Sunday, October 4, 2015
(born Aaron Chwatt; February 5, 1919 – July 13, 2006) was an American comedian and actor.
Early life: Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt on February 5, 1919, in New York City, to Jewish immigrants Sophie (née Baker) and Michael Chwatt.
At sixteen years old, Chwatt got a job as an entertaining bellhop at Ryan's Tavern in City Island, Bronx. The combination of his red hair and the large, shiny buttons on the bellhop uniforms inspired orchestra leader Charles "Dinty" Moore to call him "Red Buttons," the name under which he would later perform.
Later that same summer, Buttons worked on the Borscht Belt; his straight man was Robert Alda. Red Buttons was working at the Irvington Hotel in South Fallsburg, New York, when the Master of Ceremonies became incapacitated, and he asked for the chance to replace him. In 1939, Buttons started working for Minsky's Burlesque; in 1941, José Ferrer chose Buttons to appear in a Broadway show The Admiral Had a Wife. The show was a farce set in Pearl Harbor, and it was due to open on December 8, 1941. It never did, as it was deemed inappropriate after the Japanese attack. In later years, Buttons would joke that the Japanese only attacked Pearl Harbor to keep him off Broadway.
In September 1942, Buttons made his Broadway debut in Vickie with Ferrer and Uta Hagen. Later that year, he appeared in the Minsky's show Wine, Women and Song; this was the last classic Burlesque show in New York City history, as the Mayor La Guardia administration closed it down. Buttons was on stage when the show was raided.
Drafted into the United States Army Air Forces, Buttons in 1943 appeared in the Army Air Forces' Broadway show Winged Victory, along with several future stars, including Mario Lanza, John Forsythe, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb. A year later he appeared in Darryl F. Zanuck's movie version of Winged Victory, directed by George Cukor. Buttons also entertained troops in the European Theater in the same unit as Mickey Rooney.
After the war, Buttons continued to do Broadway shows. He also performed at Broadway movie houses with the Big Bands. In 1952, Buttons received his own variety series on television, The Red Buttons Show," which ran for three years, and achieved high levels of success. In 1953, he recorded and had a two-sided hit with Strange Things Are Happening/The Ho Ho Song, with both sides/songs essentially being the same.
His role in Sayonara was a dramatic departure from his previous work. In that film, co-starring with Marlon Brando, he played Joe Kelly, an American airman stationed in Kobe, Japan during the Korean War, who marries Katsumi, a Japanese woman (played by Miyoshi Umeki), but is barred from taking her back to the United States. His moving portrayal of Kelly's calm resolve not to abandon the relationship, and the touching reassurance of Katsumi, impressed audiences and critics alike; both he and Umeki won supporting actor and actress Academy Awards for the film.
Buttons as Henry Phyfe.
After his Oscar-winning role, Buttons performed in numerous feature films, including the Africa adventure Hatari! with John Wayne, the war epic The Longest Day, the biopic Harlow, the disaster film The Poseidon Adventure, the dance-marathon drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the family comedy Pete's Dragon, the disaster film When Time Ran Out with Paul Newman and the age-reversal comedy 18 Again! with George Burns.
In 1966, Buttons again starred in his own TV series, a spy spoof called The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, which ran for one season. Buttons also made many memorable guest television appearances on programs including The Eleventh Hour, Little House on the Prairie, It's Garry Shandling's Show, ER and Roseanne. His last regular role was as a homeless man on CBS' Knots Landing.
He became a nationally recognizable comedian, and his "Never Got A Dinner" routine was a standard of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for many years. He was number 71 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.
Buttons received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for television, his star being located at 1651 Vine Street.
Pencil Sketch by Greg Joens www.gregjoens.com