Red Buttons

Active - 1944 - 2004  |   Born - Feb 5, 1919 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Jul 13, 2006   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Action

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

The son of a milliner from New York City's Lower East Side, Aaron Chwatt became a performer after winning an amateur contest at age 12. Six years later he was a singing bellboy in a Bronx tavern. It is from the uniform that he took his famous moniker, Red Buttons. A talented and versatile performer of stage, screen, and television, Buttons is equally at home in dramatic or comedic roles, but it was as a burlesque comedian working in the Catskills Mountains that he first made a name for himself. Buttons first appeared on Broadway playing a supporting role in Vickie (1942). Buttons appeared in the play Winged Victory a short while later, and he reprised his role in the 1944 screen version. In 1952, the red-haired comedian starred in the CBS television series The Red Buttons Show. Extremely popular during its first season -- Button's distinctive theme song in which he'd clap his hands together as if in prayer and sing, "Ho Ho! He He! Ha Ha! Strange things are happening!" was a sort of hit amongst American kids -- it was a blend of variety acts and a weekly sitcom. The show declined in popularity its second season and was canceled, then picked up by NBC the following year where it ran in different formats until 1955. Button's career went into decline, but the feisty little performer made an auspicious comeback playing a love-struck American soldier who defies the racist policies of the U.S. military and marries a Japanese woman in the tragic Sayonara (1957). His role landed him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. After that Buttons became a prolific character actor who could always be counted upon to bring an extra dinemsion of believablity to the roles he played. From television to film it was always an adventure for Buttons, with his role as a soft-spoken survivor in The Poseidon Adventure and small screen roles in The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne serving well to keep the amiable actor busy and in the public eye. At the 2005 Emmys, Buttons was nominated for a "Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series" for his recurring role as Jules "Ruby" Rubadoux in the long-running medical drama ER. Just one year later Buttons would succumb to vascular disease at the age of 87.

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  • Dubbed Red Buttons when, as a redheaded teen, he got a job as a singing bellhop wearing a coat adorned with dozens of buttons.
  • A veteran of the vaudeville and burlesque circuits and the Borscht Belt.
  • Early in his career, he sometimes partnered with actor-singer Robert Alda.
  • Married his first wife, a stripper named Roxanne, in 1940, but the marriage was annulled after two years.
  • In December 1941, he was set to play on Broadway in a comedy called The Admiral Takes a Wife, about life on a naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Unfortunately, the show was scheduled to debut on December 8, the day after the Japanese bombed the real Pearl Harbor, and the production never opened. 
  • Was performing onstage in 1942 when Minsky's burlesque show Wine, Women and Song was raided by police and shut down. The event is widely considered the end of the burlesque era.
  • The catchphrase from his 1950s TV variety program, The Red Buttons Show, was "Strange things are happening," and it became a big hit among the younger generation.
  • When ratings plummeted in the second year of his show, he scrambled to find good comedic material and went through more than 160 writers in a two-year span, among them Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart.
  • In later years, was known for his "Never had a dinner" routine, about famous people who were never honored with a testimonial meal.