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'Things Change' for Don Ameche

There is a scene in "Things Change" where Don Ameche is in a steam room with a towel draped across himself, and this is not a man who looks 80 years old. You look at the scene and you reflect that he made "Ramona" in 1936 and has two movies coming out in the autumn of 1988 and you wonder what his secret is. He is glad to share it with you. His secret is clean living.

"Genetics of course has something to do with it," he was explaining, "but on top of that I exercise between four and five times a week, strenuously, to get the heart rate up, so that the blood can flow through and wash out all the debris that it possibly can. And every day I walk over six miles. I eat one meal a day, but anything I want. I drink moderately, just a little white wine, and I take care of myself."

He was explaining this in a deep, booming voice, the voice of an actor who began in radio. He never pauses to think of the right word, like a lot of 80-year-olds do. The fact is, Ameche exercises his mind, too: "It will atrophy, just like the body. I've deliberately studied many things that I know, going in, I won't be able to assimilate. I read Plato, St. Thomas, the mystics, to exercise my mind."

And that is why he was ready, in his 70s, to start acting in the movies again, after he made a disastrous decision in 1945 that all but ended his Hollywood career. He was ready for a character role in "Trading Places" in 1983, and he was ready to star in "Cocoon" in 1985, and "Harry and the Hendersons" in 1987, and he was ready the day David Mamet said, "Don, how would you feel about playing Gino?"

That was several months ago. Ameche and Mamet, the famous playwright, were having lunch at the Sunset Marquis, a little private hotel off Sunset Boulevard, and they were looking ahead to Mamet's new movie, which is now opening around the country. "Things Change" is the story of an old Italian-American shoeshine man from Chicago, who is bribed by the mob to take the fall for a murder. A low-level mobster (Joe Mantegna) is assigned to keep the old guy out of trouble for the weekend, and he decides they should go to Lake Tahoe. Out in Nevada, the old guy is immediately mistaken for a top Mafia don - the guy behind the guy behind the guy - and it's too late to explain the mistake.

The entire deception depends on the old guy, who is not clever and doesn't know all the right things to say, but who is absolutely honest and speaks only from his heart, and so convinces the boss of the Nevada mob that he is a true brother. The screenplay by Mamet and Shel Silverstein runs so many changes on this theme, plays so many tricks, that the film is a comedy crossed with a con game.

Ameche originally was cast to play the boss of the Nevada mob. Then Mamet got the idea he should play Gino, the shoeshine man, and the result is the role of Ameche's lifetime - or at least this half of his lifetime. "They were looking for a real Italian," Ameche said. "From Italy. Then they thought, how about me? My father was Italian - his name was Amici, which means 'friends' - and I look as much like an old Italian as anybody else." When you were making the picture, I asked, did you think Mamet has a future as a movie director? Or should he keep the daytime job?

"I was the only member of the cast who was not part of Mamet's circle," he said. "They're very close, very tight, and I respected that. I thought he was a very fine director. He has a fierce reserve. I never tamper with that. There are directors you never ever want to get close to. Lubitsch was one. Outside of the work, I don't think I ever said five words to him. Mamet was pretty much the same thing. His mind is working all the time. I saw his first picture, 'House of Games,' and I thought it was one of the finest films I had ever seen. With this film, he uses of course his famous dialogue style, and when we rehearsed it, I wasn't impressed that much. But when I saw it in the picture, I thought it was kind of effective."

What does Mamet still have to work on?

"Well, there's just the slightest thing, and he'll master that. He doesn't know the camera . . . yet. Now when a cameraman is responsible for calling or OKing most of the shots, you know he's gonna protect himself. He's got to. It's human nature. So David asked me how much his not knowing the camera was costing him in time. I estimated between 5 and 10 percent. But everybody has to learn. In the old days, before there was such a thing as film schools, directors learned the camera by watching other directors, and learning from their own dailies, and listening to the cameraman, and seeing what would work. Some of those guys could cut their movies in their head. When John Ford was making 'The Grapes of Wrath' at 20th Century-Fox, they didn't give him final cut, so he just put his hand in front of the lens when he didn't like something. They had to cut it his way."

When Ameche analyzes a director's work, he talks with the quiet confidence of a man who has been watching directors for more than 50 years. There isn't anybody else Don Ameche's age who is still playing the leads in movies. He was under contract for years at Fox, where his best-known films were "In Old Chicago" (1938), "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), "The Three Musketeers" (1939), "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell" (1939), "Midnight" (1939), "Swanee River" (1939) and Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait" (1943), which was both the high point and the beginning of the end for Ameche's Hollywood career.

"I was through in 1949," he said quietly, and although a statement like that would cost a lot of actors a lot of pain, he seems to regard it as an objective fact. "What happened was, in 1945, I had one year to go on my contract with Fox, and Darryl Zanuck called me in and said he wasn't going to take the last year of my contract, but he was going to offer me a new three-year contract, firm, with very good money. I talked it over with my agent, and we decided we'd go free-lance.

"That was a brutal mistake. There was no one at Fox at the time. Tyrone Power was in the Army, all the people my age were in the Army, I would have made a lot of good pictures. None of the movies I made after Fox were total flops, but none were great hits, either. By 1949, there was no more work for me out there, and I went to New York in 1950, and just did whatever I could. Mainly television. Some Broadway. A lot of dinner theater work, which is not a very satisfactory medium."

In recent years, Ameche said, he has become a loner. He seemed quite cheerful about the fact. "I live in Santa Monica. There are places where I can take walks that are serene. The trees are beautiful, there's no need to worry about what's going to happen to you, and there's the beauty of that ocean. In the last two weeks, the blue of the ocean varied every single day, and on three different occasions I said to myself, This is the most beautiful day over the ocean that I have ever seen."

You take your walks by yourself?

"The walks are very precious to me. If I had to walk with somebody else, I wouldn't enjoy it half so much. You can't walk at your own pace, you can't think of the things you want to think about. It's an hour and 45 minutes that are very precious to me. And throwing back my head and seeing that blue sky through the trees! I pass a lot of regulars on my walks, but very few do I say hello to. One man, he runs on the median, I walk on the sidewalk, we talked for two minutes one day, and he seemed like such a nice person. I wave to him every day. But very few people do I speak to. And the women. A lot of women walk, but they never look at anybody. They look straight ahead."

They may be afraid of appearing to invite conversation, I said.

"Yes, I suppose that's it. But I see very little of that availability on San Vincente, where I walk. Neither in costume, nor in gesture."

You don't have a . . . you live alone?

"Oh, I couldn't even say how long it's been since I went out on a date. You know, religion has been an important part of my life. I'm Roman Catholic. When I started in pictures . . . well, you have no inkling what it was like. You get so close to these people with whom you're working, a particular woman you're doing a scene with, and if you don't genuinely like these people the camera's gonna pick it up. So you do everything you can to really like these actresses. In most instances, it was very easy to do. In some instances, it was way too easy. I've actually had experiences where I've touched one of these stars and I could feel something in my hand. There was so much sexuality in these people you could almost feel it.

"I'm sure you've heard a woman say, 'God, he's sexy' about a man. This is what these women were, and to fight that off - because they were so attractive - was a hell of a job. It was only by the grace of God that I was able to stay like I did stay, and I could always understand the ones who fell by the wayside. There was a lot of that. I came out pretty much unscathed. Sure, I dropped along the wayside like I guess most people did. But generally speaking, I was all right."

There were no Don Ameche scandals?

He smiled.

Were you part of the social life out there?

"They say in show business you have to see and be seen. I was not a schmoozer. I only went to one big party they had in Hollywood during all of those years. It was for the opening of 'In Old Chicago' and it was also Zanuck's 25th wedding anniversary. I hated those parties, and Zanuck respected my wishes. I never wanted to kiss anybody's a- -. That never appealed to me. I don't say the others did . . . but they would show up at the parties."

You were married during this time?

"Oh, yes, and had a family, although I was separated from my wife for the last 18 years before she died. We never divorced. We wouldn't have dreamed of it. I did have a relationship during those 18 years, which was not what one was supposed to do, but by and large I think I managed to do the right thing. Today I have 13 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and another on the way."

Is there, I asked, any way in which your work has changed over the years? What have you learned?

Ameche was silent for a moment.

"I don't think so. Not my way of working."

He thought some more.

"There is one thing," he said. "To me, the one greatest enigma in motion pictures has always been how Spencer Tracy listened. To watch him listen was to be filled with admiration. He listened so intently. Not the greatest performers in the business - not Olivier, not Richardson, name who you will - could listen the way he did. And I couldn't figure it out. God, I would strive so hard to really do that, to really listen, but always in the back of my mind I would be rehearsing that next line.

"I think I've finally figured out what he did. Some way or another, he had the security and the willpower to listen intently and never ever let the next line come into his mind. Not until he actually needed it. And that is a dreadfully hard thing for me to do. I'm practicing all the time. I've never seen anybody else that listened like Tracy."

You're 80 years old, I said, and you made your first movie 52 years ago, and you're still practicing all the time to get better?

"I hope so."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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