Red Buttons in 1999

Red Buttons in 1999

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, has died. He was 87.

Buttons died today at his Century City home after a long battle with vascular disease, publicist Warren Cowan said.

A product of New York's Lower East Side, Buttons had already 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" on CBS.

A comedy-variety show, it featured the likable Buttons' monologues, dance numbers and sketches with regulars and guests. Among the comic's recurring characters were a punch-drunk prizefighter named Rocky, a juvenile delinquent called Muggsy, and a dumb "dialect" German named Kleeglefarven.

The diminutive 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 named him Comedian of the Year in 1954.

But Buttons' time at the top on TV was short-lived.

The show, which moved to NBC when CBS canceled it after its second season, became a sitcom and was off the air a year later.

After his show was canceled in 1955, Buttons said years later, "I couldn't get arrested." Indeed, as he said at the time, "I found out how tough show business can be."

Over the next two years, he worked only 14 weeks, primarily in nightclubs, with only three guest shots on "The Perry Como Show" and a role in a "Studio One" production.

But in late 1957 he was unexpectedly back on top with his dramatic supporting role in the screen adaptation of the James Michener novel "Sayonara," starring Marlon Brando as an Army major who falls in love with a Japanese woman after he is assigned to an air base in Japan during the Korean War.

Buttons' role as the tragic Airman Joe Kelly, an enlisted man in Brando's company who marries his Japanese sweetheart despite a military policy forbidding interracial marriage, earned him an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor

"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" (the 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!"

A popular guest at testimonial dinners over the years, Buttons offered up one-liners, including: "Alex the Great, who said on his wedding night, 'It's only a nickname'." and "George W. Bush, who said to Pope John Paul II, 'Give us a visit and bring the missus."

"You think you can reach a peak and stay there, but that's not what happens. I've been coming back continuously," Buttons said in a 1987 interview. "I've had a Humpty Dumpty career. It's been a roller coaster ride."