know if Ratner’s is still there, but Rattner’s Hardware Store, it was the hardware store in Squirrel Hill for a long time.”
Keaton, who was joined by Pittsburgh native and producer Jimmy Miller after the Nov. 9 event, also remembered “The Squirrel Cage,” a still operating site on Forbes Avenue, which goes by a multitude of names, including Squirrel Hill Cafe and The Cage.
The actor suggested that being in a city like Pittsburgh actually helped him appreciate the diversity of humankind.
“Jimmy and I were talking about this last night. He was involved in Point Park Theater and I was not a theater guy here, but I was doing plays. … So we’ve always been around different types of people,” said Keaton. They talked about “how lucky we were to be exposed early to the different ethnic groups and people of color, and it just never meant anything to me. In fact, ever since I have been a little kid, the inequity just bothered me. I don’t know why.”
Kids today are on the right path, as issues such as ethnicity or sexual preference are less of a hang-up then they were in previous generations, said Keaton. “They don’t even think about it, it’s a non-issue.”
He said Pittsburgh is still a special place.
“When you are not inside it, but on the outside looking in on how the city has come off, it’s extraordinary,” he said. “Pittsburgh is looking really good today. I don’t think there were any exaggerations in terms of how the world is looking at Pittsburgh right now.”
As both a city outsider and insider, Keaton didn’t know what to do immediately after the Oct. 27 attack at Tree of Life.
“After the first couple of the days, I thought just stay out of the way. You know, sometimes the whole celebrity thing gets in the way of things, and people were hurting, so I just stayed out of the way,” he explained.
But as time passed, Keaton reached out to offer assistance. When the option of aiding the downtown rally was presented, “I jumped on the plane,” said the actor. “It’s the least I could do.”
Because of the connection to Squirrel Hill, news of the murders at the Tree of Life building hit pretty hard, said Keaton. “When it all went down, you just felt like you wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and you wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry for humanity.’ I don’t know why we continue to treat each other like this.”
Of the attack and murders, he was angry.
“I am purposely staying away from … anything that might smell of politics, because I think these are families who are grieving — they just buried brothers and sisters and fathers [and mothers], I’m staying away from that,” he said. “But really, it makes one angry when you look at some of the insanity, and you see things like this happen and when it hits your home town, it hurts. It really hurts, but there’s a change coming and I’m going to be really curious to see how much comes out of this city.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.