Friday, July 14, 2006

Red Buttons R. I. P.

Comic Red Buttons died yesterday at age 87 from vascular disease. He had been ill for quite a while. Buttons was best known as a comedian, but received an Oscar for his dramatic turn in the movie Sayonara.

Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt in Manhattan on February 5, 1919. He would receive his stage name at age 16 while working as a bellhop at Ryan's Tavern in New York City. With his bright red hair and bellhop uniform, the orchestra leader there, Charles "Dinty" Moore, took to calling him "Red Buttons." It was that year that Buttons got his big break, performing in the Catskills with Robert Alda (who would also later become a successful actor, as well as Alan Alda's father). In 1939 Buttons performed in the Minsky brothers' notorious burlesque. This lead to Jose Ferrer casting him in the Broadway play The Admiral Had a Wife in 1941. Unfortunately, the play never made it to the stage. Set in Pearl Harbour, it was feared that the play might be considered offensive after the December 8th attack the Japanese made on the place.

Buttons was not off Broadway for long, however, as in 1942 he was cast in the play Vickie. He would later appear in the 1943 Broadway show Winged Victory. That same year he would make his movie debut in the film adaptation of Winged Victory, playing the same role. Draughted into the Army Air Corps in 1943, Buttons' career was interrupted by World War II.

Following World War II, Buttons resumed his career. He played a role in the Broadway play Barefoot Boy with Cheek. He also appeared in an uncredited role in the movie 13 Rue Madeline. The following year he appeared on Broadway in Hold It.

Despite his appearances on Broadway and on film, however, Buttons' greatest success would be on television. He made his debut in the medium on an epsiode of Suspense in 1951. The following year he received his own variety show, The Red Buttons Show. The series ran from 1952 to 1955 and was a huge success. Both the catchprase "Strange things are happening" and "The Ho-Ho Song (of which the previously mentioned phrase was part of the lyrics) would enter the pop culture jargon of the day. Buttons continued to appear on television for the rest of his career, making guest appearances on such varied shows as The Dinah Shore Show, Playhouse 90, Death Valley Days,Ben Casey, Rosanne, and Family Law. He would have another series of his own in 1966 with the short lived spy parody The Double Life of Henry Phyfe. He would later be a recurring charcter on ER. It would be his last appearance on either the small or big screen.

While Buttons had a successful TV career, he continued to appear in many motion pictures. As mentioned above, he won an Oscar for his role in 1957's Sayonara. He also appeared in the movies The Longest Day, One, Two, Three, Hatari!, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and It Could Happen to You. He appeared on Broadway one more time in 1995 at the age of 76 in the one man show Buttons on Broadway.

Buttons also received a Golden Globe for his role in Sayonara. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Goldenn Globe his roles in Harlow and They Shoot Horses, Don't They. He was also nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his role in ER.

There can be no doubt that Red Buttons was one of the most talented and versatile comics of the 20th century. His "Ho-Ho Song" may largely be forgotten now, but its influence can be seen in the novelty song (which has a cult following to this day) "They're Coming to Take Me Away" by Napoleon XIV (the lyrics of the two are remarkably similar). Many of the characters he played in skits in his show, such as the Sad Sack and Keeglefarven (a clumbsy, none too bright German) are remembered to this day. As mentioned above, Buttons was versatile. While he was a gifted comedian, he could just as easily play serious, dramatic roles. As an actor he was at home playing serious roles such as Airman Joe Kelly in Sayonara or more comedic roles such as Peanuts in Movie Movie. It is truly sad that he has passed on.

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