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Leon Ames; Last Surviving Screen Actors Guild Founder

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leon Ames, a dapper character actor best known as a kindly father in film and television roles and the last surviving founder of the Screen Actors Guild, has died. He was 91.

Ames died Tuesday in Laguna Beach as the result of a stroke, the guild announced Wednesday.

The veteran actor was perhaps best remembered as Alonzo Smith, the father of Judy Garland in the 1944 film classic “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and for his starring roles as the title character in the 1950s television series “Life With Father” and the 1960s series “Father of the Bride.”

In 1933, Ames was one of 19 character actors who gathered to incorporate a union for motion picture performers. The Screen Actors Guild now has 88,000 members, a spokesman said.

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Ames, with membership card No. 15, served on the guild’s board for more than 30 years and was national president in 1957 and 1958. When he retired from the board in 1979, he was given the title president emeritus, and in 1981 he received the SAG Annual Achievement Award.

The actor was also well known in Southern California as an automobile dealer with sales lots in Studio City, Redondo Beach and other areas.

“I like acting. But it was always just a job to me,” Ames told The Times in 1982. “Something you did your best and then went home. I didn’t go for that tinsel stuff, all that smart set and image. I don’t have any favorites. It was all business to me.”

Born Leon Waycoff on Jan. 3, 1902, in Portland, Ind., the stage-struck young man ventured to New York in the 1920s. He sold shoes on 42nd Street, apprenticed in stock troupes and finally appeared in several Broadway successes, which earned him a screen test.

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He made his film debut in 1932 as the hero who battles villain Bela Lugosi in “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” By his last film in 1986, he had matured from his fatherly roles into Kathleen Turner’s grandfather in “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

Acting in more than 100 films, Ames also played the father of such screen stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day and June Allyson.

Among his films were “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in 1946, “Little Women” in 1949, “Peyton Place” in 1957, “The Absent-Minded Professor” in 1961, “The Monkey’s Uncle” in 1965 and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” in 1970.

His television roles included regular appearances as neighbor Gordon Kirkwood in “Mr. Ed,” the 1960s series about a talking horse.

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At 79, Ames told The Times he still had an agent as a favor to the agent but refused to go to Hollywood for interviews about proffered roles.

“My gosh, I’m too old for that,” he said. “I’ve been around too long.”

Ames is survived by his wife of 55 years, Chris; his son, Leon (Lee) Ames Jr., and two grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

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A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Oct. 22 at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrews Road, Newport Beach.


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