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Chwatt was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants. At sixteen years old, Chwatt got a job as an entertaining bellhop at Ryan’s Tavern in City Island, Bronx. The combination of his red hair and the shiny buttoned bellhop uniform inspired orchestra leader Charles “Dinty” Moore to call him Red Buttons, the name under which he would later perform.
Later that same summer, Buttons worked on the Borscht Belt; his straight man was Robert Alda. In 1939, Buttons started working for Minsky’s Burlesque; 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 it 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.
In September 1942, Buttons at last got his Broadway debut in Vickie with Ferrer and Uta Hagen. Later that year, he appeared in the Minsky’s show Wine, Women and Song; this was the last Burlesque show in New York City history, as the Mayor La Guardia administration closed it down. Buttons was on stage when the show was raided.
1943 saw Buttons in the Army Air Corps. He was also chosen to appear in the Broadway show Winged Victory, as well as appearing in the Darryl F. Zanuck movie version. He later went on to join Mickey Rooney’s outfit, and he entertained troops in the European Theater of operations.
After the war, Buttons continued to do Broadway shows. He also performed at Broadway movie houses with the Big Bands. In 1952, Buttons received his own variety series on television - The Red Buttons Show ran for three years, and achieved high levels of success. His catch phrase from the show, “strange things are happening,” entered the national vocabulary briefly in the mid-1950s.
His role in Sayonara was a dramatic departure from his previous work. In that film, he played Joe Kelly, a American airman stationed in Kobe, Japan during the Korean War, who falls in love with Katsumi, a Japanese woman (played by Miyoshi Umeki), but is barred from marrying her by military rules intended to reassure the local populace that the U.S. presence is temporary. His portrayal of Kelly’s calm resolve to not abandon the relationship and touching reassurance of Katsumi impressed audiences and critics alike; both he and Umeki won Academy Awards for the film. After his Oscar-winning role, Buttons performed in numerous feature films, including Hatari!, The Longest Day, Harlow, The Poseidon Adventure, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Pete’s Dragon, and the memorable 18 Again! with George Burns. Buttons also made many memorable TV appearances on programs including It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, ER and Roseanne.
He became a nationally recognizable comedian, and his “Never Got A Dinner” sketch was a standard at the Dean Martin roasts for many years.
He is #71 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
From 1947 to 1951, Buttons was married to actress Roxanne Arlen, who would have been only 16 if her year of birth (1931), given by some sources, is accurate. His next marriage was to Helayne McNorton, from December 8, 1949 until 1963. His last marriage was to Alicia Pratt, which lasted from January 27, 1964 until her death in March 2001. In 2000, Alicia Pratt was arrested for possession of marijuana in the company of another woman. Buttons had two children, daughter Amy Buttons Morgress and son Adam Buttons. He was the advertising spokesman for the Century Village, Florida retirement community.
Buttons died of vascular disease on July 13, 2006 at his home in the Century City area of Los Angeles. He was 87 years old. His spokesman said Buttons had been ill for some time and was with family members when he passed away.