Stage-screen giant Red Buttons pressing all the rights ones at 80

Red Buttons' rapid-fire delivery even extends to interviews.

"Ask me fast, sweetheart. I'm on my way out the door," he rasps into the phone in the familiar New York accent.

Would another time be more convenient?

"Nah, I gotta go to New York."

Red Buttons will turn 80 on Feb. 5, but he isn't showing any signs of slowing down. "It's amazing, I'm busier than ever," he said.

He is still in demand for the standup comedy, honed in the Catskills, that he has done for 65 years. "I'm the top guy in the roasts," he boasted.

While he won't be roasting anyone during his visit to the Bay Area, he will be delivering laughs at Chanukah event for Chabad of Greater South Bay. The program, at San Jose's Fairmont Hotel, will honor the Torah Partners Association, comprised of major supporters of the South Bay Chabad. The evening will include a kosher Viennese dinner, dancing and a menorah lighting.

The Torah Partners are invited for a private cocktail with the headliner before the event. "It is the Torah Partners that make the work of Chabad possible, and this is an opportunity for the organization to thank all of them," said Rabbi Yosef Levin of South Bay Chabad.

But back to Buttons, who was born Aaron Chwatt on the Lower East side of Manhattan — the same neighborhood that spawned Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Fannie Brice, Jimmy Durante and the Gershwins.

"I don't know, it must have been something in the seltzer," said Buttons, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Since his long-ago Catskill days, he has not done what could be termed "Jewish humor" and he doesn't feel that Jews have a monopoly on laughs.

"I'm a Jew who is doing comedy, not a `Jewish comic,'" he said.

Although his comedy career took root in the Catskills, grew in Minsky's famed burlesque shows and blossomed in the Broadway movie house stage shows of the post-war Big Band era, it hasn't all been a barrel of laughs. Buttons also has received wide acclaim for his acting roles.

His stage credits include "Winged Victory," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Basil Rathbone, "Finian's Rainbow" and "Teahouse of the August Moon." In 1995, his one-man show, "Buttons on Broadway," brought him back to the Ambassador Theater, where 53 years earlier he had starred in the last burlesque show in New York.

He reached his peak, however, on the screen — both big and small. "The Red Buttons Show" premiered on CBS in 1952. The next year, it won him what later would become known as an Emmy for Best Comedian of the Year. In 1966 he did the series "The Double Life of Henry Phyfe" and subsequently guested on variety, sitcom and talk shows ranging from Ed Sullivan to Larry King to "Roseanne."

His movie career teamed him with stars such as Marlon Brando, Judy Garland and John Wayne. His performance in the 1957 film "Sayonara" won both the Oscar and Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor. He was nominated for another Golden Globe for his work with Jane Fonda in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

Buttons' most recent film was "It Could Happen to You" with Bridget Fonda and Nicholas Cage.

He has been honored with the Israel Cultural Award and with an annual fellowship in his name by the Israel Cancer Research Fund, among many others. "I have whole forests in Israel planted in my name," he said.

A member of the Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles, he is happy to lend his celebrity to Jewish causes, including Chabad.

"They do some good work," he said. "A friend of mine asked me to do this. He said, `Red, it's a mitzvah.'"

As for the Bay Area: "Oh yes, I've been there many times. In fact, I was there for the earthquake."

"Which earthquake?"

"The Big One, of course. I told you I was an old guy.

"Only kidding, sweetheart."

And Red Buttons hangs up the phone.