Red Buttons, 87, Comedian In Vaudeville, TV, and Films

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The New York Sun

Red Buttons, the impish former burlesque comic who became an early TV sensation and an Academy Award-winning character actor during a career that spanned more than seven decades, died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.

A product of the Lower East Side, Buttons already had performed in Minsky’s Burlesque and in Broadway plays and musicals by the time he became an overnight hit on television in 1952 with the launch of “The Red Buttons Show.”

A comedy-variety show, it featured the comic’s recurring characters, including a punch-drunk prizefighter named Rocky, a juvenile delinquent called Muggsy, and a dumb “dialect” German named Kleeglefarven.

The comic — 5 feet, 6 inches and 140 pounds — inspired children around the country to mimic him singing his signature “Ho Ho Song,” in which he hopped around singing, “Ho Ho! Hee Hee! Ha Ha! Strange things are happening.”The Academy of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences Award named him Comedian of the Year in 1954.

His time at the top on TV was shortlived. It was canceled by CBS after its second season, then moved to NBC, which converted it to a sitcom. By 1955, it was off the air.

Over the next two years, he worked sporadically, but in 1957 he was unexpectedly back on top, winning an Oscar for best supporting actor in the screen adaptation of James Michener’s novel “Sayonara,” starring Marlon Brando.

“I’m a little guy,” Buttons said at the time, “and that’s what I play all the time — a little guy and his troubles.”

Buttons appeared in more than 30 movies, including “Hatari!” “The Longest Day,” “Harlow,” “Stagecoach” (1966 remake), “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “18 Again!” and “It Could Happen to You.”

In 1966, he starred in the short-lived situation comedy “The Double Life of Henry Phyfe,” in which he played a bookkeeper who is asked to pose as a secret agent.

Buttons never equaled his early TV success or the high of his Oscar win, but he also never again stopped working. He appeared in TV movies and specials and made frequent series guest shots. He had a stint on “Knots Landing” in the 1980s and recurring roles on “Roseanne” in the ‘90s and in the Showtime series “Street Time” in 2002.

In the 1970s, he made frequent appearances on “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” shows, in which Buttons would begin his portion of the proceedings by noting, “Some of the most famous people in history never got a dinner!”

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