Red Buttons

'Bortsch circuit' comedian who became a television star and won an Oscar for his role in 'Sayonara'


Aaron Chwatt (Red Buttons), actor and comedian: born New York 5 February 1919; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 13 July 2006.

'When my comedy succeeds, I'm happy," said the Oscar-winning comedian Red Buttons. "When it doesn't, other comics are." A performer who made his name in television before great success in the cinema, the octogenarian Buttons was seen on the small screen as recently as 2003 when he appeared in the series Street Time.

The red-headed Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1919. "It was a tough neighbourhood," he said later. "You either grew up to be a judge, or you were the guy another judge sent to the chair." Naturally musical, he won an amateur talent contest at the age of 12. At 16 he answered an advertisement for "bellboy and singer" at Dinty Moore's Tavern in the Bronx. His hair, and his garish uniform, replete with 48 buttons, prompted the customers to give him the nickname that became his stage name.

Red Buttons next worked on the "Bortsch Circuit" in the Catskill Mountains. The food in these Jewish summer resorts was strictly kosher, which meant that mixing meat and milk was forbidden. Realising that many of the younger, less traditional guests wanted cream in their mealtime coffee, Buttons conceived a way to earn extra money; filling a fountain pen with cream, he surreptitiously squirted the prohibited substance into their cups at 25 cents a squirt.

At the age of 18, he joined Minsky's Gaiety burlesque theatre back in New York, soon becoming one of its top comics. The rising actor-director José Ferrer loved burlesque, and often dropped into the Gaiety. Impressed by the way Buttons played the various blackout sketches, he offered him a plum role in The Admiral Had a Wife, a farce he was acting in and directing. The out of town try-out was successful and a long run seemed sure. However, the play was set in Pearl Harbor and its Broadway opening was scheduled for 8 December 1941. When the Japanese attacked Hawaii the day before, the farce was, of course, cancelled.

After appearing in another Ferrer-directed play, Vickie (1942), Buttons was called into the Army. During the Second World War he acted in Moss Hart's play Winged Victory (1943). A tribute to the US Air Force, it also employed his fellow servicemen Edmund O'Brien, Lee J. Cobb and Mario Lanza. In 1944 Buttons and most of the cast appeared in George Cukor's film version. After his discharge from the service, he returned to Broadway to appear in Barefoot Boy with Cheek (1947), a witty musical which satirised radical politics in an American university. His next stage appearance was in another collegiate show, Hold It! (1948). It too was a failure, but his performance won him the role of Joe E. Lewis in a television play based on the life of that bibulous nightclub comedian.

In 1953, after appearances in various TV variety shows, Buttons was given his own starring series. He scored a huge hit, playing a range of comic characters, the most popular being the loveable "Rocky", a punch-drunk boxer. Soon the show became legendary for the number of people the star sacked as it slipped ever lower in the ratings. It first Head Writer, Larry Gelbart, described the series as a "revolving door" through which countless writers, producers and directors passed one another on their way in and out. On one occasion, having been presented with a script on which a team of writers had toiled for a week, Buttons took the script from them and then rasped, "It doesn't feel funny."

When the series finally collapsed, he was out of work in all the media until José Ferrer fatefully reappeared, recommending him to Joshua Logan, who was preparing to direct the Marlon Brando film Sayonara (1957). Buttons won the tragic role of Sergeant Joe Kelly, a member of the US Army Air Force stationed in Japan. When he falls in love with a local girl but is forbidden by the military high command to marry her, Joe and his lover commit suicide. Buttons's moving performance won him an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, which he tearfully received with the words "I'm a very happy guy."

Now in demand, he made such films as Imitation General (1958), Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961), Hatari and The Longest Day (both 1962), Your Cheatin' Heart (1965), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969, for which he received an Oscar nomination), The Poseidon Adventure (1973), Gable and Lombard (1976) and Pete's Dragon (1977).

Twenty-five years after being sacked as his Head Writer, the nothing if not forgiving Larry Gelbart wrote him the role of an ex-boxer in the film Movie Movie (1978). It was Buttons's loveable "Rocky" character all over again, and his performance stole the picture.

Dick Vosburgh

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders