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Red Buttons

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Biography: The American stand-up comedian and actor was born Aaron Chwatt in New York City on Feb. 5, 1919. He entered show business as a child street singer, moving to comedy on the Borscht Belt and in a variety of Broadway roles bookending World War II. He enjoyed a big splash as the host of his own comedy-variety series in early television, but the success was fleeting. In 1955, after three seasons, two in severe ratings decline, The Red Buttons Show was canceled and he returned to acting roles.
Big Break: While the TV gig was a major accomplishment, cementing his place as one of the top funnymen of the day, it was a dramatic role in Marlon Brando's 1957 tale of prejudice, Sayonara, that changed the course of his career. Buttons was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. During the next five decades, he appeared occasionally on TV and in films in comic personas, but usually as a guest star or sidekick character. Red Buttons, the notable actor, became his fallback job.
But, Seriously: The movie star appeared in several high profile dramatic parts, including The Longest Day (1962), Your Cheatin' Heart (1964), Stagecoach (1966), and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). His best role, perhaps, was in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), depicting the grueling dance marathons of the Great Depression. Later, working more and more in episodic TV, he continued to spout stand-up comedy in Las Vegas and at insult roasts and benefits, stopping shows with his "Never Got a Dinner" routines.
Red Buttons Memories:
  • John Wayne said of his co-star during the shooting of the lighthearted action-adventure, Hatari!: "Red is the only guy alive who could steal a movie from a monkey."
  • The performer's stage alias was secured from two elements: his bright red hair and, while working as a singing bellboy, his uniform; it was adorned with four dozen buttons. Bandleader Charles "Dinty" Moore took notice and coined the 16-year-old's nickname, "Red Buttons."
  • Wikipedia reports, "In 1941, José Ferrer chose Buttons to appear in a Broadway show, The Admiral Had a Wife. The show was a farce set in Pearl Harbor and was due to open on December 8, 1941. It never did as it was deemed inappropriate after the Japanese attack. In later years, Buttons would joke that the Japanese only attacked Pearl Harbor to keep him off of Broadway."
  • "Strange things are happening" became a national catchphrase evolving from the run of The Red Buttons Show. Buttons wrote a popular tune with the lyrics, "Ho Ho! He He! Ha Ha! Strange things are happening!" It remained his signature theme. For half a century, he would hop on one foot, clap hands, and palm his ear whenever the music played, a childlike, trademark bit recalled by fans of his TV program.
  • Mike Clark writes in USA Today: "It was 1952's The Red Buttons Show that made him an overnight success. It also made him a king-sized pain, an observation he didn't deny later. Billy Crystal's abrasive character in 1992's Mr. Saturday Night was widely thought to have been patterned on Buttons...."
Red Buttons Comic Timeline:
  • 1935 - Comedy teamed with Robert Alda (father of Alan Alda) in the Catskills [Stage]
  • 1939 - Minsky's Burlesque [Stage]
  • 1942 - Wine, Women and Song - The last Burlesque show in New York, raided by police while Buttons was onstage.
  • 1942 - Vickie [Broadway Stage]
  • 1952-55 - The Red Buttons Show [TV, Best Comedian Emmy Award]
  • 1958 - Imitation General [Film]
  • 1962 - Hatari! [Film]
  • 1963 - A Ticklish Affair [Film]
  • 1966 - The Double Life of Henry Phyfe [TV sitcom]
  • 1977 - Pete's Dragon [Film]
  • 1978 - Movie, Movie [Film]
  • 1988 - 18 Again [Film]
  • 2004 - #71: Comedy Central's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time
Red Buttons Quotes and Jokes:
  • "Never raise your hand to your kids. It leaves your groin unprotected."
  • "The last time I heard booing like that was when I was doing my act."
  • "If you want to recapture your youth, just cut off his allowance."
  • "He's a real loser. He moved into a new neighborhood and got run over by the Welcome Wagon."
  • "There is only one goal. That's to keep working and keep flossing."
  • "Elizabeth Taylor has a big heart. She recently built a halfway house for girls who don't want to go all the way."
  • "I'll tell you the truth, I wanted to leave me for Sid Caesar."
  • "Ninety isn't old. You're old when your doctor doesn't X-ray you any more. He just holds you up to the light!"
  • "Some of the most famous people in history never got a dinner!"

Died:

July 13, 2006, at home in Los Angeles, from vascular disease. Red Buttons was 87.

Sources: IMDb, NATREN, Wikipedia, Quote World, Brainy Quote, Think Exist, World of Quotes, IBDB, Answers.com, TCM, Mike Durrett.

Mike Durrett has produced and written About Humor as our Guide since 1998. He's worked as a comedian in radio and independent films, and as a professional comedy writer for entertainment personalities. He publishes original humor on his sites at MikeDurrett.com and TheTopOneList.com. Click for more info on Humor Boy.

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