Red Buttons

d. July 13, 2006

Red Buttons, 87, hit comic of early television who went on to movie character roles, winning an Oscar for his co-starring film debut, died July 13 at his home in Los Angeles. He had vascular disease.

Buttons was briefly a part of the 1960s spy craze as the star of The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, a comedy series that aired on ABC in 1966.

He was born Aaron Chwatt on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, acquiring his stage name while still in high school, working as a bellhop and singer at a Bronx saloon. The large buttons on his uniform combined with his hair color to create the obvious new handle, and as Red Buttons he came up through burlesque and the borscht belt to minor Broadway roles in the early 1940s. While serving in the Army during World War II, he was part of the large cast of servicemen-entertainers in “Winged Victory,” a Moss Hart comedy-drama designed to sell war bonds. He went to Hollywood in 1944 to shoot the film version at 20th Century-Fox, then continued to tour in the stage show.

Buttons appeared on many of television’s earliest programs before CBS launched The Red Buttons Show in October 1952. This half-hour variety series became a huge hit in its first season but faded in its second. Buttons’ theme song, “ho ho, hee hee, strange things are happening,” which he sang while hopping around the stage with his hands cupped to his ears, became a national craze and a bestselling novelty record for Buttons. The show moved to NBC for its third season, at first in the variety format, then as a situation comedy with Buttons playing himself as the star of a TV show. The series went off the air in May 1955.

After his show ended, Buttons reportedly was scrambling for nightclub work and TV guest shots until director Joshua Logan, who had seen him in a straight dramatic role on television, cast him as Marlon Brando’s pal in “Sayonara,” the 1957 movie version of James Michener’s novel. Buttons won the supporting-actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a U.S. Air Force sergeant persecuted for marrying a Japanese woman.

His popularity renewed, Buttons went on to a decade of alternating film roles with television appearances. His features included “The Big Circus,” “One, Two, Three,” “The Longest Day,” “Hatari,” voice work in the animated “Gay Purr-ee,” “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” “A Ticklish Affair,” “Harlow,” the 1966 remake of “Stagecoach,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

During the same period, he appeared as a comedian on many of the major TV variety shows and had dramatic roles in episodes of General Electric Theatre, Playhouse 90, The U.S. Steel Hour, Ben Casey, Saints and Sinners, The Eleventh Hour, The Greatest Show on Earth and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.

He tried series TV again with The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, playing a meek accountant suddenly thrust into the spy game to impersonate a deadly enemy agent who just happened to be his exact double. The show premiered in January 1966 as part of ABC’s widely ballyhooed “Second Season” of mid-season replacements that included the wildly successful Batman. But Phyfe was a flop and went off the air in August.

Buttons’ later TV roles included the 1975 pilot for The New, Original Wonder Woman, and several episodes each of The Love Boat, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and E.R. He also appeared frequently on the celebrity roasts that became popular in the late 70s and early 80s, where his standard gag was lamenting the many famous historical figures who “never got a dinner.”


Buttons appeared on 1953 “TV Guide” cover at the height of his popularity.

Above: With “Sayonara” co-star Miyoshi Umeki at 1958 Academy Awards, where both won Oscars for their roles in the film. Below: Buttons appeared on “Fantasy Island” in 1979 with “Sayonara” co-star Ricardo Montalban, Herve Villechaize and Billy Barty. Left: Buttons, Angie Dickinson, Lucille Ball and Gary Morton at the New York Friars Club in 1984.