Mr. Buttons' stage persona was as endearing and unthreatening as his name (which he picked up while wearing a many-buttoned outfit as a bellhop and singer at a bar in City Island, The Bronx). Small, bright-eyed and vulnerable seeming, his brand of comedy played on the foibles and worries of the "little guy," as he put it.
Born Aaron Chwatt on Feb. 5, 1919, in a Lower East Side tenement, his upbringing was rough. After moving to the Bronx, he found early success on the stage, winning work in the Catskills by the time he was 16, teaming up with future Broadway great Robert Alda. Gigs in Burlesque led a role in a play called The Admiral Takes a Wife. What would have been his Broadway debut, however, instead turned into one of the more bizarre footnotes in theatre history. The play was set in a navel base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, but the show's opening night was poorly chosen: Dec. 7, 1941. Admiral never opened.
He did make it to Broadway in the short-lived 1942 farce Vickie and then, while in uniform, was cast in the hit Moss Hart military play Winged Victory. Other Broadway credits included Barefoot Boy With Cheek and Hold It!.
Mr. Buttons found his greatest fame on the small screen, becoming an instant sensation in 1952 as the impish star and host of "The Red Buttons Show" on CBS. He won an Emmy for Best Comedian, but success was fleeting. Ratings fell the second season. After a third season on NBC and a host of hired and fired writers, the show was cancelled.
The comic rebounded in dramatic fashion in 1957 by winning an Oscar for his performance as a GI who marries a Japanese woman in Joshua Logan's "Sayonara." After that, he frequently found work in film, playing lovable losers in movies like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "The Poseidon Adventure." He also stayed in the public eye as a frequent guest the bawdy, boozy Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts of the 1970s, rolling out his famous "Never Got a Dinner" routine. He returned to Broadway in 1995 for the one-man show Buttons on Broadway, in which he reminisced about his career, told some of the old jokes, and bemoaned the fact that he was now often confused with another comedian, Red Skelton.