Red Buttons, an impish redheaded comic whose career included vaudeville, an Oscar-winning dramatic role and guest spots on The Cosby Show and Roseanne, died Thursday of vascular disease at his home in the Century City area of Los Angeles, according to publicist Warren Cowan. He was 87.
Buttons had been ill for some time, and was with family members when he died, Cowan told the Associated Press.
Born Aaron Chwatt and raised in the Bronx, Buttons got his nickname when he was a young singing waiter whose uniform had a lot of buttons on it. “Red” referred to his carrot top.
In 1952, after a long and successful career as a Borscht Belt comic (Buttons’s musical theme was “The Ho-Ho Song,” to which he danced on one leg), he starred in TV’s The Red Buttons Show. The high point of his career came with the 1957 film adaptation of the James Michener World War II novel, Sayonara, starring Marlon Brando.
Buttons played Airman Joe Kelly, an American who marries a Japanese woman (Miyoshi Umeki). Both characters commit suicide rather than continue to endure the prejudice they encountered.
Buttons won the Supporting Actor Oscar for the role – and went on to become highly visible in movies for the next 20 years and on TV nearly until his death.
Other movies included The Big Circus, Hatari! The Longest Day, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The Poseidon Adventure and Pete’s Dragon. He also appeared on TV shows such as The Cosby Show, Roseanne and Dennis Miller Live.
In 1964, Buttons married his third wife, Alicia, with whom he had two children. Alicia Buttons died in 2001.