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All-Around Talent: R.I.P. Red Buttons 1919-2006

14 July 2006

On Thursday (7/13/06), famed comedian and actor RED BUTTONS died in Los Angeles after a lengthy struggle with vascular disease. He was 87.

Born AARON CHWATT on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1919, by age seven he was singing for change on street corners. His first ‘real’ job came at 16: singing bellboy in the Bronx at Dinty Moore’s Tavern, where the combination of his uniform and red hair led Moore to coin his showbiz name. Later that year, he got his first Catskills job. Eventually, despite his youth, he began working as a burlesque comic, and then moved on to Broadway shows. When MOSS HART’s Winged Victory moved from stage to screen (with GEORGE CUKOR directing), so did Buttons. During World War II, he toured Europe with MICKEY ROONEY, performing for troops and even at the Potsdam Conference.

When television became popular, Buttons moved into that field, first as a guest, then starring in The Red Buttons Show starting in 1952 and winning an Emmy the following year as Best Comedian. That variety show only lasted for three seasons, but his career picked up again when he won an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award, both for Best Supporting Actor, for his dramatic role in Sayonara, which starred MARLON BRANDO and told the story of two U.S. servicemen who fell in love with Japanese women but were forbidden to marry them by the Army’s racist regulations. Buttons continued to make regular appearances in movies and on TV; as recently as last year, he had a guest appearance on the “Ruby Redux” episode of ER.

But among comedy fans he’s especially noted for his “roast” appearances. The CD Never Got a Dinner documents his whimsical performances at four Friars Roasts (of CARY GRANT, MILTON BERLE, ELIZABETH TAYLOR, and DEAN MARTIN), and a few other roast CDs include Buttons. Unlike most roasters, Buttons operates relatively cleanly and doesn’t really insult the honorees, though he does say of Grant’s generosity that he is “a man who once took RAY CHARLES to a MARCEL MARCEAU concert” and calls Berle “a man who went to a funeral and stole the eulogy… a man who believes you should close Radio City but keep the Rockettes open.”

The CD’s title comes from his famous routine where he lists all the famous people who never were honored with testimonial dinners and describes them in increasingly absurd, goofy terms: “Adam, who said in the Garden of Eden, ‘I got more ribs, you got more broads?’... MOSHE DAYAN, who donated his eye to CBS… HELEN OF TROY, a hooker from upstate New York… MOSES, who said when he came down from Mount Sinai, ‘their food in that hospital is terrible’... JOHN WILKES BOOTH, who said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought he was a critic’... Adam, who said to GEORGE BURNS, ‘Dad, can I have my allowance?’”

In July 2001, in connection with the release of that CD, I interviewed Buttons for Adorable and charming, he talked with me by phone from his L.A. home, reminiscing in his soft-spoken voice about his lengthy and then still-active career. Here are some highlights from that interview.

Were you involved in picking the material on your CD?

RED BUTTONS: Yes, absolutely involved.

You must have had quite a lot of roasts to choose from.

RED BUTTONS: Yeah, well, those are four biggies. There’s a lot of other stuff around.

What other kind of comedy did you do besides the sort of things you have in these roasts?

RED BUTTONS: Well, in the old days I did a lot of character stuff. I did a punch-drunk fighter, I did a routine about my autograph book from public school, I did my big number for many, many years, “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” which got me through the Catskills and burlesque, which I also did on Broadway in my one-man show in 1995 at the Ambassador. A lot of the stuff was autobiographical that I do, speaking about the old days, and it might have been the family. It’s varied, it’s really a very, very homogenized pot of material—but all mine, all original and all mine.

When you had your TV series, did you also do all the writing for that?

RED BUTTONS: No, that was impossible. No, I had the greatest, I had two of the finest writers in the business. My first head writer was LARRY GELBART on my old Red Buttons Show, and Larry left me for SID CAESAR. And when he left me, another young writer came in called NEIL SIMON. He left me for Sid Caesar. I’ll tell you the truth, I wanted to leave me for Sid Caesar.

The movie you’re best known for is Sayonara. Were there people who were surprised that you would get a serious role like that?

RED BUTTONS: Shocked. Not surprised, shocked. Don’t forget, I was coming off a big upset, I had just done three years in television and I’d been cancelled. The career was, you know, I needed a lifesaver. That was it.

There must have been some people who would look at a movie with a message like that as some kind of political statement. Were there people who were upset about it?

RED BUTTONS: Well, there’s always bigots around. I don’t know. I just wanted it desperately because I believed in the message of it. I mean, I was caught up in the political and social mores, I just believed in the justice of being able to fall in love and be with somebody that you wanted to be [with] and not have any restrictions put upon it, whether because of color or again, some kind of jurisdiction over your life.

What was it like working with Marlon Brando?

RED BUTTONS: Fabulous. He was very generous. Funny, very supportive. He knew he was surrounded by people who didn’t have the experience in that kind of work that he did: the two Japanese girls and myself. And he was just a delight, very human, and he was very kind.

And you also worked with HOWARD HAWKS.

RED BUTTONS: I did one that he directed, Hatari, with JOHN WAYNE. I’ve worked with some of the biggest directors in the business, fortunately. I’ve been directed by JOSE FERRER, twice, two Broadway shows, the great GEORGE ABBOTT, the great Moss Hart, directed by JOSH LOGAN, by BILLY WILDER, by STANLEY DONEN.

And you were also in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

RED BUTTONS: SIDNEY POLLACK directed that one. That was a biggie with JANE FONDA. The Poseidon Adventure is another picture that’s gonna live forever. I particularly like the movie I was in, Harlow—I played her agent.

Actors are notorious for playing jokes on each other.

RED BUTTONS: If you’re with the right people. Marlon was a little crazy, he’d hide in closets and jump out at you and stuff. He was very amusing. I got on a TWA flight one day and I was just putting my gear away and a pillow hit me in the head. I turned around and didn’t see anybody, and two seconds later another pillow hit me. About three, four pillows came flying by. It was Marlon, crouching like a kid underneath the seat. So I pick up a pillow to hit him, and who do I hit? The stewardess, right in the head.

How about John Wayne, what was he like?

RED BUTTONS: John Wayne was very intelligent. He played a great game of chess. He was my gin partner, he and Howard Hawks, we played gin right through the whole shoot, six months shoot. One amusing incident—many, many, but the most amusing incident I had with John Wayne was, we were sitting playing gin on location in Tanganyika and out of the underbrush, a leopard walked out. And he stopped, he saw us playing, I saw him, but John Wayne’s back was to the leopard. So I just whispered to the Duke, I said, “Duke, there’s a leopard walking towards us.” He never even blinked, he just looked at me and said, “Buttons, see what he wants.”

Like I say, a very bright guy. Had a lotta fun with him. I did a two-week tour with him, you know, for the picture before the release, and I just had the time of my life. Course, I almost got a heart attack just trying to keep up drinking with him, but it was fun nevertheless. He was bigger than life. Goodness, you shoulda seen the reception we got when he came into town. It was unbelievable.

Things have changed a lot since you started out. There were so many places for people to refine their craft.

RED BUTTONS: And an all-around craft, too. Today you have your little apple and you polish it up in those little clubs. You get your 15 minutes or 12 minutes or whatever you have. But it’s not a diverse education. I mean, we were singing, we were dancing, we were doing sketches, we were doing all of them.


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