The Bright Appeal of Red Buttons

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

He was the quintessential merry little man, back when there was honor in being known as the quintessential merry little man.

Yes, honor -- in being able to make a living by hopping around onstage, alternating from foot to foot, one hand cupped to one ear the way radio announcers would do and singing a nonsense song.

Then came the jokes -- in between the ho-hos and the hee-hees and the childlike dancing about. Cunningly unassuming, misleadingly inconsequential, Red Buttons entertained his own generation, his father's and his father's before that. And thanks to television of the 1950s, his sons' generation got hee-hee'd and hoo-hoo'd, too.

His career as a funnyman, as a human marionette who implicitly dared any man in the house to equal his energy, would have made him a star by itself, but then, in 1957, Red Buttons and director Joshua Logan took a huge chance that would end up catapulting the performer into the realm where living legends dwelt. He eschewed the ha-ha, hoo-hoo for a straight dramatic role in the then-daring movie "Sayonara," about the dilemma of U.S. military men who fall in love with Japanese women while stationed in the Far East after World War II.

Unlike most '50s romantic dramas, this one dealt squarely with racism and prejudice. And although the pressures brought to bear against the lead character (portrayed by Marlon Brando) were formidable, those afflicting his little friend, Sgt. Joe Kelly (played by Buttons), were even more of an ordeal -- so much so that Kelly and his angelic girlfriend (Miyoshi Umeki) ended their lives together in a double tragedy that had movie audiences of the era awash in tears.

Buttons and Umeki won supporting-actor Oscars for their performances. And although it was barely mentioned at the time, Buttons had something in common with the man who composed the film's theme song, which was an unlikely but tremendous smash on the hit parade. The two men -- Buttons and Irving Berlin -- had come of age during slightly different ages in New York's showbiz breeding ground, the immortal Lower East Side.

Was it easier to earn immortality in the vaudeville and burlesque of the Red Buttons era, or much, much harder? His act doesn't sound like much of a challenge -- hopping around, rattling off one-liners -- but rare was the man who could make a go of it.Red Buttons was that rare man.

Getting himself cast as Sgt. Kelly was no easy feat, Buttons remarked later. Logan and others associated with the film were skeptical about hiring a baggy-pants clown to play such a tender, sensitive role. They shot so many tests of Buttons in the part, he joked, that "they could have just put scenery around them and released the footage as a feature film."

But he proved the skeptics wrong.

By the time TV took over the nation, Red Buttons was a living, breathing, sweating, singing archive of American show business; he knew every joke because he'd told them all, several times. And so he took himself and his act out of mothballs and became a television star, both with an Emmy-earning series of his own ("The Red Buttons Show," starting in 1952) and as the guest star on many another performer's variety hour. Ho-ho and hee-hee were not, in fact, child's play -- not just anybody could captivate a crowd by doing it. But Red Buttons definitely, adroitly and endearingly could.

Buttons, who died yesterday in Los Angeles at 87, was probably destined for a career in entertainment merely by having been named Aaron Chwatt, as well as having grown up in the Lower East Side. Boys named Aaron Chwatt seem very likely to have their names changed -- for professional reasons as well as aesthetic -- by the time they are bar-mitzvahed. It's a little like a venerable Jerry Seinfeld joke: Name your son "Jeeves" and chances are pretty good he'll grow up to be a butler.

Like other stars of the era, Buttons could specialize in one thing -- telling jokes -- but he had to be able to do everything, keeping the audience awake by dancing around the stage, exploring every corner. One might assume that once television lost its innocence in the early '60s, and all the former vaudevillians had redone their acts to death, and Buttons had been elevated into a more rarefied pantheon by winning an Oscar, that his television career would be pretty much kaput.

But Buttons's energy and ambition were dauntless. Out went the ho-ho's and in came a routine based on the recurring line, "Never got a dinner." It was a surefire routine that Buttons did at -- where else? -- testimonial dinners, including the faked "roasts" for celebrities that were hosted by Dean Martin on NBC. No matter how many comics might have sat on the dais at these affairs, and no matter how many might have bombed when their turn came to do the roasting, Buttons always seemed to win over the crowd.

Part of an audience's fascination with Buttons was his apparent, astonishing agelessness. His red hair stayed red, one way or another, and his boy's face retained its confounding boyishness.

Those traits worked well for Buttons in movie roles, most notably -- in the post-"Sayonara" era -- when he played a shy, sheepish, pill-popping health-food nut in the disaster hit "The Poseidon Adventure." Buttons played an aging bachelor whom yenta Shelley Winters took under her ample wing, hoping to see him engaged, or at least going steady, by the time the crossing was over. Buttons was sweet and poignant counting out his capsules for dinner and feigning shyness as Winters baited him about being lonely -- and having failed to share his life with just the right woman.

In real life, Buttons shared his life with three. Whether he was the proverbial clown who evoked laughs on the outside while weeping on the inside isn't widely known, partly because he escaped the gaze of such modern-day peepholers as People magazine. He apparently was considered too old for the audience to care about.

But stationed in front of that audience, he fell back on a lifetime of performing experience. It was a career that began when, at 16, sometimes partnered with Alan Alda's actor-father Robert, he worked as a singing and joking bellhop at a Catskills resort (the uniform's big buttons, combined with his red hair, earned him a stage name that stuck).

Endearingly fearless, or so it appeared, Red Buttons rarely met an audience he couldn't conquer. Sides were split, guts busted and that quintessential merry little man invariably left crowds happier than he'd found them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company