Don Ameche

Active - 1935 - 1997  |   Born - May 31, 1908 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, United States  |   Died - Dec 6, 1993   |   Genres - Comedy, Romance, Musical, Drama

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

Though his popularity rose and fell during his long career, American actor Don Ameche, born Dominic Amici in Kenosha, WI, was one of Hollywood's most enduring stars. He began his acting career in college, where he had been studying law. He had a natural gift for acting and got his first professional opportunity when he filled in for a missing lead in the stock theater production of Excess Baggage. After that, he forewent his law career and became a full-time theatrical actor. He also worked briefly in vaudeville beside Texas Guinan. Following that he spent five years as a radio announcer. He made his screen debut in a feature short, Beauty at the World's Fair (1933). Following this, Ameche moved to Hollywood where he screen-tested with MGM; they rejected him. In 1935, he managed to obtain a small role in Clive of India and this resulted in his signing a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox. Ameche, with his trim figure, pencil-thin mustache, and rich baritone voice was neither a conventionally handsome leading man nor the dashing hero type. Instead he embodied a wholesomeness and bland honesty that made him the ideal co-lead and foil for the more complex heroes. He played supporting roles for many years before he came into his own playing the leads in light romances and musicals such as Alexander's Rag Time Band (1938), where he demonstrated a real flair for romantic comedy. In 1939, Ameche played the title role in the classic biopic The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. The film was a tremendous success and for years afterward, fans quipped that it was he, not Bell who invented the telephone; for a time the telephone was even called an "ameche." He continued working steadily through the mid-'40s and then his film career ground to an abrupt halt. He returned to radio to play opposite Frances Langford in the long-running and popular series The Bickersons. During the 1950s he worked occasionally on television.

He began appearing infrequently in low-budget films during the '60s and '70s, but did not make a comeback proper until 1983, when he was cast as a replacement for the ailing Ray Milland in the comedy Trading Places. The success of this film brought Ameche back in demand. In 1985, the aging actor received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as a retirement home Casanova in Cocoon. He followed up that role to even more acclaim in 1988's David Mamet-Shel Silverstein concoction Things Change, in which Ameche played the role of a impish shoemaker chosen to take the fall for a mob hit. Before his death in 1993, Ameche rounded out his career with brief but memorable performances in Oscar (1991) and Corrina, Corrina (1994).

Movie Highlights

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  • Studied law in college, but dropped out to join a stock company.
  • Began his radio career in 1930 on Empire Builders.
  • Starred in the radio program Betty and Bob, which many consider to be one of the first soap operas.  
  • Played the title character in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, which prompted many in Hollywood to joke that he had invented the telephone and to use the phrase "You're wanted on the Ameche" to indicate someone had a phone call. 
  • Performed many of his own stunts in the 1985 movie Cocoon, despite being 77 years old.
  • Was separated from his wife for over 19 years at the time of her death, but being Catholic, neither considered divorce an option.
  • Inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1992.  
  • Completed work on the 1994 film Corinna, Corinna just weeks before his death.