Don Ameche


Actor
Don Ameche

About

Also Known As
Dominic Felix Ameche
Birth Place
Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA
Born
May 31, 1908
Died
December 06, 1993
Cause of Death
Prostate Cancer

Biography

With his good looks and trademark pencil thin moustache, Don Ameche specialized in musicals and comedies during the 1930s and 1940s, often cast as likeable, upper-class sophisticates. He earned his first notoriety on radio, which led to a contract with 20th Century Fox and such popular features as "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938). He achieved his pinnacle of ...

Photos & Videos

The Feminine Touch - Publicity Stills
Alexander's Ragtime Band - Movie Poster
Midnight - Movie Poster

Family & Companions

Honore Prendergast
Wife
Were high school sweethearts; married in 1932 until her death in 1978.

Notes

He was given the National Italian American Foundation Award at Atlantic City's Trump Castle, NJ (1991)

Biography

With his good looks and trademark pencil thin moustache, Don Ameche specialized in musicals and comedies during the 1930s and 1940s, often cast as likeable, upper-class sophisticates. He earned his first notoriety on radio, which led to a contract with 20th Century Fox and such popular features as "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938). He achieved his pinnacle of fame with the titular part in the biography "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell" (1939), though "Midnight" (1939) and "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) were arguably his finest showcases as a comedic leading man. Ameche's film opportunities dried up in the late 1940s, but he still managed to keep busy with a variety of television and stage assignments, and briefly reignited his career in the following decade via some Broadway successes. However, it was not until his turn as an evil billionaire in the hit comedy "Trading Places" (1983) that the now elderly actor found himself truly in demand once again. Recognition from his peers finally came via his role in Ron Howard's fantasy hit "Cocoon" (1985) for which he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Over a career spanning more than six decades, Ameche managed to make his mark in three different mediums and weathered significant career lulls with veracity and hard work, offering three of his most indelible performances well into his golden years.

Don Ameche was born Dominic Felix Amici on May 31, 1908 in Kenosha, WI, the second of eight children. His father - who Americanized the spelling of the family name due to prejudices at the time - was a bar owner who carried a sidearm at all times and often resorted to violence when dealing with troublemakers. He was also allegedly involved in the smuggling in of Italian immigrants with the help of a deputy sheriff in their town, which gave him the power to operate with impunity. Ameche took a different course in life and opted to play basketball and cultivate his love of acting in school plays. He continued his studies at Dubuque's Columbia College, but when the Depression hit, Ameche had to put his education aside for a time in order to support his siblings. While the youth had considered the priesthood, Ameche's father hoped that he would practice law. The young man decided to pursue the latter course, but his love of acting stayed with him and flourished while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. After successfully stepping in at the last minute to replacement an ailing lead actor in a local staging of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," Ameche abandoned law entirely so as to concentrate solely on performing. After some work on the vaudeville and summer stock circuits, he established a new career on Chicago radio beginning in 1930. Blessed with a resonant, pleasing voice and great versatility at shaping it for different characters, he found success on a pair of dramatic programs. That resulted in an offer to work on the West Coast, where he served as host of "The Chase and Sanborn Hour," where he often found himself the butt of jokes instigated by Edgar Bergen's wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy.

In 1935, Ameche began a long association with 20th Century Fox. Despite a screen test that was considered less than stellar, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck detected Ameche's potential and signed him up regardless. The newcomer earned his first notable film job the following year in the drama "Sins of Man" (1936), but more distinguished productions quickly came his way. He starred alongside some of the studio's biggest stars, including Tyrone Power and Alice Faye in the smash musicals "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), and made an appealing and energetic D'Artagnan in "The Three Musketeers" (1939). He essayed the title role in "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell" (1939) and that performance was so indelible that for years afterward, "Ameche" was a slang term for telephones, something the actor accepted with good humor. Having proven himself critically, Ameche truly specialized in playing suave sophisticates and was usually always appealing, rarely more so than when he appeared opposite Claudette Colbert in the screwball comedy gem "Midnight" (1939), which he made while on loan out to Paramount Pictures.

A few more notable projects followed, including Ernst Lubitsch's superb fantasy-comedy-drama "Heaven Can Wait" (1943), which Ameche considered to be his favorite film. On the whole, however, his feature assignments had largely grown uninteresting and fewer in number. After starring opposite Carmen Miranda in the musical comedy "Greenwich Village" (1944), he opted to become a free agent and ended his association with Fox, despite a sizeable renewal offer. At that time, he joined with several other investors, including fellow stars Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer in the ownership of the Los Angeles Dons, a team in the brand new All-American Football Conference. A challenger to the established National Football League, the AAFC began play in 1946, but failed to compare in popularity and most of its teams (including the Dons) folded at the end of 1949. On a more auspicious note, Ameche's radio fame reached its pinnacle during that period, thanks to "The Bickersons" (NBC/CBS, 1946-1951). The sitcom featured him as an endlessly put-upon husband who is unable to please his shrewish wife (Frances Langford) no matter what he does. The concept of an endlessly quarreling couple was actually rather fresh at the time and the show was credited with influencing the humor and direction of television programs like "The Honeymooners" (CBS, 1955-56).

On the feature front, things were less fortuitous. Following Douglas Sirk's musical-comedy "Slightly French" (1949), Ameche's career as a leading man was over. He moved his family from California to New York and spent the next few years working mostly on television. He reteamed with his "Bickersons" co-star for "The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show" (ABC, 1951-52), but the early daytime musical comedy program was an expensive failure. After vocal training, he made a belated Broadway debut in "Silk Stockings" (1955-56), which Ameche later counted among his career highlights. Bolstered by this comeback, he also appeared on the Great White Way in "Holiday for Lovers" (1957) and "Goldilocks" (1958-59). The same year that the latter finished its run, Ameche joined the cast of regulars for a three-year stint on the popular game show "To Tell the Truth" (CBS, 1956-1968). He was awarded a pair of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his radio and television careers in 1960.

After a gap of more than a decade, Ameche returned to movie screens in "A Fever in the Blood" (1961) and to the character of John Bickerson for a trio of comedy albums that again reunited him with Langford. However, his main project during the early 1960s was hosting "International Showtime" (NBC, 1961-65). Among the earliest TV programs to be produced on videotape, it sent Ameche to various countries in Europe and Asia, where he would present a selection of the area's finest circus performers in action. The schlocky Bert I. Gordon horror thriller "Picture Mommy Dead" (1966) was Ameche's only other film during the 1960s and an attempt by director George Roy Hill to spin his hit comedy "The World of Henry Orient" (1964) on to Broadway with Ameche as the star failed when the revamped musical incarnation, "Henry, Sweet Henry," closed after just two months in 1967. Aside from roles in Walt Disney's "The Boatniks" (1970), the military farce "Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?" (1970) and guest star appearances on network programs, Ameche was only occasionally employed.

It was rare for performers of Ameche's age to have significant third act comebacks, but he enjoyed just that, thanks to John Landis' comedy hit "Trading Places" (1983). Replacing Ray Milland - who had to drop out of the film due to health issues - Ameche was paired with fellow Golden Age star Ralph Bellamy (whom he had befriended back when they attended the University of Wisconsin five decades earlier) as billionaire siblings whose callous bet regarding the predictability of human nature leads to their financial ruin. While stars Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd received much of the attention, the two veterans made for a wonderful team and added considerably to the film's humor. The movie's substantial success resulted in much renewed interest in Ameche and he joined even more veteran players in Ron Howard's fantasy/comedy "Cocoon" (1985). As one of a group of senior citizens revivified by accidental exposure to some alien cocoons, Ameche worked wonders with the humorous and dramatic components of a script that was sometimes less than stellar. In impeccable shape for his age, he was even able to do most of the character's break dancing routine. The result was a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and a significant comeback for the 76-year-old performer.

The Bigfoot comedy "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987) and the pedestrian sequel "Cocoon: The Return" (1988) offered Ameche few challenges, but David Mamet's "Things Change" (1988) gave the actor a plum role as a lowly cobbler who agrees to confess to a murder he did not commit in exchange for his dream possession: a fishing boat. An effective change of pace for him, the sharply written film showcased one of Ameche's most endearing performances. He made a final bow on Broadway via a short stint as a replacement performer in a new production of "Our Town" (1988-89) and he and Bellamy revived their "Trading Places" characters for cameos in Landis' "Coming to America" (1989). Ameche also reunited with Landis for the critically reviled Sylvester Stallone comedy "Oscar" (1991) and followed that disappointment up with "Folks!" (1992), which was even more vehemently derided. Neither movie was embraced by audiences either, but it hardly mattered to the actor, who revelled in his late-career renaissance. Ameche was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but remained determined to continue working for as long as he could. He died of the disease on December 6, 1993, not long after finishing his part in the comedy-drama "Corinna, Corinna" (1994).

By John Charles

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Corrina, Corrina (1994)
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
Voice
Sunstroke (1992)
Jake
Folks! (1992)
Oscar (1991)
Oddball Hall (1991)
Cocoon: the Return (1988)
Coming to America (1988)
Things Change (1988)
Harry And The Hendersons (1987)
Pals (1987)
A Masterpiece Of Murder (1986)
Cocoon (1985)
Trading Places (1983)
Gidget Gets Married (1972)
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970)
Colonel Flanders
The Boatniks (1970)
Commander Taylor
Picture Mommy Dead (1966)
Edward Shelly
Rings Around the World (1966)
John Shawcross
A Fever in the Blood (1961)
Sen. A. S. Simon
Slightly French (1949)
John Gayle
Sleep, My Love (1948)
Richard Courtland
That's My Man (1947)
Joe Grange
So Goes My Love (1946)
Hiram Stevens Maxim
Guest Wife (1945)
Joe Parker
It's in the Bag! (1945)
Greenwich Village (1944)
Kenneth Harvey
Wing and a Prayer (1944)
Cmdr. "Bingo" Harper
Heaven Can Wait (1943)
Henry Van Cleve
Happy Land (1943)
Lew Marsh
Something to Shout About (1943)
Ken Douglas
Girl Trouble (1942)
Pedro Sullivan
The Magnificent Dope (1942)
Dwight Dawson
That Night in Rio (1941)
Larry Martin/Baron [Manuel] Duarte
The Feminine Touch (1941)
John Hathaway
Confirm or Deny (1941)
Mitch [Mitchell]
Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941)
Lloyd Lloyd
Moon Over Miami (1941)
Phil O'Neil [McNeil]
Lillian Russell (1940)
Edward Solomon
Four Sons (1940)
Chris [Bern]
Down Argentine Way (1940)
Ricardo Quintano
Swanee River (1940)
Stephen Foster
Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)
Michael Linnett Connors
Midnight (1939)
Tibor Czerny
The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
Alexander Graham Bell
The Three Musketeers (1939)
D'Artagnan
Happy Landing (1938)
Jimmy Hall
Gateway (1938)
Dick [Court]
Josette (1938)
David Brossard, Jr.
Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
Charlie Dwyer
In Old Chicago (1938)
Jack O'Leary
One in a Million (1937)
Bob Harris
Love Under Fire (1937)
Tracy Egan
Fifty Roads to Town (1937)
Peter Nostrand
You Can't Have Everything (1937)
George Macrae, also known as George Blake
Love Is News (1937)
Martin J. Canavan
Ladies in Love (1936)
Dr. Rudi Imri
Ramona (1936)
Alessandro
Sins of Man (1936)
Karl Freyman/Mario Singarelli

Cast (Special)

Our Shining Moment (1991)
Papa
1990 King Orange Jamboree Parade (1990)
The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts (1989)
Performer
The 59th Annual Academy Awards Presentation (1987)
Performer
The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts (1987)
The American Film Institute Salute to Billy Wilder (1986)
Performer
The 12th Annual People's Choice Awards (1986)
Performer
The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts (1985)
Performer
Not in Front of the Kids (1984)
Ben Rosen
Boston and Kilbride (1979)
Shepherd's Flock (1971)
Dr Hewitt; The Bishop
High Button Shoes (1956)
Henry Longstreet

Music (Special)

The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts (1989)
Song Performer

Cast (Short)

Week End in Hollywood (1947)

Life Events

1929

Made Broadway debut in a small role as a butler in "Jerry for Short"

1929

Toured briefly with singer and entertainer Texas Guinan as part of her vaudeville act

1930

Began performing on the radio at age 22; acted in "The First Nighter" and "Grand Hotel", among other shows

1933

Made first film appearance in a promotional short entitled "Beauty at the World's Fair"

1935

Made screen test at MGM; test was considered unsuccessful and Ameche was not signed by the studio

1936

Made film acting debut in a dual role (the two sons of Jean Hersholt) in "The Sins of Man"

1936

Signed by 20th Century-Fox at $1500 a week after studio head Daryl F Zanuck saw Ameche's screen test for MGM (date approximate)

1937

Made first of six films opposite Alice Faye, "You Can't Have Everything"

1939

Played signature role in "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell"

1944

Made last films under 20th Century-Fox contract, "A Wing and a Prayer" and "Greenwich Village"; began freelancing

1950

Hosted the short-lived ABC game show, "Take a Chance"

1951

Hosted (via the role of the "stage manager") the ABC variety series revamp of "Holiday Hotel" entitled "Don's Musical Playhouse"

1955

Returned to Broadway; played first leading role onstage in the musical "Silk Stockings"

1958

Hosted the syndicated drama anthology program, "The Don Ameche Theater"

1961

Returned to feature films to act in "A Fever in the Blood"

1968

Made first TV movie, "Shadow Over Elveron" (NBC)

1975

Reunited with Alice Faye for a national tour of the musical, "Good News"

1983

Feature film career revived with role in "Trading Places"

1989

Made last Broadway appearance replacing Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager in a revival of "Our Town"; production also featured Helen Hunt and Jason Gedrick

1992

Last TV-movie, "Sunstroke"

1992

Last feature film appearance in a work released during his lifetime, "Folks!"

1992

Was diagnosed with prostate cancer which had already spread considerably 13 months before he died

1993

Finished shooting a major supporting role opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta in "Corrina, Corrina" just weeks before he died; played Liotta's father; filmed released posthumously

1993

Supplied the voice of Shadow, the Golden Retriever, for "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey"

Photo Collections

The Feminine Touch - Publicity Stills
Here are a few publicity stills from The Feminine Touch (1941), starring Rosalind Russell, Don Ameche and Kay Francis. Publicity stills were specially-posed photos for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Alexander's Ragtime Band - Movie Poster
Alexander's Ragtime Band - Movie Poster
Midnight - Movie Poster
Here is the original-release one-sheet movie poster for Paramount's Midnight (1939), starring Claudette Colbert and Dom Ameche. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.

Videos

Movie Clip

That Night In Rio (1941) - Chica Chica Boom Chic Opening with an original song, by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, for Carmen Miranda and then Don Ameche, whom we will learn are "Carmen" and American Larry, performers in a Rio night club, in 20th Century-Fox's That Night In Rio, 1941, also starring Alice Faye.
That Night In Rio (1941) - They Met In Rio Still on that first night in the Rio night club, Don Ameche as American singer Larry meets Alice Faye as Brazilian baroness Cecilia, whose prominent husband he impersonates as part of his act, song by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, in That Night In Rio, 1941.
That Night In Rio (1941) - Cai Cai Straight up number for Carmen Miranda, who plays an entertainer named Carmen, performing at a Brazilian society party, co-stars Don Ameche and Alice Faye in her audience, original song by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, in 20th Century-Fox's That Night In Rio, 1941.
That Night In Rio (1941) - Are You Quite Yourself Now? Brazilians Penna and Salles (S.Z. Sakall, Curt Bois) can't let Baroness Cecilia (Alice Faye) tell American Larry (Don Ameche) that she knows they've hired him to impersonate her husband, their boss, the less charming Baron Manuel, for business reasons, in That Night In Rio, 1941.
Moon Over Miami (1941) - Is That Good? Dismissing the principals (Betty Grable, Robert Cummings, Carole Landis, Don Ameche), supporting players Jack Haley and Charlotte Greenwood perform Is That Good?, by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger in Moon Over Miami, 1941.
Cocoon (1985) - Open, She's Really Slipping Director Ron Howard introduces his child lead (Barret Oliver) then puts Industrial Light & Magic and much of his his acclaimed veteran cast (Wilford Brimley, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Herta Ware) straight to work, opening Cocoon, 1985.
Cocoon (1985) - You Boys Still Trespassing? Florida retirement home pals Ben (Wilford Brimley) and Art (Don Ameche) observing daily business, then joining ailing Joe (Hume Cronyn) for mischief, early in director Ron Howard's hit Cocoon, 1985.
Cocoon (1985) - I'm In The Mood For Love Invigorated after their swim in the pool with the mystery ocean pods, Florida geezers Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn, in a hurry to see partners Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon and Maureen Stapleton, their Mahjong friend Herta Ware intrigued, early in Ron Howard's Cocoon, 1985.
Feminine Touch, The (1941) - If Gorillas Had Puppies Jock Rubberlegs (Gordon Jones), growing a beard with the rest of the football team, has seized the opportunity to pick up Julie Hathaway (Rosalind Russell), pretty wife of his professor John (Don Ameche), who was summoned by the dean, and who’s writing a book on jealousy, early in The Feminine Touch, 1941.
Feminine Touch, The (1941) - He Can't Help Being Smart Professor John Hathaway (Don Ameche), who lost his job for refusing to give passing grades to athletes, and his wife Julie (Rosalind Russell) arrive at a New York publishing house to pitch his scholarly book on jealousy, and meet Kay Francis as the eager Miss Woods, in The Feminine Touch, 1941.
Feminine Touch, The (1941) - I Adore Difficult Women At a New York literary party, Julie (Rosalind Russell) is turning heads, approached by Sidney Blackmer, Henry Daniell and Van Heflin as publisher and host Morgan, who’s considering a book about jealousy, offered by her ex-professor husband John (Don Ameche), in The Feminine Touch, 1941.
Heaven Can Wait (1943) - I'd Take You Right Away Grandfather Van Cleve (Charles Coburn) takes the initiative as the prospective in-laws (Marjorie Main, Eugene Palette) and bride (Gene Tierney) of square nephew Albert (Allyn Joslyn) arrive at a birthday party for panicked Henry (Don Ameche), in Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, 1943.

Trailer

Family

Felix Ameche
Father
Saloon manager. Grew up outside Rome; Anglicized original surname "Amici" to "Ameche" when he came to the United States.
Barbara Ameche
Mother
Of Irish-German extraction.
James Ameche
Brother
Radio actor and announcer.
Burt Ameche
Brother
Mary Jane Ameche
Sister
Anne Ameche
Sister
Don Ameche Jr
Son
Larry Ameche
Son
Ronald Ameche
Son
Bonnie Ameche
Daughter
Connie Ameche
Daughter
Thomas Ameche
Son

Companions

Honore Prendergast
Wife
Were high school sweethearts; married in 1932 until her death in 1978.

Bibliography

Notes

He was given the National Italian American Foundation Award at Atlantic City's Trump Castle, NJ (1991)