For ten years he was a top box office draw, but his private life was unknown to his fans. Who is he?
Who indeed. (This snapshot is from our Donald Gordon Collection. It captures today’s subject standing against a fence in what appears to be a studio parking lot.)
Our man was one of the leading actors of the 1930s and 1940s who never stopped working in films, on radio, television and on the Broadway stage, then made a comeback in the 1980s and won a Oscar.
In addition for having a career than spanned 60 years Don Ameche is also known for having one of the longest marriages of any Hollywood star. He and his wife Honore Prendergast were married in 1932, and for the ensuing 54 years until her death. And they raised six children.
Ameche was a family man. (Should we add that he was a Roman Catholic?) But he was also a soothingly competent actor and one of 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck’s favorites — because he was sooo reliable.
He was in scores of hit films. His best known are probably 1939’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and 1943’s Heaven Can Wait (his personal favorite). Joe especially likes him in 1939’s Midnight, the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett romp with Claudette Colbert and 1941’s That Night in Rio. In that one he plays two roles, the love interest opposite both Carmen Miranda AND Alice Faye.
A brief digression about Ameche and the Graham Bell movie. Seems that back in the 1930’s, Zanuck and Frank Nugent enjoyed a highly competitive relationship. Nugent was then chief movie reviewer of The New York Times, “probably the first and last critic Zanuck paid serious attention to,” wrote the mogul’s biographer, Mel Gussow.
It seems that Nugent would take frequent and witty potshots at late 1930’s Fox pictures (cracks about “moss-covered” scripts, etc.). Nonetheless, Nugent praised Graham Bell when it came out largely because — it starred Ameche and NOT Tyrone Power, a special Zanuck favorite.
Wrote Gussow: Incensed at a slam of an actor who wasn’t even in the picture, both Fox and (New York’s) Roxy Theater cancelled all advertising in the ‘Times’ for almost a year.
Most people today remember Ameche because of his films as an older gentlemen. His movie career was revived by 1983’s Trading Places then 1985’s Cocoon (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), and its 1988 sequel, Cocoon, The Return
That’s a topless Don (left) with Hume Cronyn and Wilfred Brimley, his Cocoon and Cocoon The Return costars. (No question that Ameche looks better dressed.) That’s him (below) with his Oscar, looking uncomfortable standing next to someone by the name of Cher.
Finally, Peter Besas, former Madrid correspondent of Variety, alerts us to the fact that Ameche was a genuinely good guy offscreen — and a good interview. Peter, who over the course of his career interviewed many stars, often in San Sebastian, writes with these impressions:
Perhaps the most pleasant (interviewee) was James Mason. The most unpleasant Robert Shaw. The most stupid, Lee Van Cleef. The most self-conceited Tony Curtis, when he already was getting old, over lunch, so I couldn’t escape.
One of the most charming, when he was already very old, was Don Ameche at the San Sebastian Film Festival. (Dominic Felix Ameche died in 1993, felled by prostate cancer, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 85.)