Ameche, Don

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Ameche, Don

(b. 31 May 1908 in Kenosha, Wisconsin; d. 6 December 1993 in Scottsdale, Arizona), actor of radio, stage, screen, and television remembered especially for the film The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and later in life for his Academy Award for Cocoon (1985).

Ameche was born Dominic Felix Amici, the second of eight children of Felix Amici, an Italian-born saloon proprietor, and Barbara Etta Hertle, of German and Scotch-Irish descent. Sometime after arriving in the United States, his father changed the family name to “Ameche”; since classmates called Dominic “Don,” he became known as “Don Ameche.” After attending St. Berchman’s Seminary in Marion, Iowa, from 1921 to 1922, Ameche attended another Catholic boys’ school, Columbia Academy in Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated with honors in 1925. He entered the academy’s collegiate counterpart, Columbia College (now called Loras College) in Dubuque, where he studied for a year. His father wanted him to study law, however, so Ameche enrolled as a pre-law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1926 to 1927. He was then accepted into the Bachelor of Laws program at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., where he remained for less than one term in 1927. Finally, he registered for introduction to law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from September 1928 to February 1929. He never received a college or law degree.

While at the University of Wisconsin, a friend urged him to try out for a campus play, and Ameche won a lead role in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. He then successfully auditioned for an Al Jackson Stock Company production in Madison and enjoyed several more productions with that company. He then headed to New York City, where he made his Broadway debut in the small role of Perkins in Jerry-for-Short, which played through most of the 1929–1930 season. In 1930 Ameche acted m Excess Baggage (Greenwich, Connecticut) and the short-lived Illegal Practice (Chicago). He also worked with Texas Guinan in her traveling vaudeville show for a few weeks.

Ameche won parts on the Chicago radio programs Empire Builders (appearing from 1930 to 1931) and The First Nighter (appearing from 1930 to 1936) and later Grand Hotel (appearing from 1933 to 1936). Other radio commitments during the 1930s were Foreign Legion (1933) and host of The Chase and Sanborn Hour (1937–1939), starring Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. On 26 November 1932, Ameche married Honore Prendergast, his childhood sweetheart whom he had met at a Catholic church choir in Dubuque; they raised a family of six children.

An NBC radio publicist, aware of Ameche’s popularity as a radio persona and light baritone singing voice, urged Ameche to make his first screen test in New York City for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1935. Another friend used his influence with Twentieth Century—Fox to have Ameche make another screen test two months later. Ameche had already made a film short, Beauty at the World’s Fair (1933), though Paramount refused to release this mediocre piece. The filmmakers brought a suit against the Paramount producers, but the suit was dropped when the filmmakers realized that their case would be weakened because Ameche, who agreed with the negative assessment of the short, was prepared to testify in court to that same assessment. Upon MGM’s rejection of Ameche’s screen tests, Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century—Fox reviewed the tests and offered a contract to Ameche, who remained with that studio until 1945. Ameche eventually joined Alice Faye and Tyrone Power in becoming the three new hot box-office favorites whom Zanuck brought into the studio and often costarred together. Ameche played a promising dual role in his first feature motion picture, Sins of Man (1936). He acquired confidence and on-screen relaxation from Henry King, the director Ramona (1936), from the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson; Ameche played Alessandro, a Native American in love with the title character, played by Loretta Young. He and Young were soon together again in Ladies in Love (1936) and Love Under Fire (1937). He joined the famed Olympic ice-skater Sonja Henie in her screen debut in One in a Million (1936) and appeared with her again in Happy Landing (1938). For his fourth film with Young, Love Is News (1937), the six-foot-tall, brown-eyed Ameche wore a thin moustache, which became his trademark.

Some of Ameche’s best-known films were released in 1938 and 1939: In Old Chicago (1938); Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938); the tongue-in-cheek musical interpretation of The Three Musketeers (1939); an outstanding screwball comedy, Midnight (1939), with Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore; and the film with which moviegoers for several decades would most identify Ameche, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). For years thereafter, the American public called the telephone “the Don Ameche.” Ameche played the American songwriter Stephen Foster in Swanee River (1939) and Edward Soloman, the first husband of Lillian Russell, in Lillian Russell (1940).

In another court case, a $170,000 suit was filed against Ameche in 1940 because of his refusal to be loaned out to Paramount for The Night of January 16, a mystery script that he found very poor; the case was dropped the same year. In 1940 he gave testimony before the House of Representatives Interstate Commerce Committee—in the presence of numerous fans—to oppose the Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill, which would free movie theaters from “blind” purchasing contracts with studios. (Blind purchasing contracts were arrangements in which theaters purchased films from studios before production began.) Ameche objected to these contracts because no synopses could be given to the theaters before production began, since films often changed extensively during production. Throughout the early 1940s Ameche acted in many more comedies and dramas, period dress stories, several melodramas and mysteries, and a few wartime stories, such as Four Sons (1940), Confirm or Deny (1941), Wing and a Prayer (1944), and Guest Wife (1945). Among his last films at Twentieth Century—Fox before his contract ended was his favorite, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). Ameche felt that Lubitsch evoked from him one of his best performances in this period comedy/fantasy. In it he played Henry Van Cleve, a deceased man who regrets his mistakes as he describes his life story to the devil.

Ameche decided against renewing his studio contract so that he could freelance, a career choice that he later regretted. By the conclusion of his contract in 1945, he had made thirty-three films; for four of them he was loaned out to Paramount, MGM, and Columbia. From 1945 through the 1970s he made close to a dozen more films—sometimes in small character roles—with a variety of studios. Over the airwaves, Ameche had great success, especially whenever he teamed up with Frances Langford in their sketches on the Bickersons—a married couple who first appeared on the Chase and Sanborn Hour and reappeared on the Drene Show (1946–1957) and the Morgan-Ameche-Langford Show (1947–1948). In the early 1940s Ameche attempted to establish a Buffalo, New York, franchise within the National Football League. He was among the millionaires who established the All-America Football Conference, which played four seasons (1946–1949). His ownership group, including the film producer Louis B. Mayer and the actors Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, established the Los Angeles Dons, based at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, as one of the western division teams. Ameche also owned, raced, and bred thoroughbreds, stabled at Lexington, Kentucky.

In 1950 he returned to Broadway and started working for the television studios. He acted in the plays Silk Stockings (1955), Holiday for Lovers (1957), Goldilocks (1958), 13 Daughters (1961), and Henry, Sweet Henry (1967). He joined nationwide tours and gave dinner theater presentations ofI Married an Angel (1964), The Odd Couple (1968), and No, No Nanette (1972–1974). Ameche first appeared on television in “The Door” episode of the Chevrolet Tele-Theater (1949), and then in a religious film, The Triumphant Hour (1950). His first regular contract was to replace Edward Everett Horton in the fall of 1950 in the musical variety show Holiday Hotel; this program evolved into Don Ameche’s Musical Playhouse (September 1950 to October 1951). The Bickersons soon found themselves regularly before the television cameras in Star Time (1950–1951), and then on the Frances Langford–Don Ameche Show (1951–1952). Ameche was the original host for Coke Time with Eddie Fisher (1953).

Ameche served as emcee for several game shows, such as Take a Chance (1950) and, in the early 1960s, as a panelist on To Tell the Truth. He appeared in the television musical High Button Shoes (1956) with Nanette Fabray; starred with Joan Bennett in Junior Miss on CBS’s DuPont Show of the Month (1957); played the Mafia leader Albert Anastasia in Climax (1958); and started a short-lived comedy series (also with Bennett), Too Young to Go Steady (1959). He even had a five-day-a-week radio program, Don Ameche’s Real Life Stories, in 1958. He traveled overseas with a crew to tape live performances of circuses and ice shows from more than twenty countries for International Showtime (1961–1965). A film of some of those episodes, Rings Around the World, was released to movie theaters by Columbia (1966).

After decades away from motion picture studios, Ameche recharged his acting career with Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). He appeared in the popular comedy hit Trading Places (1983) with Eddie Murphy and Ralph Bellamy. His final Broadway work came as the stage manager during the closing weeks of Lincoln Center Theater’s award-winning revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1989). On 24 March 1986, Ameche won his only Academy Award (best supporting actor) for his exhilarating, comic, and athletic performance in Cocoon (1985). Among his last films was David Mamet’s Things Change (1988) with Joe Mantegna, with whom he shared the Venice Film Festival’s best actor award. Ameche died of prostate cancer. Despite his separation from his wife, Ameche’s ashes are buried near her in the Prendergast plot at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Dubuque.

For more than half a century Ameche performed as one of the most charming, debonair personalities in various forums of the entertainment world. He was a prime mover during radio’s golden days and an important actor on television as well. In Hollywood, Ameche never won recognition as a “great” actor but ranked among the top twenty-five box-office attractions during the 1930s and 1940s. His spectacular screen and television revival starting in the 1970s made him a popular actor to a new generation. His elegant charm, beautiful and soothing voice, affable and energetic masculinity, and handsome looks, when combined with his flawless professionalism and personal integrity, worked together to make him a beloved, reassuring, and comforting “friend,” whose company radio listeners, theatergoers, and film attendees eagerly sought time and time again.

An interview with Dr. Ronald D. Davis (March 1977) is available at the Ronald Davis Oral History Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. This interview is also accessible on microform as “The Reminiscences of Don Ameche” through the Library of Congress. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center holds clippings, scrapbooks, and photographs. For informative biographical material see James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, Hollywood Songsters (1991), which includes a sample but unique “Album Discography,” and James C. Madden, “Don Ameche: Parlayed a Pleasing Voice into a Successful Film Career,” Films in Review 23 (Jan. 1972): 8–22, including filmography. There are extensive articles, often with interviews, in the New York Times, including Chris Chase, “At the Movies: Don Ameche Explains His Absence from Films” (17 June 1983). See also listings in Current Biography (1965 and the obituary in the 1994 yearbook). For extensive bibliographies primarily in the Hollywood journals see Mel Schuster, Motion Picture Performers: A Bibliography of Magazine and Periodical Articles, 1900–1969 (1972) and Supplement No. 1, 1970–1974 (1976). To focus on Ameche’s association with football, see Phil Barber, “The All-America Football Conference,” in Bob Carroll et al., eds., Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1997). Obituaries are in the New York Times (8 Dec. 1993), the Los Angeles Times (8 Dec. 1993), and Variety (20 Dec. 1993).

Madeline Sapienza