Later that same summer, Buttons worked on the Borscht Belt; his straight man was Robert Alda. In 1939, Buttons started working for Minsky's Burlesque; in 1941, José Ferrer chose Buttons to appear in a Broadway show The Admiral Had a Wife. The show was a farce set in Pearl Harbor, and it was due to open on December 8 1941. It never did, as it was deemed inappropriate after the Japanese attack. In later years Buttons would joke that the Japanese only attacked Pearl Harbor to keep him off Broadway.
1943 saw Buttons in the Army Air Corps. He was chosen to appear in the Broadway show Winged Victory, as well as appearing in the Darryl F. Zanuck movie version. He later went on to entertain troops in the European Theater of operations in the same unit as Mickey Rooney.
After the war, Buttons continued to do Broadway shows. He also performed at Broadway movie houses with the Big Bands. In 1952, Buttons received his own variety series on television - The Red Buttons Show ran for three years, and achieved high levels of success. His catch phrase from the show, "strange things are happening," entered the national vocabulary briefly in the mid-1950s.
His role in Sayonara was a dramatic departure from his previous work. In that film, he played Joe Kelly, an American airman stationed in Kobe, Japan during the Korean War, who falls in love with Katsumi, a Japanese woman (played by Miyoshi Umeki), but is barred from marrying her by military rules intended to reassure the local populace that the U.S. presence is temporary. His portrayal of Kelly's calm resolve not to abandon the relationship and touching reassurance of Katsumi impressed audiences and critics alike; both he and Umeki won Academy Awards for the film. After his Oscar-winning role, Buttons performed in numerous feature films, including Hatari!, The Longest Day, Harlow, The Poseidon Adventure, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Pete's Dragon, and 18 Again! with George Burns. Buttons also made many memorable TV appearances on programs including Little House on the Prairie, It's Garry Shandling's Show, ER and Roseanne.
He became a nationally recognizable comedian, and his "Never Got A Dinner" sketch was a standard at the Dean Martin roasts for many years.
Buttons was an early member of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, and at the time, Rabbi Jerome Cutler was the Rabbi.
|1947||Winged Victory||Whitey/Andrews Sister||as Cpl. Red Buttons|
|13 Rue Madeleine||Second Jump Master||uncredited|
|1957||Sayonara||Airman Joe Kelly||Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor|
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
Nominated - BAFTA Award for most promising newcomer
|1958||Imitation General||Cpl. Chan Derby|
|1959||The Big Circus||Randy Sherman|
|1961||One, Two, Three||MP sergeant||uncredited|
|Five Weeks in a Balloon||Donald O'Shay|
|The Longest Day||Pvt. John Steele|
|1963||A Ticklish Affair||Uncle Cy|
|1964||Your Cheatin' Heart||Shorty Younger|
|1965||Up from the Beach||Pfc. Harry Devine|
|Harlow||Arthur Landau||Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture|
|1969||The Moviemakers||Himself||short subject|
|They Shoot Horses, Don't They?||Sailor||Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture|
|1971||Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name?||Mickey|
|1972||The Poseidon Adventure||James Martin|
|1976||Gable and Lombard||Ivan Cooper|
|1977||Viva Knievel!||Ben Andrews|
|1978||Movie Movie||Peanuts/Jinks Murphy|
|1980||When Time Ran Out||Francis Fendly|
|1985||Alice in Wonderland||The White Rabbit|
|1990||The Ambulance||Elias Zacharai|
|1994||It Could Happen to You||Walter Zakuto|
|1999||The Story of Us||Arnie Jordan|
|2001||Odessa or Bust||The Old Man||short subject|
|2004||Goodnight, We Love You||documentary|
|2005||Sid Bernstein Presents...||Himself||documentary|