Red Buttons
Buttons in 1959
Aaron Chwatt

(1919-02-05)February 5, 1919
DiedJuly 13, 2006(2006-07-13) (aged 87)
  • Actor
  • comedian
Years active1935–2006
(m. 1947; div. 1949)
Helayne McNorton
(m. 1949; div. 1963)
Alicia Prats
(m. 1964; died 2001)

Red Buttons (born Aaron Chwatt; February 5, 1919 – July 13, 2006) was an American actor and comedian. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his supporting role in the 1957 film Sayonara. He was nominated for awards for his acting work in films such as They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Harlow, and Pete's Dragon. Buttons played the lead role of Private John Steele, the paratrooper hung up on the town steeple clock, in the 1962 international ensemble cast film The Longest Day.

Early life

Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt[1] on February 5, 1919, in Manhattan,[1] New York City, to Jewish immigrants Sophie (née Baker) and Michael Chwatt.[2][3] At 16 years old, Chwatt got a job as an entertaining bellhop at Ryan's Tavern in City Island, the Bronx, New York City. The combination of his red hair and the large, shiny buttons on the bellhop uniforms 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;[1] his straight man was Robert Alda. Buttons was working at the Irvington Hotel in South Fallsburg, New York, when the master of ceremonies became incapacitated, and Buttons asked for the chance to replace him. 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, a farce, set in Pearl Harbor at Oahu, Hawaii. It was due to open on December 8, 1941, but never did, as it was deemed inappropriate after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In later years, Buttons would joke that the Japanese only attacked Pearl Harbor to keep him off Broadway.


In September 1942, Buttons made 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 classic 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.

Buttons as Henry Phyfe

Drafted into the United States Army Air Forces, Buttons in 1943 appeared in the Army Air Forces' Broadway show Winged Victory, along with several future stars, including Mario Lanza, John Forsythe, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb. A year later, he appeared in Darryl F. Zanuck's movie version of the play, directed by George Cukor. Buttons also entertained troops in the European Theater in the same Jeep Show unit as Mickey Rooney.

After the war, Buttons continued to perform in Broadway shows. He also performed at Broadway movie houses with big bands. In 1952, Buttons received his own variety series on television, The Red Buttons Show, which ran for three years on CBS. It was the number-11 show in prime time in 1952.[4] In 1953, he recorded and had a two-sided hit with "Strange Things Are Happening"/"The Ho Ho Song", with both sides/songs essentially being the same.

His role in Sayonara was a dramatic departure from his previous work. In this film, co-starring with Marlon Brando, he played Joe Kelly, an American airman stationed in Kobe, Japan, during the Korean War, who marries Katsumi, a Japanese woman (played by Miyoshi Umeki), but he is barred from taking her back to the US. His moving portrayal of Kelly's calm resolve not to abandon the relationship, and the touching reassurance of Katsumi, impressed audiences and critics alike. Buttons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Umeki won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film.

After his Oscar-winning role, Buttons performed in numerous feature films, including the African adventure Hatari! with John Wayne, the adventure Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) (where he received top billing), the war epic The Longest Day, the biopic Harlow, the disaster film The Poseidon Adventure, the dance-marathon drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the family comedy Pete's Dragon, the disaster film When Time Ran Out with Paul Newman, and the age-reversal comedy 18 Again! with George Burns.

In 1966, Buttons again starred in his own TV series, a spy spoof called The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, which ran for one season. Buttons also made guest appearances on several TV programs, including The Eleventh Hour, Little House on the Prairie, It's Garry Shandling's Show, Knots Landing, and Roseanne. His last TV role was in ER.

Buttons in 1978

He became a nationally recognizable comedian, and his "Never Got a Dinner" routine was a standard of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for many years. He made numerous appearances at Friars Club roasts and Chabad telethons, where he was often brought on and off stage to the tune of "Hava Nagila". (He once told an interviewer, "I'm a Jew who is doing comedy, not a 'Jewish comic'."[5])

His best-known catchphrase, "Never got a dinner!" formed the basis for elaborately eccentric lists of famous people (and their mothers) who had not been honored with celebrity dinner roasts. Another of his catchphrases was "I did not come here to be made sport of," which was later taken up by radio talk-show host Howie Carr.

Buttons received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for television, located at 1651 Vine Street. He was number 71 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.

Personal life

Buttons married actress Roxanne Arlen in 1947, but the marriage soon ended in divorce. He married Helayne McNorton on December 8, 1949. They divorced in 1963. His last marriage was to Alicia Prats, which lasted from January 27, 1964, until her death in March 2001. With Prats he had two children. He was the advertising spokesman for Century Village, Florida, a retirement community.

Buttons was an early member of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, and at the time Rabbi Jerome Cutler was the rabbi.[6]


Buttons died of complications from cardiovascular disease on July 13, 2006, at age 87 at his home in Century City, Los Angeles.[7] He had been ill for a while and was with family members when he died. His ashes were given to his family after cremation.[1]



Year Title Role Notes
1944 Winged Victory Whitey/Andrews Sister credited as Cpl. Red Buttons
1946 13 Rue Madeleine Second Jump Master uncredited
1951 Footlight Varieties Red Buttons
1957 Sayonara Joe Kelly
1958 Imitation General Corporal Chan Derby
1959 The Big Circus Randy Sherman
1961 One, Two, Three Military Police Sergeant uncredited
1962 Hatari! Pockets
1962 Five Weeks in a Balloon Donald O'Shay
1962 The Longest Day Private John Steele
1962 Gay Purr-ee Robespieree Voice Role
1963 A Ticklish Affair Flight Officer Simon "Uncle Cy" Shelley
1964 Your Cheatin' Heart Shorty Younger
1965 Up from the Beach Private first class Harry Devine
1965 Harlow Arthur Landau
1966 Stagecoach Peacock
1969 They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Sailor
1971 Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name? Mickey Isador
1972 The Poseidon Adventure James Martin
1976 Gable and Lombard Ivan Cooper
1977 Viva Knievel! Ben Andrews
1977 Pete's Dragon Hoagy
1978 Movie Movie Peanuts/Jinks Murphy Both segments of film
1979 C.H.O.M.P.S. Bracken
1980 When Time Ran Out... Francis Fendly
1988 18 Again! Charlie
1990 The Ambulance Elias Zacharai
1994 It Could Happen to You Walter Zakuto
1999 The Story of Us Arnie Jordan
2001 Odessa or Bust The Old Man Short Film


Year Title Role Notes
1948 The Milton Berle Show Himself – Comedian "Red Buttons/Judy Canova/The Crackerjacks/Ella Logan/Russell Swan"
1951 Suspense unknown role "Merryman's Murder"
1952–55 The Red Buttons Show Himself (Host) 4 episodes
1952–66 The Ed Sullivan Show Himself (Comedian/Singer) recurring role (10 episodes)
1956 Studio One St. Emergency "The Tale of St. Emergency"
1958 Hansel and Gretel Hansel TV movie
1958 The Eddie Fisher Show Himself 2 episodes
1959 Playhouse 90 Jerry "A Marriage of Strangers"
1959 Startime Joe Henders "Something Special"
1959–1961 General Electric Theater Tippy-Top/Lieutenant George Poole 2 episodes
1960 Death Valley Days Levi Strauss "The Million Dollar Pants"
1960 The United States Steel Hour Inspector Plover "The Case of the Missing Wife"
1962 Frontier Circus Earl Youngblood "Never Won Fair Lady"
1962 Saints and Sinners Joe Roganyan "All the Hard Young Men"
1962 Password Himself (Celebrity Contestant) "Jane Powell vs. Red Buttons"
1982–85 The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Himself recurring role (17 episodes)
1963 20th Annual Golden Globes Himself (Host) TV special
1964 The Eleventh Hour Cody Evans "Sunday Father"
1964 The Greatest Show on Earth Walter Wallace "The Last of the Strongmen"
1965 Ben Casey Bill Jacoby "Journeys End in Lovers Meeting"
1965–66 The Andy Williams Show Himself 2 episodes
1966 The Double Life of Henry Phyfe Henry Wadsworth Phyfe series regular (17 episodes)
1966–73 The Bob Hope Show Himself 3 episodes
1967 The Danny Thomas Hour Al Risko "The Zero Man"
1967–68 The Dean Martin Show Himself 2 episodes
1967–74 The Merv Griffin Show Himself recurring role (16 episodes)
1968–69 The Jackie Gleason Show Himself 2 episodes
1969–70 Love, American Style Norman (segment "Love and the Geisha") 2 episodes
1970 George M! Sam H. Harris TV movie
1970–73 The Hollywood Squares Himself (Panelist) 3 episodes
1970 Breakout Pipes TV movie
1973 ABC Afterschool Special Alexander "Alexander"
1975 Little House on the Prairie William "Willie" O'Hara "Circus Man"
1975 Wonder Woman Ashley Norman "The New Original Wonder Woman"
1975 Let's Make a Deal Himself (Special Guest) "#5.1"
1975–84 Dean Martin Celebrity Roast Himself 14 episodes
— "Valerie Harper" (1975)
— "Muhammad Ali" (1976)
— "Dennis Weaver" (1976)
— "Joe Gargaiola" (1976)
— "Danny Thomas" (1976)
— "Angie Dickinson" (1977)
— "Gabe Kaplan" (1977)
— "Ted Knight" (1977)
— "Peter Marshall" (1977)
— "Dan Haggerty" (1977)
— "Frank Sinatra" (1978)
— "Jack Klugman" (1978)
— "Jimmy Stewart" (1978)
— "George Burns" (1978)
— "Betty White" (1978)
— "Suzanne Somers" (1978)
— "Joe Namath" (1979)
— Joan Collins" (1984)
— "Mr. T." (1984)
1976 Louis Armstrong — Chicago Style Red Cleveland TV movie
1976 Flannery and Quilt Luke Flannery TV movie
1977 The Sunshine Boys Willie Clark TV movie
1977 Telethon Marty Rand TV movie
1978 The Users Warren Ambrose TV movie
1978 Vega$ Tommy Cirko 2 episodes
1979 Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July Milton (Voice Role) TV movie
1980 Power Solly Weiss TV movie
1980 Pink Lady Police Sergeant / Himself 2 episodes
1980 The Dream Merchant Bruce Benson Miniseries (2 episodes)
1981 Aloha Paradise Nick "Letter from Broadway/Letter from Cyrano/Letter from a Secret Admirer"
1981 Leave 'em Laughing Roland TV movie
1981 Side Show Harry TV movie
1982 Off Your Rocker Seymour Slatz TV movie
1978–83 The Love Boat Jimmy Morrow/Buddy Redmond/Uncle Cyrus Foster 3 episodes
1978–83 Fantasy Island Marty Howard/Cornelius Kelly/Tony Emerson 3 episodes
1985 Reunion at Fairborough Jiggs Quealy TV movie
1985 Alice in Wonderland The White Rabbit Miniseries
1987 227 Toots "The Audit"
1987 Knots Landing Al Baker recurring role (6 episodes)
1987–89 It's Garry Shandling's Show. Himself 2 episodes
1991 The Cosby Show Jake Bennett "Cliff and Jake"
1993–94 Roseanne Jake 2 episodes
1997 Cosby Mr. Tibbles "My Dinner with Methuseleh"
1988 Ghosts of Fear Street Grandpa TV movie
1995–98 Biography Himself (Interviewee) 5 episodes
— "Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker" (1995)
— "Gypsy Rose Lee: Naked Ambition" (1996)
— "Alan Alda: More That Mr. Nice Guy" (1997)
— "Phil Silvers: Top Banana" (1997)
— "John Wayne: American Legend" (1998)
1995–2005 ER Jules "Ruby" Rubadoux recurring role (5 episodes)
1999 Early Edition Walter Stites "Pinch Hitters"
2000 Family Law Carl Porter "Second Chance"
2002 Philly Murray Klopman "The Curse of the Klopman Diamonds"
2002 Street Time Sam Kahan recurring role (4 episodes)
2002 Presidio Med Chick "Milagros"

Accolades and honors

Throughout his career, Buttons received several awards and nominations for his work in both film and television.

Accolade Year Category Nominated Work Result Ref
Academy Awards 1958 Best Supporting Actor Sayonara Won
BAFTA Awards 1959 Most Promising Newcomer to Film Nominated [8]
Golden Boot Awards 1984 Honoree Won
Golden Globes 1958 Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture Sayonara Won [9]
1966 Harlow Nominated
1970 Imitation General Nominated
Laurel Awards 1958 Top New Male Personality Nominated
1958 Top Male Supporting Performance Sayonara Won
1959 Imitation General Nominated
Primetime Emmy Awards 2005 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series (for playing "Mr. Rubadoux. for episode "Ruby Redux") ER Nominated [10]
Saturn Awards 1978 Best Supporting Actor Pete's Dragon Nominated
Walk of Fame 1960 Star on the Walk of Fame — Television (February 8, 1960. At 1651 Vine Street.) Won [11]


  1. ^ a b c d Comedian Red Buttons dies at 87 Archived July 20, 2006, at the Wayback Machine. BBC News. July 14, 2006.
  2. ^ "Motion Pictures". Encyclopaedia Judaica. Keter Publishing House. 1971–1972.
  3. ^ "Red Buttons Biography (1919-)". Archived from the original on February 21, 2018. Retrieved May 4, 2018.
  4. ^ " TV Ratings > 1950's". Archived from the original on October 8, 2017. Retrieved May 4, 2018.
  5. ^ "Stage-screen giant Red Buttons pressing all the rights ones at 80". J. The Jewish News of Northern California. December 11, 1998. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  6. ^ "The Rabbi Plays One on TV". September 19, 2003. Archived from the original on July 17, 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2008. The Forward
  7. ^ "Actor Red Buttons dead at 87". CBC Arts. July 13, 2006. Archived from the original on March 12, 2007.
  8. ^ "BAFTA Awards". Retrieved March 4, 2022.
  9. ^ "Red Buttons". Retrieved March 4, 2022.
  10. ^ "Red Buttons". Television Academy. Retrieved March 4, 2022.
  11. ^ "Red Buttons". Hollywood Walk of Fame. October 25, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2022.