A veteran of New York burlesque and the Catskills comedy circuit, Buttons appeared as a pilot in training in the moral-boosting stage drama "Winged Victory", and recreated the role soon thereafter in the 1944 film version. He played on Broadway after WWII and enjoyed tremendous popularity during the first season of TV's "The Red Buttons Show" (1952-55). Part variety show, part sitcom, the program gave full vent to Buttons' manic, fast-talking, knockabout style. One of Buttons' oft-repeated gestures, placing his hands together in a desperate, somewhat prayerful manner, was on regular display in the show, and children everywhere mimicked the "Ho Ho! He He! Ha Ha! Strange things are happening!" theme song. His gallery of characters, meanwhile, including the Sad Sack; the Kupke Kid, a child; Rocky, a boxer; and the bumbling Keeglefarven, played up the at-once argumentative and long-suffering aspects of his persona.
When the show's popularity abruptly faded, Buttons' career stalled, but like Frank Sinatra, another compact, multi-talented performer who was called a has-been, Buttons also revived his career with a very dramatic performance which copped him a supporting actor Oscar. As a soldier whose interracial romance with a Japanese woman leads to bigotry-induced tragedy in "Sayonara" (1957), Buttons began a very successful career as a character actor in features. While not eschewing comedy (the rowdy adventure "Hatari!" 1962, the underrated "Movie Movie" 1978, "18 Again" 1988), some of Buttons' best work has been in drama. His smart, supportive agent was the best thing about the trashy if watchable Hollywood biopic, "Harlow" (1965) and he was very moving as a desperate dance marathoner in the striking "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969). Buttons also did well as one of the endangered passengers in the surprisingly good disaster epic, "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972).
Some of Buttons' most visible work in more recent years, though, has been on TV. The deliberately abrasive edge Buttons brings to his manic characters was prominent in the cranky messenger who plagued the cast of "Knot's Landing" for the 1987 season. He was also often show-stoppingly hilarious stomping onto the dais of Dean Martin's celebrity roasts (1972-77; and occasional 80s specials) to harangue the honoree with wild cries of "Some of the most famous people in history never got a dinner!"