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Goodbye Red Buttons RIP (Read 351 times)
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Goodbye Red Buttons RIP
, 2006 at 6:48am
Sad sayonara to Red Buttons
Updated 7/13/2006 8:44 PM ET
Actor-comedian Red Buttons, famous for his role in Sayonara and The Poseidon Adventure, died Thursday at 87.
By Mike Clark, USA TODAY
As unusual career trajectories go, Red Buttons went from Catskills stand-up comic to Oscar winner for a movie in which he played opposite Marlon Brando, then very much in his prime.
And this doesn't even address Buttons busting Jeep shock absorbers chasing giraffes and rhinos on location with John Wayne in Tanganyika for Hatari!
You want more? A CBS variety series in TV's early days swept the country, around the time he recorded a Billboard No. 15 novelty record that spun off a personal catchphrase the country briefly took to heart. With The Ho Ho Song on the flip side, the hit song was Strange Things Are Happening— which pretty well explains how you later end up on the first Poseidon at 53, paired on screen with onetime teen cover girl Carol Lynley.
After a long illness, Buttons died Thursday at 87 of vascular disease in the Century Hills section of Los Angeles. He had a remarkably sustained career, including countless TV appearances after major movie roles dried up. But he will always be identified with the Friars Club brand of "Ho Ho" because at heart, he was always a stand-up comic.
Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt on New York's Lower East Side, and had the hair color to legitimize his nickname.
A former singing bellhop, he ended up in the Catskills, where he honed his skills.
A Marine Corps stint landed him, with other future stars, in Moss Hart's service-produced play Winged Victory. Buttons also appeared in the George Cukor movie version.
Nightclub and stage appearances followed, but 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, whose career then so quickly nosedived that 1957's Sayonara was regarded as a comeback vehicle.
The movie with Brando was one of the year's biggest hits. It rather intriguingly cast the former Borscht-belter as Airman Joe Kelly — who defies orders and tradition in occupied postwar Japan to marry a native. Miyoshi Umecki played his bride, and she and Buttons won supporting Oscars.
Buttons' career was renewed — though as with many who hit it surprisingly big and fast in movies, success sometimes led to follow-up piffle such as A Ticklish Affair and Five Weeks in a Balloon.
But there were some gems. Delightful Hatari! (1962) put him in Africa with Wayne as comic relief "Pockets." The same year, he had a memorable cameo in The Longest Day as the D-Day paratrooper whose parachute gets entangled. His most underrated performance was as one of Jane Fonda's dance-marathon partners in 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? His achievement was overshadowed by his co-stars' accolades, but his portrayal of a participant too old for the stress was on the button.
Buttons gave Liz Taylor's Cleopatra its most apt early review ("a challenge to the kidneys") and had a one-man Broadway show in 1995. Projecting mock offense, his hysterical "Never Got a Dinner" sketch was for years a staple at roasts (he got his own at the Friars Club in 1982). He was married three times.
By less than two weeks, Buttons' death follows that of comic Jan Murray, who worked the same grand tradition. A dying breed, alas, is indeed really dying.
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