Oscar Actors: Buttons, Red–Supporting Actor Winner (Sayonara) Dies at 87

L.A., July 13, 2006–Red Buttons, the vet comedian, who starred on stage and in TV and won a Supporting Oscar acting opposite Marlon Brando in “Sayonara,” died Thursday of vascular disease in Los Angeles. He was 87.

Buttons’ career spanned more than 60 years, starting on street corners and eventually reaching the burlesque circuit, films, Broadway, TV and Las Vegas. Buttons was one of the few comics to win an Oscar.

Born Aaron Chwatt, he was raised in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Jimmy Durante grew up as well. He started performing at age 7, singing on street corners for pennies.

While still in high school, he got a job as an entertaining bellhop at a New York tavern, where he was dubbed Red Buttons for his red hair and the red bellhop’s uniform.

After a stint performing on the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills, he went to work for burlesque comedian Billy Minsky in 1939.

In 1942, he performed on Broadway in “Vicki” with Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen and in “Wine, Woman and Song” for Minsky. Buttons was onstage the night cops raided Minsky’s after New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia shut down New York’s last burlesque show. While serving in the Army Air Corps, he appeared onstage in Moss Hart’s star-studded “Winged Victory” with Mario Lanza, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb. He then reprised his role in George Cukor’s 1944 film version.

Buttons joined Mickey Rooney to entertain the troops in Europe before being discharged in 1946. He then appeared in two more Broadway shows, “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” and “Hold It.”

After Buttons spent a few years on nightclub work, CBS signed him to do for the Eye what Milton Berle had done for NBC.

“The Red Buttons Show” debuted in October 1952 and was a hit within a month. Initially, CBS could not attract a sponsor; four weeks in, advertisers were knocking down the door to be involved.

Show allowed Buttons to maximize his talents: He performed comic monologues, did sketches, sang and danced. A line from a silly “Ho Ho Song” –“Strange things are happening” — became his catchphrase and entered the American lexicon in the mid-’50s.

Buttons won the Emmy precursor–an Academy of Radio Television Arts & Sciences Award–for best comedian in 1954.

The show lasted three years; after it was canceled he returned to television as a guest star. A dramatic perf on “Suspense” caught the attention of helmer Josh Logan, who was casting the Brando starrer “Sayonara.”

Buttons took on the dramatic role of Sgt. Joe Kelly, a soldier whose romance with a Japanese woman in post-WWII Japan ends in tragedy, in the 1957 film. Buttons won the supporting actor Oscar and a Golden Globe.

From then on he concentrated on films, with notable roles including Howard Hawks’ “Hatari!” with John Wayne; Darryl Zanuck’s “The Longest Day”; toon “Gay Purr-ee” with Judy Garland; “Harlow”; “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They”; “The Poseidon Adventure”; “Gable and Lombard”; “Movie, Movie,” with George C. Scott; and “18 Again,” with George Burns.

On TV, he had the title role in 1966 series “The Double Life of Henry Phyfe” and guested on shows including “Knots Landing,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “ER.”

Buttons was a frequent guest on the variety and talkshows of Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. He performed his famous “Never Got a Dinner” routine on the Dean Martin Roasts. Cabler Comedy Central placed him at No. 71 on its list of the greatest standup comics of all time.

The comic was a one-liner specialist, with zingers such as, “Never raise your hands to your kids. It leaves your groin unprotected.”

Buttons returned to Broadway in 1995 with the autobiographical one-man show “Buttons on Broadway.” It was his first Broadway show in 47 years. Variety’s review praised the 76-year-old performer: “Buttons’ skill with a one-liner is honed as sharply as any comic of his generation, even as his endearingly self-deprecating personality sets him far apart from the Masons, Rickleses and Lewises.”

Buttons performed the show at the Ambassador Theater, the same venue that housed Minsky’s Burlesque and was raided in 1942.

He was honored with the City of Hope Spirit of Life Award; the Eddie Cantor Foundation’s Suzie Award and the Friars Club Lifetime Achievement Award.

Buttons was married to actress Rozanne Arlen (1947-51) and Helayne McNorton (1949-63). He wed third wife Alicia Pratt in 1964; she died in 2001. He is survived by two children, a sister and a brother.