Oscar-winner Ameche dies at 85

Don Ameche, the suave leading man of Hollywood’s golden age who enjoyed a second burst of popularity in his later years — capped by a supporting actor Oscar for “Cocoon”– died of prostate cancer Monday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 85.

Best known for film work, Ameche had equal success in radio, theater and television throughout his 60-year career, with his forte being comedy. He was once dubbed “the essence of feather-brained charm.”

Ameche’s only problem, according to David Shipman in “The Great Movie Stars,” was that the frequently mustachioed matinee idol made so few first-class films and was usually stuck as the romantic foil in vehicles fashioned for 20th Century Fox’s two leading musical stars, Alice Faye and Betty Grable.

Ameche learned he had prostate cancer about 13 months ago, but by that time the disease had spread throughout his body, his son Don Jr. said. He lived as long as he could at his own Scottsdale home, then moved in with his son about 2 1/2 weeks ago, and died there Monday evening.

He worked to the end, and in early November finished his part in New Line’s “Corrina, Corrina.” Ameche plays a man whose son (Ray Liotta) develops a relationship with a black housekeeper (Whoopi Goldberg) in the late 1950s.

‘He just loved it’

“All the way up until the day he died, he’d wake up in the middle of the night and say to me: ‘What time do I have to go to work? What time are they picking me up?’ ” said his son. “He just loved it.”

Possessed of a mellifluous baritone, Ameche first achieved a profile as a radio personality in the early 1930s, appearing on “The First Nighter,””Grand Hotel” and “The Chase & Sanborn Hour.” In his radio heyday, to quote Fred Allen, “The only thing around the house you could turn on without getting Don Ameche was the spigot.”

He was born Dominic Felix Amici in Kenosha, Wis., on May 31, 1908. His Italian immigrant father owned a string of saloons with which he supported his eight children.

He was sent to St. Bermchman’s Seminary when he was 11 and later studied law at Columbia College (now Loras College) in Dubuque, Iowa. While studying at the U. of Wisconsin, he gave up law and turned to acting.

After working in stock in Madison, Wis., he landed a small partin a Broadway show called “Jerry for Short.” He would not appear on Broadway for another 25 years.

Entertainer Texas Guinan took him on her nationwide tour as a singer. But his “butterscotch baritone” speaking voice was what brought Ameche to prominence in radio, a medium in which he continued to work long after achieving Hollywood stardom. In the late ’40s, Ameche achieved notable success when he and Frances Langford starred on NBC’s “The Drene Show” as the Bickersons.

Ameche’s work in films is not without its high moments, though he never made it to the front ranks of romantic idols. After his MGM screen test was rejected, 20th Century Fox film head Darryl Zanuck asked to see it and signed Ameche at $ 1,500 a week.

He made an unexceptional film debut in the 1936 drama “Sins of Man,” but then starred in Fox’s Technicolor adventure “Ramona” with Loretta Young.

“Acting has always been a business with me,” he once said, adding, “As in every business, there are good times and bad.”

Known for Bell role

The role with which he was most closely identified was that of Alexander Graham Bell in the fictionalized screen biography. He also played songwriter Stephen Foster in “Swanee River” and Hiram Stephen Maxim, the inventor of the automatic rifle and the delayed action fuse, in “So Goes My Love.”

Ameche endured jokes about his “inventions” for most of his career, and a generation of Americans called each other to the phone with “you’re wanted on the Ameche.”

He seemed most at home in comedy, shining in such films as Mitchell Leisen’s “Midnight” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait.”

Other notable films include a spate of co-starring roles opposite Alice Faye in “In Old Chicago,””Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (though he loses her in both pictures to Tyrone Power), “Lillian Russell” and “Hollywood Cavalcade” and, with Fox’s other reigning queen, Betty Grable, “Down Argentine Way” and “Moon Over Miami.”

When his Fox contract expired in 1946, Ameche freelanced in a number of indifferent movies such as “Sleep My Love” and “Slightly French” and in 1950 packed up his wife and children and moved to New York, where he segued into the new medium of television.

Throughout the next two decades he appeared in specials such as “High Button Shoes” and “Woodrow Wilson and the Unknown Soldier.” For a time he was a panelist on “To Tell the Truth.”

Starting in 1961, he hosted NBC’s “International Showtime.” The popular variety show brought international circus and magic acts to American audiences. It lasted several years and Ameche traveled the globe.

In 1955, he made his Broadway starring debut in “Silk Stockings,” Cole Porter’s musical version of “Ninotchka,” opposite Hildegarde Neff. The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr wrote of his performance, “Mr. Ameche is a decided find, if he can be called that at this juncture, for the musical comedy stage.” Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times praised him as “the perfect musical comedy hero, crackling in style, deadpan, assured, sardonic.”

Other musical stage work included “Goldilocks,” a satire of the early days of movies for which he and co-star Elaine Stritch were praised, and the musical disappointment “13 Daughters,” in which he played a strict Chinese father. A later failure was the musical version of the Peter Sellers film “The World of Henry Orient.”

Break in ‘Trading Places’

Ameche had minor roles in the films “The Boatnicks” and “Picture Mommy Dead,” but it wasn’t until Ray Milland dropped out of the Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places” that Ameche got a shot at a juicy character part.

That hit film was followed by “Cocoon,” in which he joined a group of acclaimed veteran actors including Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Gwen Verdon, in the fantasy film about the fountain of youth. His acting brought him an Oscar, probably as much for his body of work as for the role.

Ameche’s onscreen ebullience contrasted with his personal modesty. When he received the Academy Award at the age of 79 in 1986, he remarked: “For all you members of the Academy, this esteemed gentleman (the Oscar) says that you have given me your recognition. You’ve given to me your love; I hope that I have earned your respect.”

The Oscar revived his career and led to a starring role in David Mamet’s “Things Change” as well as supporting parts in such films as “Folks,””Harry and the Hendersons,””Coming to America,””Oscar” and the upcoming “Corrina, Corrina.”

In 1932, Ameche married his high school sweetheart (they met when they were 15 years old), Honore Pendergast, and they had six children, Donnie, Ronnie, Tommie, Lonnie, Bonnie and Connie. Ameche’s wife died several years ago.

Ameche is to be cremated and a memorial mass is scheduled Monday in Scottsdale.

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