Oscar Actors: Ameche, Don–Background, Career, Awards

Updated June 27, 2020
Don Ameche Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: working, father bartender


Education: Ameche intended to study law, but found theater more interesting and decided on stage career.


Radio Debut:

TV Debut: major star on TV thru his entire career

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: 1935; age 27

Oscar Role: Cocoon, 1985; age 77

Other Noms: No

Other Awards: No

Screen Image: lead and character actor

Last Film: 1994 (after his death)

Career Output: more than 100 films

Film Career Span: 1935-1994; 59 years

Marriage: One, until her death

Politics: Republican

Death: 1993; age 85

Don Ameche, born May 31, 1908–December 6, 1993) was an actor and comedian. After playing in college shows, stock, and vaudeville, he became a radio star in the early 1930s, which led to a movie contract from 20th Century Fox in 1935.

As a handsome, debonair leading man in 40 films over the next 14 years, he was popular star in comedies, dramas, and musicals.

In the 1950s he worked on Broadway and in television.  He was the host of NBC’s International Showtime from 1961 to 1965.

Ameche enjoyed fruitful revival of film career beginning with his role as a villain in Trading Places (1983) and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar 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, Italy. His mother, Barbara Etta Hertel, was of Scottish, Irish, and German ancestry. 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 intended to study law, but he found theater more interesting and decided on stage career.

Ameche was good in college dramatics at Marquette University, and when a lead actor for 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, due to being “too stiff.”

Film Debut

Ameche made his film debut in 1935, with an uncredited bit in Dante’s Inferno, produced by Fox Corporation. Fox then turned into 20th Century Fox who put Ameche under long term contract.

Ameche graduated to lead roles quickly, appearing in Sins of Man (1936) playing the son of Jean Hersholt.

He was Loretta Young’s leading man in Ramona (1936), the studio’s first color film.

Ameche was reunited with Loretta Young in Ladies in Love (1936), and he supported Sonja Henie in One in a Million (1936).

In Love Is News (1937) Ameche was teamed with Young and Tyrone Power. He was top billed in Fifty Roads to Town (1937) with Ann Sothern then made You Can’t Have Everything (1937) with Alice Faye and The Ritz Brothers.

Fox put Ameche in a drama, Love Under Fire (1937) with Young. More popular were the two films he made with Faye and Power, In Old Chicago (1938) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938).

Ameche was reunited with Henie in Happy Landing (1938) and made Josette (1938) with Simone Simon and Robert Young, and Gateway (1938) with Arleen Whelan.

He played D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1939) alongside the Ritz Brothers.

He went to Paramount to play Claudette Colbert’s leading man in “Midnight” (1939).

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell
Back at Fox Ameche played the title character in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). It led to the use of the word, “Ameche” as slang for telephone in common catchphrases, as noted 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.'”

In the 1940 film Go West, Groucho Marx proclaims, “Telephone? This is 1870, Don Ameche hasn’t invented the telephone yet.”

While in the 1941 film Ball of Fire, Barbara Stanwyck discusses the “ameche” slang usage, “Do you know what this means: I’ll get you on the Ameche.”

Ameche was 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 a star of Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. In 1940, he was voted the 21st-most-popular star in Hollywood.

Ameche made That Night in Rio (1941) with Faye and Miranda and Moon Over Miami (1941) with Grable and Robert Cummings. He did some straight comedies: Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941) with Mary Martin, and The Feminine Touch (1941) at MGM with Rosalind Russell.

Ameche did a drama, Confirm or Deny (1942) with Joan Bennett, then did The Magnificent Dope (1942) with Henry Fonda, Girl Trouble (1942) with Joan Bennett, and Something to Shout About (1943) at Columbia.

Ameche starred with Gene Tierney in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait in 1943, a film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Top Earning Actor

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.

Ameche played so many roles based on real people that on one of his radio broadcasts, Fred Allen joked, “Pretty soon, Don Ameche will be playing Don Ameche.” In It’s in the Bag! (1945), which starred Allen, Ameche played himself in a bit part.

He did Guest Wife (1945) with Colbert, So Goes My Love (1946) with Myrna Loy and Will Tomorrow Ever Come? (1947). Ameche followed with Sleep, My Love (1948) with Colbert, and Slightly French (1949) with Dorothy Lamour.

Ameche was major radio star, on such shows as Empire Builders, The First Nighter Program, Family Theater, and the Betty and Bob soap opera. After his appearances as announcer and sketch participant on The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, he achieved success during the late 1940s playing opposite Frances Langford in The Bickersons, the Philip Rapp radio comedy series about combative married couple. It began on NBC in 1946, then moving to CBS. He also had his own program, The Old Gold Don Ameche Show, on NBC Red in the early 1940s.

Ameche’s recent films had not been successful, and he began appearing on TV on shows such as The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre and Family Theatre.

He co-hosted The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show (1951–52). Ameche’s one feature film in the 1950s was Phantom Caravan (1954). He concentrated on stage or TV: Fire One (1954), a TV adaptation of High Button Shoes (1956), Goodyear Playhouse, a musical adaptation of Junior Miss for The DuPont Show of the Month, and Climax!

Ameche starred in Silk Stockings (1955–56) on Broadway, which ran for 478 performances. Holiday for Lovers (1957) ran for 100 performances. Both were turned into films, but Ameche did not reprise his stage roles.

He was in Goldilocks (1958–59), which ran for 161 performances.

Ameche returned to features with A Fever in the Blood (1961) and did a short-lived musical 13 Daughters (1961).

Ameche’s best-known TV role came between 1961 and 1965, when he traveled throughout Europe with a TV videotape unit and camera crew to cover a European resident circus or ice show that was taped for presentation on a weekly series titled International Showtime on NBC television. Ameche was present at each circus taped, and he was seen as host and commentator.

He also guest featured in many TV series, including NBC’s The Polly Bergen Show and ABC’s The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, Burke’s Law, The Christophers.

Ameche made horror movie Picture Mommy Dead (1966) and TV film Shadow Over Elveron (1968). In between he returned to Broadway for Henry, Sweet Henry (1967) which ran for 80 shows.

In the latter 1960s and early 1970s, Ameche directed the NBC television sitcom Julia, featuring Diahann Carroll; he also guest starred on the show.

He was also a frequent panelist on the 1950s version of To Tell The Truth, often alternating with his future Trading Places co-star, Ralph Bellamy.

After the release of 1970 comedies, Disney’s The Boatniks and the wartime farce Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came, Ameche was absent from movies for 13 years. His only appearance was in F For Fake (1975), Orson Welles’ documentary on hoaxes, when Fox mistakenly sent Welles newsreel footage of Ameche misidentified as footage of Howard Hughes.

Ameche also appeared early episode of Columbo entitled “Suitable for Framing” (1971). He did a TV movie Shepherd’s Flock (1971) and episodes of Ellery Queen, Good Heavens, McCloud, Quincy M.E., The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. He was in an unsold TV pilot, The Chinese Typewriter (1979).

Trading Places and Oscar for Cocoon
Ameche and vet actor Ralph Bellamy were cast in John Landis’ Trading Places in 1983, playing rich brothers intent on ruining innocent man for the sake of a one-dollar bet. The film’s success and their comedic performances brought them both back into the Hollywood limelight.

Ameche starred in TV sitcom pilot with Katherine Helmond, Not in Front of the Kids (1984). He did a pilot for a TV show, Fathers and Other Strangers.

Ameche’s next role, in Cocoon (1985), won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He continued working for the rest of his life, including the sequel, Cocoon: The Return.

Ameche was teamed with Bob Hope in A Masterpiece of Murder (1986) and George C. Scott in Pals (1987). He had lead role in Harry and the Hendersons (1987) and he and Bellamy reprised their Trading Places roles with cameo in Coming to America (1988).

He earned good reviews for the David Mamet and Shel Silverstein-penned Things Change (1988).  He returned to Broadway to appear in a revival of “Our Town” in 1989.

In 1990, Ameche appeared in episode of The Golden Girls as Rose Nylund’s father. He made a film with Burgess Meredith, Oddball Hall (1990) and did another for John Landis, Oscar (1991).

He did a pilot that was not picked up, Our Shining Moment (1991), an episode of Pros and Cons and the TV movie 209 Hamilton Drive. He co-starred with Tom Selleck in Folks! (1992) and supported Jane Seymour in Sunstroke (1992).

Last Film: 1994

His last films were Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) and Corrina, Corrina (1994), completed only days before his death.

Despite his advancing age, Ameche remained busy. He had credited roles in a feature every year for the last decade of his life except 1986. He attributed his continued productivity to an active lifestyle, which included regular six-mile walks. He said in a 1988 interview, “How many actors in their 20s and 30s do you know that have two pictures being released by major studios in one year?” (referring to Cocoon and Things Change).

In 1960, for his contribution to radio, Ameche received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a second star for his television work.

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, was also a well-known actor, died in 1983 at the age of 68. His brother Bert was an architect who worked for the U.S. Navy in Port Hueneme, California, and then the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, California.

Ameche was Roman Catholic.  A Republican, he supported the campaign of Thomas Dewey in the 1944 presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election.

On December 6, 1993, Ameche died at his son Don Jr.’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona of prostate cancer at the age of 85.