Buttons in 1959
February 5, 1919
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||July 13, 2006
Century City, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Roxanne Arlen (m. 1947-49)
Helayne McNorton (m. 1949-63)
Alicia Pratt (m. 1964-2001)
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. 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 Jeep Show unit as Mickey Rooney.
After the war, Buttons continued to do Broadway shows. He also performed at Broadway movie houses with big bands. In 1952, Buttons received his own variety series on television, The Red Buttons Show, which ran for three years on CBS. It was the #11 show in prime time in 1952. 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 this 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. Buttons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Umeki won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film.
After his Oscar-winning role, Buttons performed in numerous feature films, including the Africa adventure Hatari! with John Wayne, the adventure Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) (where he received top billing), 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 memorable guest appearances on several TV programs including The Eleventh Hour, Little House on the Prairie, It's Garry Shandling's Show, ER and Roseanne. His last TV 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.
Buttons married actress Roxanne Arlen in 1947, but the marriage soon ended in divorce. He married Helayne McNorton on December 8, 1949. They divorced in 1963. His last marriage was to Alicia Pratts, which lasted from January 27, 1964, until her death in March 2001. Buttons had two children, Amy Buttons and Adam Buttons. He was the advertising spokesman for Century Village, Florida, a retirement community.
Buttons died of complications from high blood pressure on July 13, 2006, at age 87 at his home in Century City, Los Angeles. He had been ill for a while and was with family members when he died. His ashes were given to his family after cremation.
|1944||Winged Victory||Whitey / Andrews Sister||as Cpl. Red Buttons|
|1946||13 Rue Madeleine||Second Jump Master||Uncredited|
|1957||Sayonara||Airman Joe Kelly||Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
Nominated--BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer
|1958||Imitation General||Cpl. Chan Derby|
|1959||The Big Circus||Randy Sherman|
|1961||One, Two, Three||MP sergeant||cameo, Uncredited|
|1962||Five Weeks in a Balloon||Donald O'Shay|
|1962||The Longest Day||Private John Steele|
|1963||A Ticklish Affair||Uncle Cy|
|1964||Your Cheatin' Heart||Shorty Younger|
|1965||Up from the Beach||Pfc. Harry Devine|
|1965||Harlow||Arthur Landau||Nominated--Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture|
|1969||The Moviemakers||Himself||short subject|
|1969||They Shoot Horses, Don't They?||Sailor||Nominated--Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture|
|1971||Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name?||Mickey|
|1972||The Poseidon Adventure||James Martin|
|1975||The New Original Wonder Woman (pilot)||Ashley Norman|
|1976||Gable and Lombard||Ivan Cooper|
|1977||Viva Knievel!||Ben Andrews|
|1977||Pete's Dragon||Hoagy||Nominated--Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor|
|1978||The Users||Warren Ambrose||TV movie|
|1978||Movie Movie||Peanuts / Jinks Murphy|
|1979||Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July||Milton||Voice|
|1980||When Time Ran Out||Francis Fendly|
|1980||The Dream Merchants||Bruce Benson||TV movie|
|1985||Reunion at Fairbrorough||Jiggs Quealy|
|1985||Alice in Wonderland||The White Rabbit|
|1990||The Ambulance||Elias Zacharai|
|1994||It Could Happen to You||Walter Zakuto|
|1999||The Story of Us||Arnie Jordan|
|2000||AMC Backstory - The Longest Day||Himself||documentary|
|2001||Odessa or Bust||The Old Man||short subject|
|2004||Goodnight, We Love You||documentary|
|2005||Sid Bernstein Presents...||Himself||documentary|