Red Buttons
Buttons in 1959
Aaron Chwatt

(1919-02-05)February 5, 1919
DiedJuly 13, 2006(2006-07-13) (aged 87)
OccupationActor, comedian
Years active1935–2006
Roxanne Arlen
(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 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] to Jewish immigrants Sophie (née Baker) and Michael Chwatt.[2][3] 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 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 he 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. 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 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
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 Winged Victory, 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 do 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 #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 is barred from taking her back to the United States. 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 Africa 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
Buttons in 1978

He became a nationally recognisable 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 honoured 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 the radio talk show host Howie Carr.

Buttons received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for television, his star being 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, Amy Buttons and Adam Buttons. 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 as Cpl. Red Buttons
1946 13 Rue Madeleine Second Jump Master uncredited
1951 Footlight Varieties Himself
1957 Sayonara Airman Joe Kelly Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer
1958 Imitation General Cpl. Chan Derby
1959 The Big Circus Randy Sherman
1961 One, Two, Three MP sergeant cameo; uncredited
1962 Hatari! Pockets
1962 Five Weeks in a Balloon Donald O'Shay
1962 The Longest Day Private John Steele
1962 Gay Purr-ee Robespierre voice
1963 A Ticklish Affair Uncle Cy
1964 Your Cheatin' Heart Shorty Younger
1965 Up from the Beach Pfc. Harry Devine
1965 Harlow (Paramount film starring Carroll Baker) Arthur Landau Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
1966 Stagecoach Peacock
1969 The Moviemakers Himself short subject
1969 They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Sailor Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
1971 Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name? Mickey
1972 The Poseidon Adventure James Martin
1975 The New Original Wonder Woman (pilot) Ashley Norman
1976 Gable and Lombard Ivan Cooper
1977 Viva Knievel! Ben Andrews
1977 Pete's Dragon Hoagy Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor
1978 The Users Warren Ambrose TV movie
1978 Movie Movie Peanuts / Jinks Murphy
1979 Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July Milton voice
1979 C.H.O.M.P.S. Bracken
1980 When Time Ran Out Francis Fendly
1980 The Dream Merchants Bruce Benson TV movie
1985 Reunion at Fairborough Jiggs Quealy
1985 Alice in Wonderland The White Rabbit
1988 18 Again! Charlie
1990 The Ambulance Elias Zacharai
1994 It Could Happen to You Walter Zakuto
1995 Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler's House Himself
1999 The Story of Us Arnie Jordan
2000 AMC Backstory - The Longest Day Himself documentary
2001 Odessa or Bust The Old Man short subject
2004 Goodnight, We Love You documentary
2005 Sid Bernstein Presents... Himself documentary


  1. ^ a b c d Comedian Red Buttons dies at 87 Archived 2006-07-20 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. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 17, 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) The Forward
  7. ^ "Actor Red Buttons dead at 87". CBC Arts. July 13, 2006. Archived from the original on March 3, 2007.