LOS ANGELES – Red Buttons, the carrot-topped burlesque comedian who became a top star in early television and then won a 1957 Oscar with a surprising dramatic turn in “Sayonara,” died Thursday. He was 87.
Buttons died of vascular disease at his home in the Century City area of Los Angeles, publicist Warren Cowan said.
With his eager manner and rapid-fire wit, Buttons excelled in every phase of show business, from the Borscht Belt of the 1930s to celebrity roasts in the 1990s.
His greatest achievement came with his “Sayonara” role as Joe Kelly, an enlisted man in the post-World War II occupation forces in Japan, whose romance with a Japanese woman (Myoshi Umeki, who also won an Academy Award) ends in tragedy.
Buttons’ Academy Award led to other films, both dramas and comedies. They included “Imitation General,” “The Big Circus,” “Hatari!” “The Longest Day,” “Up From the Beach,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Gable and Lombard” and “Pete’s Dragon.”
A performer since his teens, Buttons was noticed by burlesque theater owners and he became the youngest comic on the circuit. He graduated to small roles on Broadway before being drafted in 1943.
Discharged in 1946, Buttons returned to nightclub and theater work. In 1952, CBS signed him for a weekly show as the network’s answer to NBC’s Milton Berle.
“The Red Buttons Show” was first broadcast on CBS on Oct. 14, 1952, without a sponsor because Buttons was virtually unknown. Within a month, the show became a solid hit and advertisers were clamoring.
After a sensational first season, “The Red Buttons Show” began to slide. Reports circulated that the star had fits of temper and frequently fired writers, and the show ended after three seasons.
“Certainly I made mistakes, and mistakes were made for me,” he said in 1960. “When you go into TV cold, as I did, it’s murder.”
While the failure was a severe blow to the normally optimistic comedian, he soon recovered and resumed his career as a guest star on TV shows. A role on “Suspense” brought him to the attention of director Josh Logan, who cast him for the career-making “Sayonara.”