If ever there were a reflowering of a career, it was Don Ameche’s. Unlike many of his contemporaries at 20th Century-Fox – Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Jack Oakie and Sonja Henie – who faded or died many years previously, the debonair star of the 30s and early 40s was discovered by the kids of the 80s, who never knew that he had ‘invented the telephone’, a joke that went around for years after he had starred in The Story Of Alexander Graham Bell (1939).
Ameche’s breezy personality graced dozens of lightweight musicals, as well as a few sophisticated comedies, including Midnight (1939), opposite Claudette Colbert, and Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943), during Hollywood’s heyday. After being at the top for almost 20 years, his film career faded in the 50s, although he appeared with success in a number of Broadway hits such as Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings in 1955.
It was his role in John Landis’ Trading Places (1983), an attempt to recapture the atmosphere of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, that brought him back into the public eye. Grey and balding, in contrast with the head of distinctive jet-black hair of his halcyon days, but still retaining his slim and elegant figure, warm baritone voice and the pencil moustache that had been his trade-mark, he played one of a pair of Philadelphia blueblood brothers (the other was veteran Ralph Bellamy) who set the ‘Prince and the Pauper’ – type plot in motion.
He confirmed his return to Hollywood with a much larger role in Cocoon (1985), bringing authority and wit to the geronto-phile rompings, for which he was rewarded with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. It was appropriate to the newly-minted star that the tale was about the rejuvenation of a group of old people by alien forces. He repeated his role in the even soppier Cocoon: The Return (1988), this time miraculously conceiving a child with Gwen Verdon (aged 63). In the same year, he was given his best role since Heaven Can Wait, in David Mamet’s Things Change. To the portrayal of Gino, the humble and naive Italian shoeshine man who agrees to go to jail in place of a Mafia hit-man he resembles, he brought so much charm and dignity that one happily suspends disbelief at the Capraesque fairy-tale.