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With one of the hottest movie careers this side of Valentino, Michael Keaton isn't retiring to his Batcave to count his money.

In Keaton's new movie, "Pacific Heights" (opened Sept. 28), he bends his quirky talent in a new direction: Keaton plays a sinister sociopath who ingratiates himself into the lives of an eager young couple who make the mistake of renting an apartment to him.Is the role of a sinister deviant a smart move? He doesn't know. But if Louis B. Mayer himself were orchestrating Keaton's career, he couldn't have done a better job thus far.

Just 14 years ago Keaton was an unknown, parking cars in a San Fernando Valley garage and starting his first sitcom, "All's Fair."

Four sitcoms - and a lot of stand-up comedy - later, Keaton was cast in "Night Shift" as the hilariously hyper morgue attendant. That successful movie was followed by a string of intriguing performances: "Mr. Mom,""Beetlejuice," "The Dream Team," "Clean and Sober," "Gung Ho" and, of course, "Batman."

But today Keaton admits he has no game plan. "I'm at my best when I don't strategize," he says. "You can't strategize because you don't know what's going to come up. But in general my philosophy is to play roles that are interesting and challenging."

Chances of doing a variety of roles are slim he says. "There aren't many movies made, and once you score a certain type movie they're gonna try to cast you like that. Everybody says this like there are evil studios trying to limit you. Nobody's trying to do anything. They're just trying to make money, so you have to put out a little more effort. The studio's not going to say, `Oh, please, play different characters.' So you're gonna have to do that."

Well, Keaton has done it. And he has done it by breaking most of the "actor" rules. He doesn't soliloquize about the superiority of the theater, he never took acting classes, he fails to agonize over the psychology of his characters and he refuses to believe his own press. If there is such a thing as a hard-hat actor, it's Keaton.

"There's something basic about it," he says. "It's just fun to dress up, like when you're a kid. It's kinda where it comes from. I mean, I'm sorry, but it does. You put on a hat and walk this way and people will look at you."

Keaton says he learned early on that it was fun to be funny. He is the youngest of seven children, and all the members of his family are funny, he says, "from my mother on down. My dad was funny in spite of himself. He put no effort into it; he was just this funny guy."

When Keaton first came to Los Angeles he was playing the comedy clubs and working at a variety of day jobs, but he decided to drop the stand-up. "I wanted to make it clear that this (acting) was what I did. I was afraid - I'm not sure I was right about it now - but I was afraid that doing both would never really make me strong or accepted in either area."

Keaton quit the comedy because acting was his real dream. In fact, his skits usually involved premises that required him to act.

"For instance, I did a bit that was about auditioning for `Taxi Driver.' I felt it was a funny idea, but the main reason was I'd get to act - not so some Hollywood producer would come see it - I just wanted to do it."

He's currently working on "One Good Cop," a film in which Keaton, 39, plays a thoroughly good human being. He doesn't mind that, either. Reverberations are still echoing from the seismic success of last summer's"Batman."

"It wasn't a movie," Keaton says of "Batman." "It was a phenomenon. I think it got silly. It just got wild. So what? It's a movie. The kids loved it, were crazy about it, and it got out of hand. And what're you gonna do about it?"

What Keaton did was force himself to keep his cool.

"If you're going for the batting title, you've gotta really dig in and do two things: you've got to see the ball and totally relax and focus. If you're in a slump, you have to do the same thing: You've gotta dig in and you've gotta see the ball. As opposed to, `Oh, please let me hit it.' You've gotta focus and at the same time relax.

"It's the same thing with me. I had to hang in and not be stupid and, at the same time, relax. I suppose if I were going to play it safe, safe, safe, I wouldn't have done `Pacific Heights.' But it was worth taking the chance.

"The worst thing that can happen," he shrugs, "is that not too many people go see it and life will go on."