In his book The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton, University of Michigan professor Robert Knopf finds the silent-screen star’s legacy in the hyperkinetic kung fu films of Jackie Chan. In an interview on a fan Web site, titled “The Buster Keaton of Asia,” Chan directly credits the physical comedy pioneer, who died in 1966: “What I learn, I learn from Buster Keaton.”

The first son of medicine-show performers Joe and Myra Keaton, Buster joined the family business soon after he was born. His father’s early solo act was billed as “The Man Who Broke Chairs” (a routine stolen from “a kung fu acrobat,” according to Marion Meade in her 1995 biography, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase). By age five, Buster was a star on the vaudeville circuit, awarded his own billing as “The Little Boy Who Cannot Be Damaged.” The roughhouse act consisted of Joe Keaton hurling young Buster across the stage using a handle Myra had sewn into the back of the boy’s coat. No wonder “The Three Keatons”–advertised on Broadway as “Fun’s Funniest Family”–had to constantly evade child-labor-law enforcers. Meade argues that pop Keaton “pushed slapstick so far that it straddled the line between physical comedy and child abuse.” The manhandled lad’s stony expression got big laughs, and dad demanded that his income-generating progeny emit no gasps, tears, or giggles onstage. “The blank face, at first a gimmick, was now automatic,” writes Meade. That “frozen watchfulness” became Keaton’s calling card.

Keaton first stepped before a movie camera in 1917, at the age of 21, and soon earned an auteur’s autonomy. But his run as an actor-director peaked as the silent era ended, and the once unfettered star was forced into the studio bureaucracy.

A lowbrow hit in his prime, Keaton later inspired a variety of interpretations from highbrows. Life critic James Agee saw “a face as still and sad as a daguerreotype,” while Time critic Richard Corliss regarded it “as thoroughly modernist as…a Bauhaus facade.” Orson Welles called Keaton “one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen,” while Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell claimed, “I see the speculation of Heidegger exemplified in the countenance of Buster Keaton.” Surrealists Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali championed him as one of their own. Bunuel screened clips from Keaton films at the Cineclub Espanol in Madrid in 1930, and Dali copied Keaton’s character in The Navigator (1924) when he donned a deep-sea diver’s outfit to deliver a lecture at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.

But avant-garde and academic circles were alien to Keaton, an obsessive player of bridge and a devotee of Erector sets and toy trains. Playwright Samuel Beckett, who hired Keaton for his 1965 movie Film, couldn’t pry the comic away from a baseball game on TV to chat about the dialogueless script. Meade offers clues into Keaton’s “almost pathological silence” offscreen: he may have been illiterate, thanks to parents who kept him out of school, and he was “virtually deaf” due to a chronic ear infection he developed during a stint overseas in World War I.

Most Keaton fans relish the graceful architecture of his gags and his characters’ equanimity in the face of chaos. But aside from the balletic pratfalls, his films provide windows on 1920s America. In Seven Chances (1925) Keaton’s character, searching for a marriage prospect, deems one woman ineligible when the camera reveals she’s reading a Hebrew-language newspaper. And in College (1927) the hero adopts blackface to gain employment in a restaurant advertising for “colored” help. An African-American cook at first makes eyes at the new busboy, but soon the whole kitchen crew routs the imposter.

For “The Best of Buster Keaton,” Martin Rubin, associate director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, selected 8 of Keaton’s 10 features and 8 of Keaton’s 19 shorts. Pianist David Drazin will accompany 13 of the 16 films, which will benefit from archivally correct variable-speed projection of 35-millimeter prints. The series starts tonight with a screening of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928); it runs through September 28 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Admission is $8. For more info, see the Section Two film listings or call 312-846-2800.