Red Buttons

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