At high noon, Don Ameche opens the door of his Santa Monica apartment. Even on this scorcher of a summer day, he evokes a vision of gentlemanly grace from a bygone era. In fact, as if to acknowledge his distinctive posture, Ameche has answered the doorbell in pajamas—sun bright, pupil-popping, jonquil-colored pajamas. And, he says, you’ll find him in lounging regalia most afternoons. These days, Ameche is a rarity—the kind of star who can hold court in his pajamas.
That explains Ameche’s renaissance at 77. Rediscovered as a greedy geezer in 1983’s Trading Places, the co-star of Cocoon has donned the comeback mantle as gracefully as he wears his pj’s. As a retiree who finds Cocoon’s mysterious waters more invigorating than prune juice, Ameche has helped make the wistful sci-fi fantasy one of the summer’s hits. By combining old-school charm with a newcomer’s energy (he performs 90 percent of his stunts in Cocoon, including most of a fanny-on-the-floor break dance), Ameche has achieved the unlikely status of a septuagenarian sex symbol. Says Lili Zanuck, who co-produced Cocoon, “He’s a 77-year-old man girls could fall in love with.”
“It’s all a mystery to me,” says Ameche with a laugh and a shrug. The modesty isn’t feigned. Even when his memorable work in 1939’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell convinced a generation that Don Ameche invented the telephone, the actor treated his abilities lightly. He calls himself a man who had “decent looks and could sing decently well. I did a passably good job. I’ve seen my performances.” He pauses. “I don’t like them.”
If Ameche seems to have been born in black tie, it’s an illusion. His urbane image was cultivated as an escape from the stone quarries of Kenosha, Wis. The son of an Italian immigrant saloonkeeper, Dominic Felix Amici made his acting debut as the Virgin Mary in the all-boys cast of a Catholic school play. When he started making movies in 1936, Ameche had risen through vaudeville to become a top name in radio. Most of his 48 movies are not the stuff of retrospectives, but Ameche did turn out such a polished comedy as Heaven Can Wait.
In the late ’40s he committed what he calls his great mistake. He turned down an extension of his $6,000-per-week Twentieth Century Fox contract in order to free-lance. “I thought people would beat a path to my door, and it didn’t happen,” he says. “All of a sudden you’re out of favor. By 1950 I was through.”
Indeed, when director John Landis wanted Ameche to replace Ray Mil-land in Trading Places, the actor couldn’t be located. “The horrible question was asked, ‘Did he die?’ ” says Landis. If Hollywood had forgotten the actor, the amnesia was mutual. In 10 years Ameche had only seen three films (The Godfather, Kramer vs. Kramer and E.T.). Nor was he desperate for film work. Financially independent from investments, he refused Trading Places until he was paid what Milland had been promised. “Hell,” says Ameche, “I’d gone for 12 years without making a picture, so what was the difference?” Says Landis: “What he has is real class.”
Not that Don was still playing the Virgin Mary. In his heyday he was racing his own horses and tippling at the Trocadero. But he was carrying it off with such finesse that the public never seemed to notice. When the Hollywood high life involved his four sons and two adopted daughters, however, Ameche decided that he’d had enough. After he and his wife, Honoré, whom he married in 1932, discovered that their kids had gone to a 4-year-old’s birthday party that cost $25,000, “it was the last party my children ever went to in Hollywood,” says Ameche. “I did everything I could to keep my children away from that.” Honoré and Don have been separated for 19 years. “There’s certainly no bitterness,” he says, and because both are Catholics, there’s no desire for a divorce.
Cocoon has revised Ameche’s professional standing, but its themes give him pause. Unlike his screen alter ego, he has no desire to move to a trans-galactic nirvana where the minimum life expectancy is 30 millennia. “I wouldn’t go,” he says. “I’m a very contented, peaceful man. I made mistakes, yes, but I accepted them, and, I hope, graciously.” As the everlasting gentleman, Don Ameche prefers going in style.