DESPITE having played a wide variety of roles in over a hundred films, Leon Ames is best remembered as the permanently harried father in the classic movie musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944).
Born Leon Waycoff on a farm in Indiana, in 1903, he made his first stage appearance in 1925. For eight years he toured in various stock companies 'and loving every minute of it'. One of those tours ended in Los Angeles, where he was spotted by a casting director for Universal Pictures and given a leading role in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Billed under his real name, which he kept until 1935, he played Pierre, the romantic hero. Little remained of Poe in this tale of Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), a mad scientist given to injecting gorilla blood into the veins of various girls in an attempt to find a suitable bride for Erik, his pet ape. Eventually Mirakle abducts Pierre's fiancee, after which Ames bravely chases Lugosi and his gorilla over the rooftops of Paris. The following year he showed even greater courage off the screen when he and 18 fellow actors met to defy the union- hating film moguls and organise the Screen Actors Guild. Over the next 50 years Ames served the guild in various capacities, including Recording Secretary and President.
After three Broadway plays in 1936-37, Ames returned to Hollywood, where he began a 55-year marriage to the actress Christine Gossett and made such films as Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) and Suez (1938), in which Ferdinand de Lesseps (Tyrone Power) was inspired to build the Suez Canal because of his passion for the Empress Eugenie (Loretta Young). Ames played Louis Napoleon in a story whose dramatis personae also included Disraeli, Victor Hugo and Franz Liszt. Ludicrous though Suez was, at least it was an 'A' picture; after a dozen of the 'B' variety, Ames accepted a Broadway offer to play the ex-football hero Joe Ferguson in James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's The Male Animal (1940). Three more plays followed.
In 1943 MGM brought him back to Hollywood with a seven-year contract, promisingly starting with Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St Louis. As the beleaguered householder of 5135 Kensington Avenue, Ames was superb. He again worked under Minnelli's direction as 'Mr Candle', the dapper guardian angel in Fred Astaire's baroque fantasy Yolanda and the Thief (1946). Although he couldn't sing, (his song in St Louis was dubbed by Arthur Freed, the film's producer), he also appeared in such musicals as Anchors Aweigh (1945), No Leave, No Love (1946), and A Date with Judy (1948), in which he played Elizabeth Taylor's father. 'I held all the great beauties on my knee,' Ames later said. 'And the hell of it was, they were all 13.'
Ames made more than 30 films for MGM including John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), Robert Montgomery's version of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake (1946) and a particularly striking performance as the wily district attorney in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). During his MGM years Ames also acquired a car franchise, and built the Studio City Ford Company into a thriving business.
When Warner Bros decided to clone Meet Me in St Louis for Doris Day, Ames was a natural to play her harassed father. On Moonlight Bay (1951) was so well received that Warners put the same cast into a sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). That same year, when CBS-TV turned the Broadway hit Life with Father into a sitcom, typecasting raised its head again, with Variety commenting: 'The irascible head of the tribe is played admirably by Leon Ames, an old hand at thespic parenting.' In 1961 the same network decided to make a sitcom out of the Spencer Tracy movie Father of the Bride, and Ames, of course, played the title-role.
In 1968, after four films for Disney and two years in Mr Ed on television, Ames retired, but was lured back to the screen by Minnelli for his On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Ames went on to make Tora] Tora] Tora] (1970), Cool Breeze (1972), Hammersmith is Out (1972), and a series of films urging the preservation of American wildlife.
Looking back on his thespic parenting, Ames described child performers as 'sweet . . . until the director says 'action'] Then they'll cut your throat with a dull saw.'