Buttons, Red (1919—)
Buttons, Red (1919—)
In 1952, The Red Buttons Show was widely acclaimed as the most promising new show on television, and its star was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Millions of children did their versions of Buttons's theme song, hopping and singing "Ho! Ho!, He! He!, Ha! Ha! … Strange things are happening." Indeed, strange things did happen. By the end of the second season the show's popularity had declined and CBS dropped it. It did no better when NBC briefly picked up the show the following season. Buttons was out of work in 1957 when he was selected to play the role of Sergeant Joe Kelly in the film Sayonara. He won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for this tragic portrayal and went on to appear in 24 other movies.
Born Aaron Chwatt in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1919 and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was the son of an immigrant milliner. He contracted the show business bug when he won first place in an amateur-night contest at age 12. By age 16 he was entertaining in a Bronx tavern as the bellboy-singer, and the manager, noting his bright-colored uniform, gave him the stage name of Red Buttons. Adding stand-up comedy to his talents, Buttons worked in Catskill Mountain resorts and later joined a burlesque troupe as a baggy-pants comic.
Buttons made his Broadway debut in 1942, playing a supporting role in a show called Vickie. When he was drafted for World War II service in the army, he was assigned to special services as an entertainer. He appeared in the stage and film productions of Winged Victory, a patriotic show designed to encourage the purchase of war bonds.
When CBS offered a contract in 1952 for The Red Buttons Show, a broad experience in show business had prepared Buttons well. He had already developed some of his most popular characters—a punchy boxer named Rocky Buttons, a lovable little boy named the Kupke Kid, a hapless, bungling German named Keeglefarven, and the jinxed, luckless Sad Sack. He also did husband-and-wife sketches with Dorothy Joiliffe (later with Beverly Dennis and Betty Ann Grove) in a style to be emulated by George Gobel in the late 1950s.
When the show moved to NBC, it started as a variety show, but the format was soon changed to a situation comedy. Buttons played himself as a television comic who was prone to get into all kinds of trouble. Phyllis Kirk, later to become a star in Broadway musicals, played his wife; Bobby Sherwood was his pal and television director, and newcomer Paul Lynde played a young network vice president who had continual disputes with the star. Dozens of writers worked on the show at various times, but nothing seemed to click, and it was scratched after one season.
After his Tony Award success with the movie Sayonara, Buttons's Hollywood career took off. Appearing in Imitation General, The Big Circus, and One Two Three led in 1961 to a role in that year's Hollywood blockbuster, the film portrayal of the World War II invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day. Buttons is remembered for his portrayal of a lovable, sad sack paratrooper whose parachute is impaled on a church steeple in a small French town, leaving him hanging while the camera recorded his animated facial expressions.
He is also remembered for his comic role in the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, starring Bing Crosby and Ann Margaret. He received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in 1969 for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? This was a grim tale about a marathon dance contest during the Great Depression. He was also featured in the 1972 underwater disaster saga, The Poseidon Adventure.
Frequent guest spots on television talk shows and the continuation of his film career as a both a comic and serious character actor until 1990 kept Buttons before the public. He had an extended and important career in show business, but some remember that on the networks he was never able to fulfill the exalted promise of his first show in its first season.
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McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York, Penguin, 1991.