- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Red Buttons, the carrot-topped burlesque comedian who became a top star in early television and then won a 1957 Oscar with a surprising dramatic turn in “Sayonara,” died yesterday. He was 87.

Mr. Buttons died of vascular disease at his home in the Century City area of Los Angeles, publicist Warren Cowan said. He had been ill for some time and was with family members when he died, Mr. Cowan said.

Mr. Buttons excelled in every phase of show business, from the Borscht Belt of the 1930s to celebrity roasts in the 1990s.

His greatest achievement came with his “Sayonara” role as Sgt. Joe Kelly, a soldier in the post-World War II occupation forces in Japan whose romance with a Japanese woman (Myoshi Umeki, who also won an Academy Award) ends in tragedy.

Mr. Buttons’ Academy Award led to other films, both dramas and comedies. They included “Imitation General,” “The Big Circus,” “Hatari!” “The Longest Day,” “Up From the Beach,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Gable and Lombard” and “Pete’s Dragon.”

“He proved it was no accident by winning an Oscar that comedians can be in movies,” fellow comedian Jack Carter said. “He was more than a comedian, he was a wise man.”

A performer since his teens, Mr. Buttons was noticed by burlesque theater owners and he became the youngest comic on the circuit. He had graduated to small roles on Broadway before being drafted in 1943.

Along with dozens of other future stars, including John Forsythe, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, Mr. Buttons was enlisted for “Winged Victory,” the play that famed director-playwright Moss Hart created for the Air Force.

Discharged in 1946, Mr. Buttons returned to nightclub and theater work. In 1952, CBS signed him for a weekly show as the network’s answer to NBC’s Milton Berle.

“The Red Buttons Show” was first broadcast on CBS Oct. 14, 1952, without a sponsor since the star was virtually unknown. Within a month, the show became a solid hit and advertisers were clamoring.

In 1966, Mr. Buttons starred in another series, “The Double Life of Henry Phyfe,” as a humble accountant enlisted as a government spy. The show lasted only six months.

Over the years he remained a steady performer on television, appearing on such series as “Knots Landing,” “Roseanne” and “ER.” He also took his act on the road, appearing in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., and at conventions, and returning to his beginnings in the Catskills.

Still in good health at 76 — “They call me the only Yiddish leprechaun,” he said — Mr. Buttons appeared in New York in 1995 with an autobiographical one-man show, “Buttons on Broadway.”

Mr. Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt on Feb. 15, 1919, son of an immigrant milliner, in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.

At 16 he was working as a singer and bellhop in a gin mill on New York’s City Island. Since all bellhops were called Buttons and he had red hair, he got his new name.

Mr. Buttons was married and divorced twice in his early career. He and his late third wife, Alicia, had a son and daughter, Adam and Amy. In addition to the children, Mr. Buttons is survived by a brother and sister.

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