Don Ameche, the dapper, debonair, devilish leading man of such quality 1930s hits as “Midnight” and “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” who dazzled audiences anew and won an Academy Award in “Cocoon” half a century later, has died. He was 85.
Ameche died Monday night of prostate cancer at the home of his son, Don Ameche Jr., in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The versatile actor who set out to become a lawyer had just completed filming “Corrina, Corrina” in which the character he plays dies. The film with Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta is scheduled for release next spring.
“We all knew that his health was not good and that he was really in the last scene of his life,” said the film’s producer, Steve Tisch. “In an ironic way he was playing himself.”
Ameche learned about 13 months ago that he had prostate cancer and that it had already spread through his body. But he continued working and enthusiastically pursued a lifelong horse-racing hobby by grooming a new colt, Ferrara, for the 1994 Kentucky Derby.
“I’ve always accepted things as they were. God was awfully good to me during the good days,” Ameche characteristically told The Times in 1986 after he ended a 12-year film slump with the high-grossing “Trading Places” and “Cocoon,” which brought him the elusive Oscar.
The man with the mellifluous voice was born Dominic Felix Amici on May 31, 1908, in Kenosha, Wis., the son of a bartender. His first name was shortened and Americanized while he was in school. He attended Columbia College in Dubuque, Iowa, and then studied law at the University of Wisconsin, but got distracted by the stage.
After he appeared in a student production of “The Devil’s Disciple,” a stock company manager hired him to replace an actor injured in a car accident. Ameche spent half a year with the company and then headed for New York, where he worked in vaudeville. He learned the trouper’s skills—singing, dancing, acting and moving—and honed them elegantly to glide between comedy and drama for six decades.
Ameche also discovered radio, and was soon starring in weekly serials, including “Betty and Bo,” “Grand Hotel” and “Mr. First Nighter” which spread his smooth, soothing voice across America.
It was an easy step to Hollywood, where he debuted in “The Sins of Man” in 1936 and had his first success opposite Loretta Young that same year in “Ramona.” He became a workhorse star in Darryl Zanuck’s stable at 20th Century Fox.
The year 1939 brought two of Ameche’s best-remembered films, the witty “Midnight” with John Barrymore and Claudette Colbert, and “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell,” the biography of the inventor of the telephone. Ameche’s identification in the role was so encompassing that for years, the phrase “you’re wanted on the Ameche” meant that you had a phone call.
Reminiscing in a Times interview two years ago, Ameche recalled that the wrap party after “Midnight” roared on until 4 a.m., and he had an 8 a.m. call to begin shooting “Bell” with six pages of dialogue he had not had time to memorize.
“But I was young,” he said, looking back from age 83, “and I learned lines easily, and somehow I got through the day.”
Ameche’s personal favorite was the 1943 film by Ernst Lubitsch, “Heaven Can Wait,” not to be confused with the much later Warren Beatty film of the same title. Ameche portrayed an 1890s playboy who went to Hades and reviewed his sins for Satan who, in a grand satirical gesture, packed him off to heaven. War-weary audiences loved it.
“It was a lovely premise to begin with,” Ameche told The Times. “It must have been reassuring to a lot of people to think that a man who had lived the life he had could still get into heaven.”
Two of Ameche’s most popular musicals were “Down Argentine Way,” which introduced Carmen Miranda and co-starred Betty Grable in 1940, and “Moon Over Miami,” also with Grable, in 1941. The two films were among 10 screened at a 1991 tribute, “A Weekend With Don Ameche,” sponsored by American Cinematheque.
He remained active in radio, voicing occasional classics like the short-lived but well-remembered “The Bickersons” with Frances Langford as his ever-warring wife. Developed as a skit on “The Charlie McCarthy Show,” the couple’s sniping at each other grew into a Sunday-night NBC series in 1946. Despite support from Pinky Lee, Danny Thomas and Carmen Dragon’s orchestra, the show ran only two seasons, the second on CBS.
When his film career dimmed in the late 1940s, Ameche turned to Broadway for “Silk Stockings” and “Can Can,” and worked regularly in touring companies, dinner theater and television.
His modern screen success took off in 1983 with “Trading Places” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. “Cocoon,” about a Florida retirement community which discovers an extraterrestrial fountain of youth, came along in 1985.
Ameche, recruited at the last minute to replace Buddy Ebsen in the film, glamorized old age as a suave character who becomes so rejuvenated he breaks out break-dancing. Ameche traveled twice around the world to publicize the popular film, met Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, was honored at the Deauville Film Festival, and at long last won an Oscar.
“For all you members of the academy, this esteemed gentleman (the Oscar statue) says that you have given me your recognition,” he said modestly in accepting the award in 1986. “You’ve given to me your love; I hope that I have earned your respect.”
In his later years, Ameche also starred in “Harry and the Hendersons” in 1987; the sequel “Cocoon II,” “Coming to America” and “Things Change,” all in 1988; “Oscar” in 1991, and “Folks!” last year.
He was the voice of the dog Shadow in this year’s hit “Homeward Bound: the Incredible Journey.”
Ameche and his late wife had four sons and two daughters.
The family said that Ameche will be cremated. A memorial mass is being planned for next Monday in Scottsdale.
The films of Don Ameche spanned almost six decades. They include:
* Sins of Man (1936)
* Ramona (1936)
* One in a Million (1936)
* In Old Chicago (1937)
* Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)
* The Three Musketeers (1939)
* Midnight (1939)
* The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
* Swanee River (1939)
* Lillian Russell (1940)
* Down Argentine Way (1940)
* That Night in Rio (1941)
* Moon Over Miami (1941)
* Kiss the Boys Goodby (1941)
* Confirm or Deny (1941)
* Girl Trouble (1942)
* Heaven Can Wait (1943)
* Wing and a Prayer (1944)
* Guest Wife (1945)
* Sleep, My Love (1948)
* Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970)
* The Boatniks (1970)
* Trading Places (1983)
* Cocoon (1985)
* Harry and the Hendersons (1987)
* Coming to America (1988)
* Things Change (1988)
* Cocoon: The Return (1988)
* Oddball Hall (1990)
* Oscar (1991)
* Folks! (1992)
Source: Associated Press