The character of Beetlejuice preceded Michael Keaton's involvement in the film. The screenplay was written first by Michael McDowell, a sci-fi and horror writer, along with Larry Wilson. Wilson was replaced by Warren Skaaren later on, in an effort to make the script more accessible and comedic. Tim Burton's first choice to play Beetlejuice was the famous Rat Pack member, Sammy Davis Jr., but he eventually took up producer David Geffen on his suggestion to cast Michael Keaton. This decision would make all the difference, as Keaton helped to craft the character into a multi-dimensional but consistently clownish villain, making the most of his meager 17 minutes of screen time.
In an interview in 2014, Keaton explained that when he first encountered the script, he did not understand it at all, and politely passed on the offer. When he spoke to director Tim Burton again, however, he realized what a unique and exciting script it was, and the potential for character development that the project offered. Keaton called Burton with a number of ideas for the character, including Beetlejuice's walk, his teeth, and his iconic electrically charged hair. Burton immediately took to Keaton's ideas and the two formed a tightly entwined collaborative relationship.
The result was one of the most iconic and strange movie characters of all time. Many lauded his performance for its unique style, while others scratched their heads. Well-respected movie critic Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "One of the problems is Keaton, as the exorcist. Nearly unrecognizable behind pounds of makeup, he prances around playing Betelgeuse as a mischievous and vindictive prankster. But his scenes don’t seem to fit with the other action, and his appearances are mostly a nuisance." New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote, "Into the midst of this standoff rides Michael Keaton as the title character, a ''bio-exorcist'' who emerges from the grave determined to appall everyone as much as he possibly can. He does this much too well." In spite of this mixed critical response, Keaton's character became a smash success with audiences.