15 June 2024

Don Ameche

Throughout his 65-year career, American actor Don Ameche (1908-1993) worked in cinema, television, theatre and radio. He was the dapper, moustached leading man in classic Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1986, he won an Oscar for his role as a rejuvenated oldster in Cocoon (1986).

Don Ameche
Vintage postcard. Photo: Republic Pictures.

Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert in Midnight (1939)
German collector card by Ross Verlag. Photo: Paramount. Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert in Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939).

Don Ameche
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2621/1, 1939-1940. Photo: Schostal / 20th Century Fox.

Don Ameche
Dutch postcard by J.S.A., 1947. Photo: Universal M.P.E.

A trim figure, pencil-thin moustache, and rich baritone voice

Don Ameche was born Dominic Felix Amici in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1908. His father, Felice Amici, was a bartender from the Italian village of Montemonaco in the Marche, and his mother was Barbara Etta Hertel. Ameche was the second-oldest of eight children. His brother Jim Ameche (1915-1986) also became an actor and radio presenter.

Ameche attended Marquette University, Loras College, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. While studying law at the University of Wisconsin, Don performed in student theatre. When a lead actor for a stock company production of 'Excess Baggage' fell out, a friend persuaded him to stand in. After that, he forewent his law career and became a full-time theatrical actor.

He got a juvenile lead in 'Jerry For Short' in New York. A tour in Vaudeville with Texas Guinan followed until she dropped him from the act, dismissing him as "too stiff". Ameche moved in 1930 to Chicago, where he began appearing as an actor in radio productions, which brought him his first popularity. He made his screen debut in a feature short, Beauty at the World's Fair (1933). Ameche moved to Hollywood where he screen-tested with MGM in 1935, but the studio did not want to give him a contract.

The following year, 20th-Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck brought him to Hollywood. AllMovie: "Ameche, with his trim figure, pencil-thin moustache, and rich baritone voice was neither a conventionally handsome leading man nor the dashing hero type. Instead, he embodied a wholesomeness and bland honesty that made him the ideal co-lead and foil for the more complex heroes." He had his breakthrough in the musical Alexander's Ragtime Band (Henry King, 1938) with Tyrone Power and Alice Faye.

Ameche appeared in several film biographies, including the title role in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (Irving Cummings, 1939). The film was a tremendous success. Calling the telephone an 'ameche' became popular American slang in the 1940s. Also in 1939, he played a taxi driver who disguises himself as a baron in the Screwball Comedy Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939) alongside Claudette Colbert. Ameche was Alice Faye's leading man in Hollywood Cavalcade (Irving Cummings, 1939). He then played another real-life figure, Stephen Foster, in Swanee River (Sidney Lanfield, 1939). He did a third biopic, Lillian Russell (Irving Cummings, 1940) with Faye, and was top-billed in a war film, Four Sons (Archie Mayo, 1940).

Don Ameche in Sins of Man (1936)
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 1103. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Don Ameche in Sins of Man (Otto Brower, Gregory Ratoff, 1936).

Don Ameche
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 1103a. Photo: Paramount.

Don Ameche and Loretta Young in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
British postcard by Picturegoer, no. FS194. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Loretta Young and Don Ameche in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (Irving Cummings, 1939). Collection: Marlene Pilaete.

A perfect blend of sophistication, romance, wit and bittersweet sentiment

Don Ameche's favourite role was the bon vivant Henry Van Cleve in Ernst Lubitsch's melancholy comedy Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943) with Gene Tierney. The film tells the story of a man who has to prove he belongs in Hell by telling his life story.

Brendon Hanley reviews at AllMovie: "Heaven is typical of the "Lubitsch Touch": It's a perfect blend of sophistication, romance, wit and bittersweet sentiment. The benevolent story reveals Don Ameche's life to be as average as any man's, but Lubitsch's genuine tenderness elevates the tale to the majestic. Ameche and Gene Tierney deliver mature, convincing performances, appropriate to the subject matter."

Ameche also appeared in several musicals, such as Down Argentine Way (Irving Cummings, 1940) and Moon Over Miami (Walter Lang, 1941), both alongside Betty Grable. In 1940, he was voted the 21st most popular star in Hollywood. At the same time, he continued to appear on popular radio shows such as 'The Bickersons' opposite Frances Langford and 'The Charlie McCarthy Show'.

After his studio contract with 20th Century Fox ended in the late 1940s, the quality of his film work quickly declined. Ameche concentrated on the then-new medium of television. In 1950 Ameche became the star of Holiday Hotel, on ABC-TV. He also acted in theatre.

In 1955, he appeared for the first time in a Broadway production, in the world premiere of Cole Porter's musical 'Silk Stockings'. He played the male lead alongside Hildegard Knef. On TV, he hosted NBC's International Showtime from 1961 to 1965. He began appearing infrequently in low-budget films during the 1960s and 1970s but made only five films from 1949 to 1983.

Don Ameche
American postcard by EKC.

Don Ameche
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 217. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Don Ameche
French postcard, no. 754. Photo: Fox Film.

A villainous millionaire

Over 70 years old, Don Ameche made a comeback as a film actor in the 1980s. Director John Landis wanted him to replace the ailing Ray Milland who was cast as the villainous millionaire Mortimer Duke opposite Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in the comedy Trading Places (John Landis, 1983), also with Ralph Bellamy.

Ameche had not acted in a film for 13 years. When Landis was erroneously told Ameche was dead, a receptionist told him that Ameche was alive as she had seen him on his walks in Santa Monica. Landis found Ameche listed in the phone book. The success of this film and his role revitalised his film career and he acted consistently until only a month before his death.

In 1985, he received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a retirement home Casanova in Cocoon (Ron Howard, 1985), starring Steve Guttenberg. Further appearances in film comedies include roles in Harry and the Hendersons (William Dear, 1987), Coming to America (John Landis, 1988) starring Eddie Murphy, and Cocoon: The Return (Daniel Petrie, 1988).

He earned good reviews for his role opposite Joe Mantegna in Things Change (David Mamet, 1988). Ameche played an impish shoemaker chosen to take the fall for a mob hit. Michael Hastings at AllMovie: "Ameche's performance is equal parts Marcello Mastroianni and Charles Chaplin: alternately profound and quizzical, he never plays the role merely for slapstick laughs." He made his last brief but memorable performance in Corrina, Corrina (Jessie Nelson, 1994) starring Whoopi Goldberg, shortly before he died.

Don Ameche had been married to Honore Prendergast since 1932 till she died in 1986. They had six children. Don Ameche died of prostate cancer in 1993 at his son Don Jr.'s home in Scottsdale, Arizona. His body was cremated and his ashes buried alongside his wife Honore in Resurrection Catholic Cemetery, known as St. Philomena's Cemetery, in Asbury, Dubuque County, Iowa. Don Ameche was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1992.

Don Ameche
Dutch postcard by S. & v. H. A., no. 1103a. Photo: M.P.E.A.

Don Ameche
British Art Photo postcard, no. 165.

Don Ameche
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W. 298. Photo: British Lion Republic.

Sources: Brendon Hanley (AllMovie), Michael Hastings (AllMovie), AllMovie, Wikipedia (German, Dutch, French and English) and IMDb.

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