The musical 1776 opens in the Pennsylvania statehouse, where it’s oppressively hot and the unpopular John Adams is making a poorly received pitch for independence. In the production mounted this summer at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Kevin Gudahl dominated the stage as the overbearing Adams, sweating and carrying on. Only the most discerning theatergoer would’ve paid any heed to Ron Keaton–the actor portraying congressional janitor Andrew McNair–sweeping up on the outskirts of the action.

Yet over the next two and a half hours, the short, chunky, red-haired Keaton, dressed in a plaid vest and knickers, rarely left the stage. He distributed mugs of rum, filled water glasses, and adjusted the furniture; he even tidied up the set during intermission. He emerged from the background just twice: once at the top of the second act, when he joined his voice to a lament sung by a courier bearing messages between the Continental Congress and George Washington in New York, and once shortly thereafter, when he observed to the delegates, “I can’t say I’m fond of the United States as a name for a new country–” and was cut off, as the script demanded, by the actor portraying John Hancock.

Keaton’s 50 and has been acting for more than half of his life, but the small comedic role seems to be his professional lot. “It’s the way I’m cast,” he says, “and for that I do feel fortunate. I try to bring a sharpness and an intelligence to whatever I do. I know how to get a laugh and to put myself across.”

Discerning theatergoers agree: Dominic Missimi, an associate theater professor at Northwestern and the director of the production, had cast Keaton as Andrew McNair once before, in 1987 at the same venue, and didn’t even ask him to audition this time around. “Ron has a wonderful character-actor look,” Missimi says. “Like an angry leprechaun.” In reviewing 1776, the Trib’s Chris Jones referred to Keaton as one of the “top-tier Chicago theater veterans” appearing in the production. Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times went one further, lauding him for “a wonderfully winking performance as the put-upon custodian who witnesses the proceedings as if a fly on the wall.”

But Keaton once hoped for much more. He grew up in New Castle, Indiana, about 20 miles south of Muncie. His parents, a milkman and a bartender, didn’t encourage his artistic tendencies. “When I was a kid, I wanted to take piano lessons, but my dad frowned on that and so there were none,” he says. “I’m being cryptic here, but let’s just say I was not supported. My family has not seen me work professionally.”

He began doing summer stock while in high school and studied drama and broadcasting at Indiana University. “I had a ten-year plan,” he says. “At the end I would be working in a show on Broadway next to one that I had written.”

He dropped out of school early “due to family problems,” but in 1975 he did move to New York. Though he looked much like he does now, except with more hair up front, the first role he won was in a satirical musical entitled I Killed Mary Finch One Sunny Day Last Spring. The production got terrible reviews, and at one matinee the theater was literally empty. “The producer took us all out to dinner,” says Keaton. The production ran for only three weeks.

In Mary Finch Keaton played a 12-year-old boy, but most of the roles he found himself reading for were characters 15 to 25 years older than him. Problem was, he says, “if you’re a director and you want somebody 45, you hire somebody 45. I was a 23-year-old character actor, and I discovered that in New York there was no such thing.”

In less than a year he was back in Indiana. He rematriculated at IU and graduated in 1978, at age 26. Afterward, he won small roles with theater companies in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, often in musicals that made use of his strong tenor singing voice. In 1986 he moved to Chicago. “I’d gotten married and divorced, and it was time to place myself in a more satisfying position,” he says.

By the end of the next winter he was destitute. “I was broke and living in Oak Park, near North and Harlem,” he says. “One day I was fishing around for money in my junk drawer when I found a dollar and 26 cents. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I walked up to North Avenue and found a Catholic church. I put the money in a collection plate, sat down in one of the pews, and cried like a baby. I must have sat there for an hour or so. When I got back to my apartment, there was a message on my machine from the Marriott casting me as Andrew McNair.”

He’s been working steadily since. On occasion he’s landed larger parts–he played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls at the Drury Lane theater in Oakbrook in 1995.

But for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, for instance, he invariably plays the fool. That’s because he’s so good at it, insists Barbara Gaines, the company’s artistic director. “Ron enriches every scene he’s in. He underplays, with perfect timing, and then when the time comes he knows how to lay it on. He has a great comic sadness, which grows from his whole history, I think, and also gives a lovely quality to his singing.” A couple years ago, when Keaton played the servant Lavatch in All’s Well That Ends Well, Gaines had composer Alaric “Rokko” Jans set some sonnets to music especially for him to sing.

Keaton plays his clowns with a combination of “humility and bitterness”–for which, he admits, he draws on his frustration with the elusiveness of juicier roles. “In the fall of 1997, I was in As You Like It at the Goodman,” he says. (He played Touchstone–the fool.) “David Darlow was holding down the part of Jaques, a deep, dark character with lots of meaty thought for the audience. Every night I sat offstage and watched David working, and I thought to myself, I could do that. David doesn’t know I was there.”

Someday, he says, he’d like to play Falstaff, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, or Harold Hill in The Music Man. Unfortunately, says Ray Frewen, the artistic director at Drury Lane, many roles are closed to Keaton because of his appearance. “People say he looks like the Monopoly man without the top hat,” he explains, and theater companies are reluctant to plug him into a romantic role. “A revisionist theater might, but with a commercial theater you’re dealing with an audience with certain expections, and you don’t want to mess with them….But if there’s a monk or a padre Ron will have a good shot at the part.”

Agent Harrise Davidson briefly represented Keaton for film, commercials, and voiceovers before she closed her office in July 2000. “Ron’s a fine performer and a wonderful singer,” she says, “but he doesn’t look like a dramatic actor, and unfortunately in show business it’s hard to break out of your physical type, except if you’re somebody like Danny DeVito.” Davidson did handle comic types Richard Kind and Alan Ruck (who both went on to key supporting roles on TV’s Spin City) early in their careers, and says she regrets that she couldn’t have similarly packaged Keaton. “The film and TV business was going to Canada just before I quit,” she says. “Yet had I been around longer, we might have been successful.”

Keaton has tried to branch out into areas where his type is less of an issue. Three years ago he attended a nine-month course at the Illinois Center for Broadcasting in Lombard, and he came up with a short almanac-style radio segment called The American Diary for himself to host. “I sent samples to 75 different stations, but only this little bitty station in Tawas City, Michigan, was interested,” says Keaton. “They ran the diary for six months, and then the station was bought out by a Christian conglomerate. I didn’t have much Christian trivia to send them.”

He also put together a cabaret act, which has been booked at FitzGerald’s, Davenport’s, and Pops Highwood. Lately he’s been working on a musical based on Edwin O’Connor’s political novel The Last Hurrah. It’s only his third attempt at writing theater: his first, a two-character play set in a bomb shelter on the French-German border during World War II, was staged in Indianapolis to less than stellar reviews. “The Indianapolis Star was complimentary to me as an actor, and I wasn’t even in the show,” he says. “The critic said, ‘As a playwright Mr. Keaton can write…and write and write.'”

Keaton makes about $30,000 a year–a few thousand dollars above what the average Chicago-area actor would if employed every week of the year, according to a local survey by Actors’ Equity. He lives in a three-room cottage in southwest Evanston with a golden retriever named Jake. “I don’t have a lot of financial security,” he says. “I’m behind on rent–luckily, my landlord appreciates what I do.”

His four-year relationship with a social worker ended three years ago, and though he and his ex-girlfriend are still close, nowadays Keaton relies on his fellow actors for emotional support. On his birthday, July 1, the cast of 1776 took him to the Marriott bar to celebrate. “They all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, and I couldn’t buy any of my own drinks,” he says, clearly still pleased.

Keaton will play a cobbler, Lucilius, and Decius Brutus–three roles with a total of around 50 lines–in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of Julius Caesar, which opens December 7. “I see my career as endless,” he says. “I can’t afford to retire–but then even when I’m 75 years old there will always be a character part for me to take.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.