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July 14, 2006

Hollywood Icon Red Buttons Dies

Emmy, Oscar-Winning Actor and Comedian was 87

Red Buttons
Red Buttons joined fellow actors last year at the Performers Peer Group celebration, where he accepted his 2005 Emmy nominee honors certificate for his guest role on ER from Television Academy chair Dick Askin (l.).
Buttons addresses actors and guests at the 2005 Performers Peer Group celebration.

Los Angeles, CA Actor and comedian Red Buttons who won an Emmy Award as the star of his own variety series in the early days of television and later won an Oscar for the 1958 drama Sayonara, died today at his home in Los Angeles.

Buttons, who was 87, passed away from complications of vascular disease, according to his longtime publicist, Warren Cowan.

Born Aaron Chwatt on February 5, 1919, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Buttons lived in a tenement apartment before his family moved to the Bronx. He made his performing debut at age 12 when he won a talent contest by singing the song “Sweet Jennie Lee” dressed in a sailor suit.

He earned his sobriquet while working as a bellman and singer at Ryan’s, a bar on City Island in the Bronx. The combination of his red hair and the many buttons on his uniform resulted in a nickname that he eventually adopted professionally.

In the 1930s he began performing at resorts in the Catskills Mountain, and later at such New York City burlesque venues as Minsky’s and the Gaiety, as well as in the Midwest.

In 1941 he was due to make his Broadway in a comedy titled The Admiral Takes a Wife, but the play, a military satire set in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor, was shelved when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7.

In 1943, Buttons joined the Army, where he spent the remainder of World War II in the entertainment unit in the Moss Hart play Winged Victory, along with other future stars, including Mario Lanza, Karl Malden, Barry Nelson, Louis Nye, Peter Lind Hayes, John Forsythe and Gary Merrill.

After the war, Buttons returned to nightclubs and made occasional appearances on Broadway. He became a star after appearing in an October 1951 episode of the series Suspense, about Joe E. Lewis, a Prohibition-era nightclub star who was slain by gangsters.

A year later, when CBS was seeking a program to oppose Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater on NBC on Tuesdays at 8 p.m., the network gave Buttons a shot with his own half-hour series. Critical response was enthusiastic, and the show spent two years on CBS, followed by a third on NBC.

After his TV show was canceled, Buttons languished somewhat, but his career rebounded when director Joshua Logan cast him in Sayonara as an American serviceman in post-World War II Japan who is ostracized by the military for marrying a Japanese woman.

Over the ensuing years Buttons made numerous films—including The Longest Day, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Poseidon Adventure—as well as dozens of television appearances, including another regular series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe.

More recently, Buttons appeared on the ABC sitcom Roseanne in 2005, and was nominated for an Emmy for a guest appearance on ER.

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