Born Aaron Chwatt, February 5, 1919, in Manhattan, NY; died of vascular disease, July 13, 2006, in Los Angeles, CA. Comedian and actor. Red Buttons spent more than 60 years as a comedian and actor, his career stretching from the last days of vaudeville and burlesque to the early years of television to serious film roles to that ritual of pop culture, the celebrity roast. His variety series, The Red Buttons Show, made him one of television's first stars in 1952. His role in the 1957 film Sayonara won him an Academy Award and decades of work as a serious character actor. His dinner jokes made him one of the stars of the tribute dinner circuit. Through it all, he played off his 5-foot-6 stature to create quirky, mischievous humor and evoke tragic emotion. "I'm a little guy," he said, according to Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post, "and that's what I play all the time—a little guy and his troubles."
Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt on the Lower East Side of New York in 1919. His father, a Polish immigrant and hatmaker, inspired Buttons to become an entertainer. "He was a clown who liked to sing and dance," Buttons recalled, according to Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times. "I noticed he made people happy, smiling, and that's what I wanted to do." Buttons sang in the streets for change at age seven and won a talent contest at age 12 at the Fox Corona Theater by dressing in a sailor suit, billing himself as Little Skippy, and singing the song "Sweet Jennie Lee." While still in high school, at 16, he got a job as a singing bellboy at a tavern on City Island in the Bronx. Customers there gave him his stage name: Red because of his red hair, Buttons because of the 48 brass buttons on his uniform. Like many comedians of his time, he made a living performing in burlesque shows and revues at resorts in New York state's Catskill Mountains. He first joined the Catskills circuit as a singer the summer he was 16, but switched to comedy after his voice changed. He earned $1.50 a week. In 1940 he married a stripper named Roxanne, but the marriage ended in an annulment.
Buttons got a brief break in 1942, when he got a part on Broadway in the comedy Vickie, then joined the vaudeville and burlesque company Wine, Women and Song, which performed at New York's Ambassador Theater. Soon after, he was drafted into the military. But joining the war effort did not put his career on hold; it accelerated it. Buttons was cast in the armed forces theater production and film Winged Victory, which made him well-known throughout the country. He and fellow comedian Mickey Rooney toured Europe, performing for American soldiers. He was master of ceremonies at a performance at the Potsdam Conference for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. After the war, Buttons returned to Broadway, appearing in musicals and doing his comedy routines for large audiences between big-band performances.
The greatest heights of Buttons' career, and perhaps his lowest low, came in the 1950s. The CBS television network, looking for an entertainer to compete with NBC's popular Milton Berle, made Buttons the star of his own series, The Red Buttons Show, in 1952. The show attracted an audience of millions. They were charmed by his characters, such as Rocky Buttons, a boxer who had been punched too much, and a tough but kind juvenile delinquent named Muggsy Buttons. In between comic skits, Buttons would dance while singing his "Ho Ho Song," with its catchy refrain, "Ho ho! Hee hee! Ha ha! Strange things are happening!" It became a catch phrase across the country.
Buttons was named the 1954 Comedian of the Year by the Academy of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences. But ratings for his show plummeted during its second season, and a desperate Buttons fired and hired writers frantically, going through 163 writers in two years. CBS cancelled the show, and NBC picked it up, then changed it from a variety show into a situation comedy before canceling it in early 1955. Buttons found it very hard to get work for a while after that. "I found out how tough show business can be," he said, according to McLellan of the Los Angeles Times. He scraped by while making nightclub appearances.
Director Joshua Logan, who admired Buttons and had seen him in a dramatic role on a 1951 episode of the television show Suspense, helped save Buttons' career by casting him in the 1957 film Sayonara, starring Marlon Brando. Buttons played an American soldier in Japan during the Korean War who defied regulations by marrying his Japanese girlfriend. He won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor for his role.
The performance and awards established Buttons as a respected character actor, and he continued appearing in films for decades. He acted in the 1962 adventure film Hatari! with John Wayne, who quipped, according to the Times of London, "Red is the only guy who could steal a movie from a monkey." Other prominent roles were in films such as The Longest Day, a 1962 flick about the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, in World War II; They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a 1969 tragedy about desperate dance-marathon contestants during the Great Depression; and the 1972 ocean-liner disaster film The Poseidon Adventure. As his film roles waned, he appeared as a guest dozens of times in television series, such as Knot's Landing in the 1980s, Roseanne in the 1990s, and Street Time, a Showtime series, in 2002.
For decades, Buttons was a sought-after master of ceremonies for "roasts," which are lunches and dinners paying tribute to entertainers. It was often his job to tease the guest of honor with cutting humor. When roasting cocktail-swigging singer Dean Martin, he said, according to the Times of London, "If Dracula bit Dean in the neck, he'd get a Bloody Mary." In the 1970s, when Martin made the dinners a TV staple with the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast" shows, Buttons made frequent appearances on the show. He would often point out that he himself was never roasted, and that many historical figures never were either. "Abe Lincoln, who said, 'A house divided is a condominium, never got a dinner," he would say, as quoted by Bernstein in the Washington Post. Buttons also pointed out that the biblical figure Lot, "who said to his wife when she was turning into a pillar of salt, 'Stop shaking!'—never got a dinner." Fellow comedian Norm Crosby told McLellan of the Los Angeles Times that Buttons' roast routine was his best work. "He made a whole career out of one routine: 'I never had a dinner.' It was just brilliant."
In 1995, Buttons performed a one-man show, Buttons on Broadway, at the Ambassador Theatre in New York, the same place he had performed in burlesque and vaudeville in 1942. Buttons' new show won him glowing reviews. Acknowledging that his audience was made up of fans old enough to remember his 1940s and 1950s performances, he began the show with the greeting, "Good evening, fellow members of AARP," according to Bernstein of the Washington Post. Buttons aged gracefully by joking about it. "Eighty isn't old," he said in 1999, according to the Times of London. "You're old when your doctor doesn't X-ray you anymore, he just holds you up to the light."
Buttons was married three times. His first marriage ended in annulment and his second, to beautician Helayne McNorton, ended in divorce. His third wife, Alicia, died in 2001. Buttons died on July 13, 2006, at his home in Los Angeles, California, of vascular disease. He was 87. He is survived by his son, Adam; his daughter, Amy; his brother and his sister.
Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2006, p. B10; New York Times, July 14, 2006, p. C9; Times (London), July 15, 2006, p. 80; Washington Post, July 14, 2006, p. B6.