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Hail, Red

By RD Heldenfels Published: July 13, 2005

Before I tell you why Red Buttons is so great, I have to talk about Mickey Rooney.

On Tuesday, there was a press conference for a PBS show called ''Pioneers of Primetime.'' It airs in November, and seems ripe for pledge breaks, but that's another story.

To promote the show, PBS had a press conference that included Mickey Rooney, Rose Marie, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Red Buttons and longtime director William Asher. Combined age: About 500. Every one of them is over 80. Rose Marie and Asher arrived in wheelchairs, and a frail-looking Caesar carried a cane.

Now, Rooney was an enormously talented actor. But he also loves to talk about himself, even when he is not the subject being discussed. Years ago, I saw him turn a press conference into a pitch session for himself and for projects he would like to do. On Tuesday -- with his wife loudly applauding almost every time he spoke -- Rooney pontificated, reminisced and generally tried to steal the show from the other show-biz veterans.

At one point, when a reporter asked about Milton Berle and Fred Allen, Rooney said, ''Can I answer that?''

"I would be amazed if you didn't,'' a weary Reiner interjected.

Which brings me to Red Buttons. At 86, Buttons was the oldest person onstage. He was also the funniest and the most entertaining. He not only imitated James Cagney, he stood up and imitated Cagney dancing like George M. Cohan. And, as a smart performer, he read the room -- and quickly sensed the impatience with Rooney.

He began needling Rooney for laughs, with Reiner joining in. A lot of the lines have a you-had-to-be-there quality on the page, and they don't include Buttons' facial expressions. But it was astounding, as well as mean. When Rooney introduced his wife from the stage, Buttons said, ''Introduce your mistress, too.''

Some of Buttons's jokes were ancient. (Recalling wartime service with Rooney, Buttons said, ''One day, he saved our entire outfit. He killed a cook.'') But he did not really need  Rooney as a foil. He also had jokes about his days in burlesque (''I was the youngest comedian in the history of burlesque. ... I billed myself as the only comedian with teeth.'') and other topics.

Most importantly, he had a sense of what worked at that press conference, with that crowd. Didn't matter if the jokes wouldn't work on the printed page, or even in the retelling by someone without Buttons's timing. That wasn't where Buttons was playing. He was working the room. And he knew how to work it.

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