By People Staff
December 20, 1993 12:00 PM

IN 1935 A HANDSOME YOUNG RADIO ENTERTAINER named Don Ameche failed his first screen test at MGM. “I saw it and haled it,” he once recalled. “But then I found out later that I hated everything I did.” Not so the four generations of moviegoers who delighted in his flair for sophisticated nonsense.

Ameche, who died last week al 85 of prostate cancer at the Scottsdale, Ariz., home of his oldest son, Don Jr., enjoyed a remarkably durable career. It began in 1936 with Sins of Man and continued beyond his Oscar-winning performance in the 1985 fountain-of-youth fantasy Cocoon. Born Dominic Felix Amici in Kenosha, Wis., in 1908, the son of an Italian immigrant father and an Irish-German mother, young Don, with his name Americanized, established himself in the early ’30s on Chicago radio. Twentieth Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck caught the lighthearted glint of Ameche’s charm and cast him in a bright string of romantic baubles—Midnight, Down Argentine Way, 1943’s Heaven Can Wait. But he also played the celebrated inventor in the 1939 film The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, inspiring a slang phrase of the lime, “You’re wanted on the Ameche.”

In 1932 he married his childhood sweetheart, Honore Prendergast, who died in 1978 and with whom he had four sons and two daughters. “We were very close and spent a lot of time together,” says Don Jr. “I’ll always remember him as a wonderful father and friend.” His friends remember him as an inveterate traveler, a jolly raconteur and a devoted breeder and racer of Thoroughbred horses. Ameche’s film career waned in the postwar years, so he busied himself in the theater (Can-Can, Silk Stockings) and with his horses. In 1983, Trading Places brought Ameche back lo the screen, and his Oscar brought him back lo the limelight. His last days were spent filming Corrinna, Corrinna with Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta—and living in his son’s house nearby. Says Don Jr.: “Until the day he died, he’d wake up in the middle of the night and ask me, ‘What time do I go lo work? What time are they picking me up?’ He just loved it.”