Ameche was born Dominic Felix Amici in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father, Felice Amici, was a bartender from Italy from Montemonaco, Ascoli Piceno, Marche. His mother, Barbara Etta Hertle, was of Scottish, Irish, and German ancestry. He had three brothers, Umberto (Bert), James (Jim Ameche), and Louis, and three sisters. Ameche attended Marquette University, Loras College, and the University of Wisconsin, where his cousin Alan Ameche played football and won the Heisman Trophy in 1954. Ameche had intended to study law, but he found theatricals more interesting and decided on a stage career.
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 & Bonnie. Ameche's younger brother, Jim Ameche, was also a well known actor. His brother Bert was an architect who worked for the U.S. Navy in Port Hueneme, California and then the US Postal Service in Los Angeles, California.
Vaudeville and movies
Ameche had done well in college dramatics and when a lead actor for a 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 Guinan dropped him from the act, dismissing him as "too stiff." He made his film debut in 1935 and by the late 1930s, had established himself as a major actor in Hollywood. He appeared in such films as Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), as 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 commoncatchphrases, as noted by Mike Kilen 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 1941 film "Ball of Fire" Barbara Stanwyck's character discusses this slang usage "Do you know what this means: I'll get you on the Ameche." is also Another highlight was co-starring with Gene Tierney in Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait in 1943, a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. He later claimed that this was his favourite film of his own. In 1940, he was voted the 21st most popular star in Hollywood.
Ameche played so many roles based on real people that on one of his radio broadcasts Fred Allen joked that "Pretty soon, Don Ameche will be playing Don Ameche." Soon afterwards, in It's in the Bag! (1945), which starred Allen, Ameche indeed played himself in a bit part.
Radio and television
Ameche was a major radio entertainer, heard on such shows as Empire Builders, The First Nighter Program, Family Theater and the Betty and Bob soap opera. Following his appearances as announcer and sketch participant on The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, he achieved memorable success during the late 1940s playing opposite Frances Langford in The Bickersons, the Philip Rapp radio comedy series about a combative married couple. It began on NBC in 1946, moving to CBS the following year.
He also enjoyed a substantial Broadway career, with roles in Silk Stockings, Goldilocks, Holiday for Lovers, Henry, Sweet Henry and Our Town.
Ameche's best-known television role came between 1961 and 1965, when he traveled throughout Europe with a television videotape unit and camera crew to cover a different 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 or ice show taped for the series, and was seen as host and commentator. His "anchor position" was in the grandstands at the particular show being taped. Sometimes, when one of the star acts of a particular show spoke English, Ameche would interview him or her and the interview would appear during the program.
He also guest featured in many television series, including NBC's The Polly Bergen Show and ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom and Jack Palance's circus drama, The Greatest Show on Earth, which was broadcasted during the 1963-1964 season. In the latter 1960s and early 1970s, Ameche directed the NBC television sitcom Julia, featuring the African American actress Diahann Carroll. He was also a frequent panelist on the 1950s version of To Tell The Truth.
After the release of two 1970 comedies, The Boatniks and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?, Ameche was absent from theatrical movies for the next 13 years. His only appearance in cinema during that time was in F For Fake, Orson Welles' documentary on hoaxes, when20th Century-Fox mistakenly sent Welles newsreel footage of Ameche misidentified as footage of Howard Hughes. Ameche also appeared in an early episode of Columbo entitled "Suitable For Framing" (1971).
Ameche and fellow veteran actor Ralph Bellamy were eventually cast in John Landis' Trading Places in 1983, playing rich brothers intent on ruining an innocent man for the sake of a one-dollar bet. In an interview some years later on Larry King Live, co-star Jamie Lee Curtis said that Ameche, a proper old-school actor, went to everyone on the set ahead of time to apologize when he was called to start cursing in the film. The film's success and their comedic performances brought them both back into the Hollywood limelight. Ameche's next role, in Cocoon (1985), won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He continued working for the rest of his life, including in the sequel, Cocoon: The Return. He earned good reviews for the David Mamet / Shel Silverstein penned Things Change; the New York Times said that he showed "...the kind of great comic aplomb that wins actors awards for other than sentimental reasons." In 1990, Ameche appeared in an episode of The Golden Girls as Rose Nylund's father. His last films were Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) and Corrina, Corrina (1994), completed only days before his death.
For his contribution to radio, Ameche received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6313 Hollywood Boulevard and a second star at 6101 Hollywood Boulevard for his television work.
Ameche died on December 6, 1993, at his son Don Jr's house in Scottsdale, Arizona of prostate cancer, at the age of 85. He was cremated and his ashes are buried at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery, also known as St. Philomena's Cemetery, in Asbury, Iowa.