Don Ameche (/əˈmiːtʃi/; born Dominic Felix Amici; May 31, 1908 – December 6, 1993) was an American actor, comedian and vaudevillian. After playing in college shows, stock, and vaudeville, he became a major radio star in the early 1930s, which led to the offer of a movie contract from 20th Century Fox in 1935.
As a handsome, debonair leading man in 40 films over the next 14 years, he starred in comedies, dramas, and musicals. In the 1950s he worked on Broadway and in television, and was the host of NBC’s International Showtime from 1961 to 1965. Returning to film work in his later years, Ameche enjoyed a fruitful revival of his career beginning with his role as a villain in Trading Places (1983) and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Cocoon (1985).
Don Ameche was born as Dominic Felix Amici on May 31, 1908, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father, Felice Amici, was a bartender from Montemonaco, Ascoli Piceno, Marche, Italy. His mother, Barbara Etta Hertel, was of Scottish, Irish, and German ancestry. Ameche was the second-oldest of eight children; he had three brothers, Umberto (Bert), James (Jim Ameche), and Louis, and four sisters, Elizabeth, Catherine, Mary and Anna. Ameche attended Marquette University, Loras College, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where his cousin Alan Ameche played football and won the Heisman Trophy in 1954.
Ameche had done well in college dramatics at the University of Wisconsin, and when a lead actor for a stock company production of Excess Baggage did not turn up, a friend persuaded him to stand in for the missing actor. He enjoyed the experience and got a juvenile lead in Jerry For Short in New York, followed by a tour in vaudeville with Texas Guinan until she dropped him from the act, dismissing him as “too stiff”.
According to one biography, Ameche then moved to Chicago, where “he began a radio career in 1930 on Empire Builders, a program broadcast from the Merchandise Mart. By 1932, Ameche had become the leading man on two other Chicago-based programs: the dramatic anthology First Nighter and Betty and Bob, considered by many to be the forerunner of the soap-opera genre.”
Brought to Hollywood by 20th-Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck, Ameche played mostly romantic leads paired with many of the top female stars of the era. In 1939, Ameche played the title character in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). It led to the use of the word “ameche” as juvenile slang for a telephone, as noted by Mike Kilen in the Iowa City Gazette (December 8, 1993): “The film prompted a generation to call people to the telephone with the phrase: ‘You’re wanted on the Ameche.'” Such an identity between Ameche and the telephone was forged, that in the 1940 film Go West, Groucho Marx proclaims, “Telephone? This is 1870, Don Ameche hasn’t invented the telephone yet.”
Ameche was Alice Faye’s leading man in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), then played another real-life figure, Stephen Foster, in Swanee River (1939). He did a third biopic, Lillian Russell (1940) with Faye, and was top billed in a war film, Four Sons (1940), and a musical, Down Argentine Way (1940), which helped make stars of Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. In 1940, he was voted the 21st-most-popular star in Hollywood.
Ameche did Happy Land (1943), Wing and a Prayer (1944), and Greenwich Village (1944). In 1944, he reportedly earned $247,677 for 1943, making him the second highest earner at 20th Century Fox after Spyros Skouras.
Following his appearances as announcer and sketch participant on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, Ameche achieved memorable success during the late 1940s playing opposite Frances Langford in The Bickersons, the Philip Rapp radio comedy series about a combative married couple. It began on NBC in 1946, moving to CBS the following year. He also had his own program, The Old Gold Don Ameche Show, on NBC Red in the early 1940s.
He earned good reviews for the David Mamet and Shel Silverstein-penned Things Change (1988); The New York Times said that he showed “the kind of great comic aplomb that wins actors awards for other than sentimental reasons.”
From 1946 to 1949, Ameche, with other Los Angeles entertainment figures including Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, was a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference, a rival to the National Football League. He was instrumental in forming and leading the ownership group the year before play began and initially served as team president.
Ameche was married to Honore Prendergast from 1932 until her death in 1986. They had six children. One, Ron Ameche, owned a restaurant, “Ameche’s Pumpernickel” in Coralville, Iowa. He had two daughters, Connie and Bonnie. Ameche’s younger brother, Jim Ameche, also a well-known actor, died in 1983 at the age of 67.
Ameche was Roman Catholic. A Republican, he supported the campaign of Thomas Dewey in the 1944 United States presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 presidential election.
On December 6, 1993, Ameche died at his son Don, Jr.’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona of prostate cancer at age 85. He was cremated and his ashes are buried at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Asbury, Iowa.
Film / TV
|1935||Clive of India||Prisoner in the Black Hole||Uncredited|
|1935||Dante’s Inferno||Man in Stoke-Hold||Uncredited|
|1936||Sins of Man||Karl Freyman / Mario Signarelli|
|1936||Ladies in Love||Dr. Rudi Imre|
|1936||One in a Million||Bob Harris|
|1937||Love Is News||Martin J. Canavan|
|1937||Fifty Roads to Town||Peter Nostrand|
|1937||You Can’t Have Everything||George Macrae|
|1937||Love Under Fire||Tracy Egan|
|1938||In Old Chicago||Jack O’Leary|
|1938||Happy Landing||Jimmy Hall|
|1938||Alexander’s Ragtime Band||Charlie Dwyer|
|1938||Josette||David Brassard Jr.|
|1939||The Three Musketeers||D’Artagnan|
|1939||The Story of Alexander Graham Bell||Alexander Graham Bell|
|1939||Hollywood Cavalcade||Michael Linnett ‘Mike’ Connors|
|1939||Swanee River||Stephen Foster|
|1940||Lillian Russell||Edward Solomon|
|1940||Four Sons||Chris Bern|
|1940||Down Argentine Way||Ricardo Quintana|
|1941||That Night in Rio||Impersonator Larry Martin / Baron Manuel Duarte|
|1941||Moon Over Miami||Phil O’Neil (Credits) / Phil ‘Mac’ McNeil (in Film)|
|1941||Kiss the Boys Goodbye||Lloyd Lloyd|
|1941||The Feminine Touch||Prof. John Hathaway|
|1941||Confirm or Deny||‘Mitch’ Mitchell|
|1942||The Magnificent Dope||Dwight Dawson|
|1942||Girl Trouble||Pedro Sullivan|
|1943||Something to Shout About||Ken Douglas|
|1943||Heaven Can Wait||Henry Van Cleve|
|1943||Happy Land||Lew Marsh|
|1944||Wing and a Prayer||Flight Cmdr. Bingo Harper|
|1944||Greenwich Village||Kenneth Harvey|
|1945||It’s in the Bag!||Don, A Singing Waiter||(cameo appearance)|
|1945||Guest Wife||Joseph Jefferson ‘Joe’ Parker|
|1946||So Goes My Love||Hiram Stephen Maxim|
|1947||That’s My Man||Joe Grange|
|1948||Sleep, My Love||Richard W. Courtland|
|1949||Slightly French||John Gayle|
|1954||Phantom Caravan||Lawrence Evans|
|1961||A Fever in the Blood||Senator Alex S. Simon|
|1966||Rings Around the World||Himself|
|1966||Picture Mommy Dead||Edward Shelley|
|1970||The Boatniks||Commander Taylor|
|1970||Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came||Col. Flanders|
|1971||Columbo||Frank Simpson||Episode: “Suitable for Framing”|
|1983||Trading Places||Mortimer Duke|
|1985||Cocoon||Art Selwyn||Won Oscar for Best Supporting Actor|
|1986||A Masterpiece of Murder||Frank Aherne||TV movie|
|1987||Pals||Art Riddle / Arthur James Van Pelt||TV movie|
|1987||Harry and the Hendersons||Dr. Wallace Wrightwood|
|1988||Coming to America||Mortimer Duke||Cameo|
|1988||Cocoon: The Return||Art Selwyn|
|1990||Oddball Hall||G. Paul Siebriese|
|1990||The Golden Girls||Brother Martin||Episode: “Once in St. Olaf”|
|1993||Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey||Shadow||Voice|
|1994||Corrina, Corrina||Grandpa Harry||(final film role)|
|1940||Lux Radio Theatre||Manhattan Melodrama|
|1947||Family Theater||“Flight from Home”|
In popular culture
In the 1941 Merrie Melodies cartoon Hollywood Steps Out by Warner Bros, Don Ameche appears with several other famed stars in Ciro’s nightclub. In the 1995 The Simpsons (season 7) episode 12, “Team Homer”, Haing S. Ngor’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar (for his role in the movie The Killing Fields) had appeared with Ngor’s name being crossed out and replaced with Homer’s name. About a month after “Team Homer” aired in 1996, Ngor was murdered just outside his home in Los Angeles. Animators changed the Oscar in question to that of Don Ameche in subsequent reruns.