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Don Ameche: Many Talents, No Regrets

Getty Images / Mondadori Portfolio / Rino Petrosino

Don Ameche: Many Talents, No Regrets

The trifecta of Don Ameche's dapper good looks –– including his trademark skinny mustache –– his resonant velvety voice and his all-around likeability led him to an almost 60-year career in three branches of show business: radio, television and feature films. Just when it looked like his career was through, he made not one but two comebacks. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame –– one for radio, another for TV.

Ameche won an Academy Award for Cocoon (1985), and received a moving standing ovation from his peers as Cher gave him the golden Oscar. His elegant acceptance speech is quite touching.

Ameche's final film, Corinna, Corinna, with Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta, wrapped not long before he died Dec. 6, 1993 of prostate cancer  –– 20 years ago today –– at his son's home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 85.

Ameche was married to Honore Prendergast from 1932 until her death in 1986. The couple had six children: Ronald (Ronnie), Dominic (Donnie), Thomas (Tommie), Lonnie, Bonnie and Connie. Ameche himself came from a large family, the son of an Italian barkeep father and Irish-Scottish-German mother in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was a decent basketball player and though he attended Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin (his cousin Alan "The Horse" Amici won the Heisman Trophy there and later played for the Baltimore Colts) and intended to study law, he caught the acting bug and left school for a gig in a stock production.

Ameche toured with vaudeville acts and became a versatile radio personality, announcer and entertainer, perhaps most memorably as a beleaguered husband in the 1940s comedy series The Bickersons opposite Frances Langford. He also appeared on Broadway in Silk Stockings and Our Town, among others. Theater critic Brooks Atkinson called him "the perfect musical comedy hero, crackling in style, deadpan, assured, sardonic."

His film career got off to a successful start with his role as Alexander Graham Bell in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) –– a role so enduring that Americans often referred to telephones in the 1940s as "Ameches." Among the other real-life characters he played in biographical films was Stephen Foster in Sewanee River. But it was playing against such stars as Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, Betty Grable, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert and Carmen Miranda that he won over audiences with his particular charm in Moon Over Miami, The Feminine Touch, Girl Trouble and Heaven Can Wait.

Film roles became less frequent in the 1960s and '70s, and Ameche increasingly turned to television spots on shows with Polly Bergen, Pat Boone and Jack Palance as well as in an episode of Columbo and as a panelist on To Tell the Truth. From 1961–1965 he hosted International Showtime on NBC, traveling to European circuses and shows to introduce American audiences to performers and events on the other side of the Atlantic.

His role in Trading Places (1983) was the beginning of a career comeback for Ameche as he and Ralph Bellamy played millionaire brothers in a caper starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. That led to his hilarious, award-winning role in Cocoon, in which he won acclaim for his breakdancing scene. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he told reporters it took him two months to learn to breakdance, and he credited his routine of isometrics, deep knee-bends and running in place with making it possible.

After that, Ameche was in a film almost every year until his death in 1993. Several years before his death he told a Times reporter that he was "a man with no regrets. I've always accepted things as they were. God was awfully good to me during the good old days."

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.