Spencer Bonaventure Tracy (April 5, 1900 – June 10, 1967) was an American actor, noted for his natural style and versatility. One of the major stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age , Tracy won two Academy Awards for Best Actor, from nine nominations, sharing the record for nominations in that category with Laurence Olivier.
Tracy first discovered his talent for acting while attending Ripon College, and he later received a scholarship for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He spent seven years in the theatre, working in a succession of stock companies and intermittently on Broadway. Tracy’s breakthrough came in 1930, when his lead performance in The Last Mile caught the attention of Hollywood. After a successful film debut in Up the River, Tracy was signed to a contract with Fox Film Corporation. His five years with Fox were unremarkable, and he remained largely unknown to audiences after 25 films, most of them starring Tracy as the leading man. None of them were hits although The Power and the Glory (1933) features one of his most acclaimed performances.
In 1935, Tracy joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, at the time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. His career flourished with a series of hit films, and in 1937 and 1938 he won consecutive Oscars for Captains Courageous and Boys Town. By the 1940s, Tracy was one of the studio’s top stars. In 1942, he appeared with Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, beginning a popular partnership that produced nine movies over 25 years. Tracy left MGM in 1955, and continued to work regularly as a freelance star, despite an increasing weariness as he aged. His personal life was troubled, with a lifelong struggle against alcoholism and guilt over his son’s deafness. Tracy became estranged from his wife in the 1930s, but never divorced, conducting a long-term relationship with Katharine Hepburn in private. Towards the end of his life, Tracy worked almost exclusively for director Stanley Kramer. It was for Kramer that he made his last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, completed just 17 days before Tracy’s death.
During his career, Tracy appeared in 75 films and developed a reputation among his peers as one of the screen’s greatest actors. In 1999 the American Film Institute ranked Tracy as the 9th greatest male star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.
Tracy was born on April 5, 1900, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was the second son of Caroline (ne Brown; 1874-1942) and John Edward Tracy (1873-1928), a truck salesman. His mother was a Presbyterian from a wealthy Midwestern family, and his father was of Irish Catholic background. His one brother, Carroll, was four years older.
Spencer was a difficult and hyperactive child with poor school attendance. Raised as a Catholic, at nine years old he was placed in the care of Dominican nuns in the hope of transforming his behavior. Later in life he remarked, “I never would have gone back to school if there had been any other way of learning to read the subtitles in the movies.” He became fascinated with motion pictures, watching the same ones repeatedly and then re-enacting scenes to his friends and neighbors. Tracy attended several Jesuit academies in his teenage years, which he claimed took the “badness” out of him and helped him improve his grades. At Marquette Academy he met future actor Pat O’Brien, and the pair began attending plays together, awakening Tracy’s interest in the theatre.
With little care for his studies and “itching for a chance to go and see some excitement”, Tracy enlisted in the United States Navy when he turned 18. He was sent to the Naval Training Station in North Chicago, where he was still a student when World War I came to an end. He achieved the rank of seaman second class, but never went to sea, and was discharged in February 1919. John Tracy’s desire to see one of his sons gain a college degree drove Tracy back to high school to finish his diploma. Studies at two more institutions, plus the additional allowance of “war credits”, won Tracy a place at Ripon College. He entered Ripon in February 1921, declaring his intention to major in medicine.
Tracy was a popular student at Ripon, where he served as president of his hall and was involved in a number of college activities. He made his stage debut in June 1921, playing the male lead in The Truth. Tracy was very well received in this role and he quickly developed a passion for the stage. He formed an acting company with friends, which they called “The Campus Players” and took on tour. As a member of the college debate team, Tracy excelled in arguing and public speaking. It was during a tour with his debate team that Tracy auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City. He was offered a scholarship to attend the school after performing a scene from one of his earlier roles.
Tracy left Ripon, and began classes at AADA in April 1922. He was deemed fit to progress to the senior class, allowing him to join the academy stock company. Tracy made his New York debut in October 1922, in a play called The Wedding Guests, and then his Broadway debut three months later playing a wordless robot in R.U.R. He graduated from AADA in March 1923.
Stock theatre and Broadway (1923-30)
Immediately following graduation, Tracy joined a new stock company based in White Plains, New York where he was given peripheral roles. Unhappy there, he moved to a company in Cincinnati, but failed to make an impact. In November 1923 he landed a small part on Broadway in the comedy A Royal Fandango, starring Ethel Barrymore. Reviews for the show were poor and it closed after 25 performances; Tracy later said of the failure, “My ego took an awful beating.” When he took a position with a struggling company in New Jersey, Tracy was living on an allowance of 35 cents a day. In January 1924 he played his first leading role with a company in Winnipeg, but the organization soon closed.
Tracy finally achieved some success by joining forces with the notable stock manager William H. Wright in the spring of 1924. A stage partnership was formed with the young actress Selena Royle, who had already made her name on Broadway. It proved a popular draw and their productions were favorably received. One of these shows brought Tracy to the attention of a Broadway producer, who offered him the lead in a new play. The Sheepman previewed in October 1925, but it received poor reviews and closed after its trial run in Connecticut. Dejected, Tracy was forced back to Wright and the stock circuit.
In the fall of 1926, Tracy was offered his third shot at Broadway: a role in a new George M. Cohan play called Yellow. Tracy swore that if the play failed to be a hit he would leave stock and work in a “regular” business instead. Tracy was nervous about working with Cohanone of the most important figures in American theatrebut during rehearsals Cohan announced, “Tracy, you’re the best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!”Yellow opened on September 21; reviews were mixed but it ran for 135 performances. It was the beginning of an important collaboration for Tracy: “I’d have quit the stage completely,” he later commented, “if it hadn’t been for George M. Cohan.” Cohan wrote a part specifically for Tracy in his next play, The Baby Cyclone. It opened on Broadway in September 1927 and proved to be a hit.
Tracy followed this success with another Cohan play, Whispering Friends, and in 1929 took over from Clark Gable in Conflict, a Broadway drama . A variety of other roles followed, but it was the lead in Dread, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Owen Davis that gave Tracy high hopes for success. The story of a man’s descent into madness, Dread previewed in Brooklyn to an excellent reception, but the very next dayOctober 29the New York stock market crashed. Unable to obtain funding, Dread did not open on Broadway. Following this disappointment, Tracy considered leaving the theatre and returning to Milwaukee for a more stable life.
In January 1930, Tracy was approached about a new play called The Last Mile. Looking to cast the lead role of a murderer on death row, producer Herman Shumlin met with Tracy, and later recounted: “beneath the surface, here was a man of passion, violence, sensitivity and desperation: no ordinary man, and just the man for the part.”The Last Mile opened on Broadway in February, where Tracy’s performance was met by a standing ovation that lasted 14 curtain calls. The Commonweal described him as “one of our best and most versatile young actors”. The play was a hit with critics, and ran for 289 performances.
In 1930, Broadway was being heavily scouted for actors to work in the “talkies“, the new medium of sound film. Tracy was cast in two Vitaphone short movies (Taxi Talks and The Hard Guy), but he had not considered becoming a film actor: “I had no ambition in that direction and I was perfectly happy on the stage”, he later explained in an interview. One of the scouts who saw Tracy in The Last Mile was director John Ford. Ford wanted Tracy for the lead role in his next picture, a prison movie. Production company Fox Film Corporation were unsure about Tracy, saying that he did not photograph well, but Ford convinced them that he was right for the role.Up the River (1930) marked the film debut of both Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. After seeing the rushes, Fox immediately offered Tracy a long-term contract. Knowing that he needed the money for his familyhis young son was deaf and recovering from polioTracy signed with Fox and moved to California. He appeared on the stage again only once more in his life.
Winfield Sheehan, the head of Fox, committed to making Tracy a bankable commodity. The studio went to efforts to promote the actor, releasing adverts for his second film Quick Millions (1931) with the headline “A New Star Shines.” Three films were made in quick succession, all of which were unsuccessful at the box office. Tracy found himself typecast in comedies, usually playing a crook or a con man. The mold was broken with his seventh picture, Disorderly Conduct (1932), and it was the first of his films since Up the River to make a profit.
In mid-1932, after nine pictures, Tracy remained virtually unknown to the public. He considered leaving Fox once his contract was up for renewal, but a rise in his weekly rate to $1,500 convinced him to stay. He continued to appear in unpopular films, with Me and My Gal (1932) setting an all-time low attendance record for the Roxy Theatre in New York City. He was loaned to Warner Bros. for 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), a prison drama co-starring Bette Davis. Tracy was hopeful that it would be his break-out role, but despite good reviews this failed to materialize.
Critics began to notice Tracy with The Power and the Glory (1933). The story of a man’s rise to prosperity, written by Preston Sturges, Tracy’s performance as railroad tycoon Tom Garner received uniformly strong reviews.William Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “This sterling performer has finally been given an opportunity to show an ability that has been boxed in by gangster roles … has introduced Mr. Tracy as one of the screen’s best performers”.Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times stated: “No more convincing performance has been given on the screen than Spencer Tracy’s impersonation of Tom Garner.”Shanghai Madness (1933), meanwhile, gave Tracy a previously unseen sex appeal and served to advance his standing. Despite this attention, Tracy’s next two movies went largely unnoticed. Man’s Castle (1933) with Loretta Young was anticipated to be a hit, but made only a small profit.The Show-Off (1934), for which he was lent to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, proved popular, but his subsequent outings continued to be unsuccessful.
Tracy drank heavily during his years with Fox, and gained a reputation as an alcoholic. He failed to report for filming on Marie Galante in June 1934, and was found in his hotel room, virtually unconscious after a two-week binge. Tracy was removed from the Fox payroll while he recovered in a hospital, and then sued for $125,000 for delaying the production. He completed only two more pictures with the studio.
The details on how Tracy’s relationship with Fox ended are unclear: later in life Tracy maintained that he was fired for his drunken behavior, but the Fox records do not support such an account. He was still under contract with the studio when MGM expressed their interest in the actor. They were in need of a new male star, and contacted Tracy on April 2, 1935, offering him a seven-year deal. That afternoon, the contract between Tracy and Fox was terminated “by mutual consent”. Tracy made a total of 25 pictures in the five years he was with Fox Film Corporation, most of which lost money at the box office.
In the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the most respected movie production studio in Hollywood. When Tracy arrived there, his own reputation was not strong. Biographer James Curtis writes: “Tracy was scarcely a blip on the box office barometer in 1935, a critics’ darling and little more”. He was, however, well known for being a troublemaker. Producer Irving G. Thalberg was nevertheless enthusiastic about working with the actor, telling journalist Louella Parsons: “Spencer Tracy will become one of MGM’s most valuable stars.”
Curtis notes that the studio managed Tracy with care, a welcome change from the ineptitude he had known at Fox, which was like “a shot of adrenaline” for the actor. His first film under the new contract was the quickly produced The Murder Man (1935), which included the feature film debut of James Stewart. Thalberg then began a strategy of pairing Tracy with the studio’s top actresses:Whipsaw (1935) co-starred Myrna Loy and was a commercial success.Riffraff (1936) put Tracy opposite Jean Harlow. Both films were, however, designed and promoted to showcase their leading ladies, thus continuing Tracy’s reputation as a secondary star.
Fury (1936) was the first film to prove that Tracy could make a success on his own merit. Directed by Fritz Lang, Tracy played a man who swears revenge after narrowly escaping death by a lynch mob. The film and performance received excellent reviews. It was popular with the public, going on to make $1.3 million worldwide. Curtis writes: “audiences who, just a year earlier, had no clear handle on him, were suddenly turning out to see him. It was a transition that was nothing short of miraculous … a willingness on the part of the public to embrace a leading man who was not textbook handsome nor bigger than life.”
Fury was followed one month later with the release of the big-budget disaster movie San Francisco (1936). Tracy played a supporting role alongside Clark Gable in the film, allowing audiences to see him with the top male star in Hollywood. Taking on the role of a priest, Tracy reportedly felt a heavy responsibility in representing the church. Despite having only 17 minutes of screen time, Tracy was highly praised for his performance and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.San Francisco became the highest grossing picture of 1936. Donald Deschner, in his book on Tracy, credits Fury and San Francisco as the “two films that changed his career and gave him the status of a major star.”
By this point, Tracy entered a period of self-imposed sobriety and MGM expressed pleasure with Tracy’s professionalism. His public reputation continued to grow with Libeled Lady (1936), a screwball comedy that cast him with William Powell, Loy and Harlow. According to Curtis, “Powell, Harlow and Loy were among the biggest draws in the industry, and equal billing in such a powerhouse company could only serve to advance Tracy’s standing”.Libeled Lady was his third hit picture in the space of six months.
Tracy appeared in four movies in 1937. They Gave Him a Gun went largely unnoticed, but Captains Courageous was one of the major film events of the year. Tracy played a Portuguese fisherman in the adventure movie, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling. He was uncomfortable feigning a foreign accent, and resented having his hair curled, but the role was a hit with audiences and Tracy won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Captains Courageous was followed by Big City with Luise Rainer and Mannequin with Joan Crawford, the latter of which took good billings at the box office. With two years of hit movies and industry recognition, Tracy became a star in the United States. A 1937 poll of 20 million people to find the “King and Queen of Hollywood” ranked Tracy sixth among males. Tracy was reunited with Gable and Loy for 1938’s Test Pilot. The film was another commercial and critical success, permanently cementing the notion of Gable and Tracy as a team.
Based on the positive response he had received in San Francisco, MGM again cast Tracy as a priest in Boys Town (1938). Portraying Edward J. Flanagan, a Catholic priest and founder of Boys Town, was a role Tracy took seriously: “I’m so anxious to do a good job as Father Flanagan that it worries me, keeps me awake at night.” Tracy received strong reviews for his performance, and the movie grossed $4 million worldwide. For the second year running, Tracy received an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was humble about the recognition, saying in his acceptance speech: “I honestly do not feel that I can accept this award … I can accept it only as it was meant to be for a great manFather Flanagan”. He immediately sent the Academy Award statuette to Flanagan. Tracy was listed as the fifth biggest money-making star of 1938.
Tracy was absent from screens for almost a year before returning to Twentieth Century-Fox on loan and appearing as Henry M. Stanley in Stanley and Livingstone, his only film of 1939. Curtis maintains that Tracy’s non-visibility did little to affect his standing with the public or exhibitors. In October of that year, a Fortune magazine survey to find the nation’s favorite movie actor listed Tracy in first place.
MGM capitalized on Tracy’s popularity, casting him in four movies for 1940. I Take This Woman with Hedy Lamarr was a critical and commercial failure, but the historical drama Northwest PassageTracy’s first film in Technicolorproved popular. He then portrayed Thomas Edison in Edison, the Man. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune was not charmed by the story, but wrote that Tracy, “by sheer persuasion of his acting”, made the film worthy.Boom Town was the third and final Gable-Tracy picture, also featuring Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr, making it one of the most anticipated films of the year. The film opened to the biggest crowd since Gone With the Wind.
Tracy signed a new contract with MGM in April 1941, which paid $5,000 a week and limited him to three pictures a year (Tracy had previously expressed a need to reduce his workload). The contract also stated for the first time that his billing was to be “that of a star”. Contrary to popular belief, the contract did not include a clause that he receive top billing, but from this point onward, every film Tracy appeared in featured his name in pole position.
In 1941, Tracy returned to the role of Father Flanagan in Men of Boys Town. It was followed later that year by Tracy’s only venture into the horror genre, an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, co-starring Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner. Tracy was unhappy with the film, disliking the heavy make-up he needed to portray Hyde. Critical response to the film was mixed. Theodore Strauss of The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Tracy’s portrait of Hyde is not so much evil incarnate as it is the ham rampant.” The film was popular with audiences, however, taking in more than $2 million at the box office.
Tracy was set to star in a film version of The Yearling for 1942, but on-set difficulties and bad weather forced the production to close. With the end of that project, he became available for the new Katharine Hepburn movie, Woman of the Year (1942). Hepburn greatly admired Tracy, calling him “the best movie actor there was”. She had wanted him for her comeback vehicle, The Philadelphia Story (1940). Hepburn was delighted that Tracy was available for Woman of the Year, saying “I was just damned grateful he was willing to work with me.” The romantic comedy performed well at the box office and received strong reviews. William Boehnel wrote in the New York World-Telegram, “To begin with, it has Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the leading roles. This in itself would be enough to make any film memorable. But when you get Tracy and Hepburn turning in brilliant performances to boot, you’ve got something to cheer about.”
Woman of the Year was followed by an adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s Tortilla Flat (1942) which met with a tepid response. MGM did not hesitate to repeat the teaming of Tracy and Hepburn and cast them in the dark mystery Keeper of the Flame (1942). Despite a weak critical reception the film was a popular success, outgrossing its predecessor and confirming the strength of the partnership.
Tracy’s next three appearances were all war-based. A Guy Named Joe (1943) with Irene Dunne surpassed San Francisco to become his highest-grossing film to date.The Seventh Cross (1944), about an escape from a Nazi concentration camp, met with critical acclaim. It was followed by the aviation film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). On the strength of these three releases, the annual Quigley poll revealed Tracy was MGM’s biggest money-making star of 1944. His only film the following year was Without Love (1945), a third film with Hepburn that performed well at the box office despite muted enthusiasm from critics.
Stage and screen
In 1945, Tracy returned to the stage for the first time in 15 years. He had been through a dark patch personallyculminating with a stay in hospitaland Hepburn felt that a play would help restore his focus. Tracy told a journalist in April, “I’m coming back to Broadway to see if I can still act.” The play was The Rugged Path by Robert E. Sherwood. It first previewed in Providence on September 28, to a sold out crowd and tepid response. It was a difficult production; director Garson Kanin later wrote: “In the ten days prior to the New York opening all the important relationships had deteriorated. Spencer was tense and unbending, could not, or would not, take direction”. Tracy considered leaving the show before it even opened on Broadway, and lasted there just six weeks before announcing his intention to close the show. It closed on January 19, 1946, after 81 performances. Tracy later explained to a friend: “I couldn’t say those goddamn lines over and over and over again every night … At least every day is a new day for me in films … But this thingevery day, every day, over and over again.”
Tracy was absent from screens in 1946, the first year since his motion picture debut that there was no Spencer Tracy release. His next film was The Sea of Grass (1947) a drama set in the American Old West with Hepburn. Similarly to Keeper of the Flame and Without Love, a lukewarm response from critics did not stop it from being a financial success both at home and abroad. He followed it later that year with Cass Timberlane, in which he played a judge. It was a commercial success, but Curtis notes that co-star Lana Turner overshadowed Tracy in most of the reviews.
A fifth film with Hepburn came in 1948, Frank Capra‘s political drama State of the Union. Tracy played a presidential candidate in the movie, which was warmly received. He then appeared in Edward, My Son (1949) with Deborah Kerr. Tracy disliked the role, and told director George Cukor, “It’s rather disconcerting to me to find how easily I play a heel.” Upon its release, The New Yorker wrote of the “hopeless miscasting of Mr. Tracy”. The film became Tracy’s biggest money-loser at MGM.
Tracy finished off the 1940s with Malaya (1949), an adventure film with James Stewart, and Adam’s Rib (1949), a comedy with Tracy and Hepburn playing married lawyers who oppose each other in court. Tracy and Hepburn’s friends, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, wrote the parts specifically for the duo. The film received strong reviews and became the highest grossing Tracy-Hepburn picture to date. Film critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn are the stellar performers in this show and their perfect compatibility in comic capers is delightful to see.”
Final MGM years
Tracy received his first Academy Award nomination in 12 years for playing the role of Stanley Banks in Father of the Bride (1950). In the comedy film, Banks attempts to handle preparations for his daughter’s (played by Elizabeth Taylor) upcoming wedding. “It’s the second strong comedy in a row for Spencer Tracy, doing the title role, and he socks it”, Variety noted. The film was the biggest commercial success of Tracy’s career to date, earning $6 million worldwide. MGM wanted a sequel, and while Tracy was unsure, he accepted.Father’s Little Dividend (1951) was released ten months later and performed well at the box office. On the strength of the two movies, Tracy polled as one of the nation’s top stars once again.
In 1951, Tracy portrayed a lawyer in The People Against O’Hara. The next year he re-teamed with Hepburn for the sports comedy Pat and Mike (1952), the second feature written expressly for the pair by Kanin and Gordon. Pat and Mike became one of the duo’s most popular and critically acclaimed films. Tracy followed it with Plymouth Adventure (1952), a historical drama set abroad the Mayflower, co-starring Gene Tierney. It met with a poor response and posted a loss of $1.8 million. In 1953, Tracy returned to the role of a concerned father in The Actress. “That film … got more from the critics than any film I ever made in all the years, and we didn’t make enough to pay for the ushers in the theatre,” recalled producer Lawrence Weingarten. For his performance in The Actress, Tracy won a Golden Globe Award and received a nomination for the British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) .
MGM lent Tracy to Twentieth Century-Fox for the Western film Broken Lance, his only appearance of 1954. The picture was well received. In 1955 Tracy turned down William Wyler‘s The Desperate Hours because he refused to take second-billing to Humphrey Bogart. Instead, Tracy appeared as a one-armed protagonist who faces the hostility of a small town in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a film directed by John Sturges. For his work, Tracy received a fifth Oscar nomination and was awarded the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He had personally been unhappy with the picture, and threatened to leave it during production. This behavior became a regular occurrence for the aging Tracy, who was increasingly lethargic and cynical. He began production on Tribute to a Bad Man in the summer of 1955, but pulled out when the location shooting in Colorado gave him altitude sickness. The trouble caused by the picture fractured Tracy’s relationship with MGM. In June 1955 he was the last remaining star of the studio’s heyday, but with his contract up for renewalTracy opted to go independent for the first time in his movie career.
Independent player (195667)
Tracy’s first post-MGM appearance was in The Mountain (1956) with Robert Wagner, who played his much younger brother (Wagner had earlier played his son in Broken Lance). The location filming in the French Alps proved a difficult experience, and he threatened to leave the project. His performance earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actor. Tracy and Hepburn then paired together for the eighth time in the office-based comedy Desk Set (1957). He again had to be convinced to stay with the film which met with a weak response.
In 1958, Tracy appeared in The Old Man and the Sea, a project that had been in development for five years. An adaptation of Ernest Hemingway‘s novella of the same name, Hemingway’s agent, Leland Hayward, had previously written to the author: “Of all Hollywood people, the one that comes the closest to me in quality, in personality and voice, in personal dignity and ability, is Spencer Tracy.” Tracy was delighted to be offered the role. He was told to lose some of his 210 pounds before filming began, but failed to do so. Hemingway thus reported that Tracy was a “terrible liability to the picture”, and had to be reassured that the star was being carefully photographed to disguise his weight. Appearing alone on screen for the majority of the film, Tracy considered The Old Man and the Sea the toughest part he ever played. In reviewing the performance, Jack Moffitt of the Hollywood Reporter said it was “so intimate and revealing of universal human experience that, to me, it almost transcended acting and became reality.” Tracy received Oscar and BAFTA Award nominations for the work.
After abandoning two projects, including a proposed remake of The Blue Angel with Marilyn Monroe, Tracy’s next feature was The Last Hurrah (1958). It reunited him with his debut director, John Ford, after 28 years. Tracy took a year to commit to the project, in which he played an Irish-American mayor seeking re-election. The movie was favorably reviewed, but not commercially successful. At the end of 1958, the National Board of Review named Tracy the year’s Best Actor. He nevertheless began to ponder retirement, with Curtis writing that he was “chronically tired, unhappy, ill, and uninterested in work.”
Stanley Kramer partnership
Tracy did not appear on the screen again until October 1960, with the release of Inherit the Wind, a film based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” which debated the right to teach evolution in schools. Director Stanley Kramer sought Tracy for the role of lawyer Clarence Darrow from the outset. Starring opposite Tracy was Fredric March, a pairing Variety described as “a stroke of casting genius … Both men are spellbinders in the most laudatory sense of the word.” The film garnered Tracy some of the strongest reviews of his careerhe was nominated for an Academy Award, BAFTA Award and Golden Globe Award for the performancebut it was not a commercial hit.
In the volcano disaster movie The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961), Tracy played a priest for the fourth time in his career. His co-star, Frank Sinatra, ceded top-billing to guarantee Tracy for the picture. Continuing his pattern of indecisiveness, Tracy briefly pulled out of the production before recommitting. Critics were unenthusiastic about the film, which was nevertheless Tracy’s most successful box office outing since Father of the Bride.
Inherit the Wind began an enduring collaboration between Stanley Kramer and TracyKramer directed Tracy’s three final films. Judgment at Nuremberg, released at the end of 1961, was their second feature together. The film depicts the “Judges’ Trial“, the trial of Nazi judges for their role in the Holocaust. Abby Mann wrote the role of Judge Haywood with Tracy in mind; Tracy called it the best script he had ever read. At the end of the film, Tracy delivered a 13-minute speech. He recorded it in one take, and received a round of applause from the cast and crew. Upon seeing the film, Mann wrote to Tracy: “Every writer ought to have the experience of having Spencer Tracy do his lines. There is nothing in the world quite like it.” The film met with positive reviews and a large audience; Tracy received an eighth Oscar nomination for his performance.
Tracy turned down roles in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) and The Leopard (1963), and had to pull out of MGM’s all-star How the West Was Won (1962) when it clashed with Judgment at Nuremberg. He was, however, able to record the film’s narration track. Tracy was in very poor health by this time, and working became a challenge. In 1962, he took the role of Captain T. G. Culpeper in Kramer’s comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), a small but key part that he was able to complete in nine days. Tracy’s name topped the list of performers, and the comedy became the highest grossing American film of the year. As his health worsened, he had to cancel commitments to Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Offers continued to come, but Tracy did not work again until 1967 when he took the starring role in Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Tracy’s ninth and final film with Hepburn.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner explored the topic of interracial marriage, with Tracy playing a liberal-minded newspaper publisher whose values are challenged when his daughter wishes to marry a black man, played by Sidney Poitier. Tracy was happy to be working again, but he told the press the movie would be his last. To commence filming, Tracy had to be insured for the high premium of $71,000; Hepburn and Kramer both put their salaries in escrow until Tracy completed his scenes. In poor health, Tracy could only work for two or three hours each day. He completed his last scene on May 24, 1967. Tracy died 17 days later from a heart attack on June 10.
The film was released in December, and although reviews were mixed, Curtis notes that “Tracy’s performance was singled out for praise in nearly every instance.” Brendan Gill of The New Yorker wrote that Tracy gave “a faultless and, under the circumstances, heartbreaking performance.” The movie became Tracy’s highest grossing picture. He received a posthumous nomination for Best Actorhis ninthat the 40th Academy Awards, along with a Golden Globe Award nomination and a BAFTA win for Best Actor.
Marriage and family
Tracy met actress Louise Treadwell while they were both members of the Wood Players in White Plains, New Yorkthe first stock company Tracy joined after graduating. The couple were engaged in May 1923, and married on September 10 of that year between the matinee and evening performances of his show.
Their son, John Ten Broeck Tracy, was born in June 1924. When John was 10 months old, Louise discovered that the boy was deaf. She resisted telling Tracy for three months. Tracy was devastated by the news and felt a lifelong guilt over his son’s deafness. He was convinced that John’s hearing impairment was a punishment for his own sins. As a result, Tracy had trouble connecting with his son and distanced himself from his family. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a friend of Tracy’s, later theorized: ” didn’t leave Louise. He left the scene of his guilt.” A second child, Louise “Susie” Treadwell Tracy, was born in July 1932. The children were raised in their mother’s Episcopalian faith.
Tracy left the family home in 1933, and he and Louise openly discussed the separation with the media, maintaining that they were still friends and had not taken divorce action. From September 1933 to June 1934, Tracy had a public affair with Loretta Young, his co-star in Man’s Castle. He reconciled with Louise in 1935. There was never again an official separation between Tracy and his wife, but the marriage continued to be troubled. Tracy increasingly lived in hotels and by the 1940s, the two were effectively living separate lives. Tracy frequently engaged in extramarital affairs, including with co-stars Joan Crawford in 1937 and Ingrid Bergman in 1941.
While making Woman of the Year in September 1941, Tracy began what was to become a lifelong relationship with Katharine Hepburn. The actress became devoted to him, and their relationship lasted until his death 26 years later. Tracy never returned to live in the family home, although he visited regularly.
The MGM moguls were careful to protect their contract big stars from controversy, and Tracy wished to conceal his relationship with Hepburn from his wife, so it was hidden from the public. The couple did not live together until the final years of Tracy’s life, when they shared a cottage on George Cukor’s estate in Beverly Hills. In Hollywood, however, the intimate nature of the Tracy-Hepburn partnership was an open secret.Angela Lansbury, who worked with the pair on State of the Union, later said: “We all knew, but nobody ever said anything. In those days it wasn’t discussed.” Tracy was not someone to express his emotions, but friend Betsy Drake believed he “was utterly dependent upon Hepburn.” Tracy’s infidelity apparently continued, however, and he is reported to have had an affair with Gene Tierney during the making of Plymouth Adventure in 1952.
Neither Tracy nor his wife ever pursued a divorce, despite their estrangement. He told Joan Fontaine, “I can get a divorce whenever I want to, but my wife and Kate like things just as they are.” Louise, meanwhile, reportedly commented: “I will be Mrs. Spencer Tracy until the day I die.” Hepburn did not interfere and never fought for marriage.
Tracy was an avowed Catholic, but his cousin, Jane Feely, said that he did not devoutly follow the religion: “he was often not a practical Catholic either. I would call him a spiritual Catholic.”Garson Kanin, a friend of Tracy’s for 25 years, described him as “a true believer” who respected his religion. At periods in his life, Tracy attended Mass regularly. Tracy did not believe actors should publicize their political views, but in 1940 lent his name to the “Hollywood for Roosevelt” committee and personally identified as a Democrat.
Tracy struggled with alcoholism throughout his adult life, an ailment that ran in his father’s side of the family. Rather than being a steady drinker, as commonly thought, he was prone to periods of binging on alcohol. Loretta Young remarked that Tracy was “awful” when he was drunk, and he was twice arrested for his behavior while intoxicated. Because of this bad reaction to alcohol, Tracy regularly embarked on prolonged periods of sobriety, and developed an all-or-nothing routine. Hepburn commented that he could stop drinking for “months, even years at a time”.
Tracy was prone to bouts of depression and anxiety: he was described by Mrs. Tracy as having “the most volatile disposition I’ve ever seenup in the clouds one minute and down in the depths the next. And when he’s low, he’s very, very low.” He was plagued by insomnia throughout his life. As a result, Tracy became dependent on barbiturates to sleep, followed by dexedrine to function. Hepburn, who adopted a nursing role towards Tracy, was unable to understand her partner’s unhappiness. She wrote in her autobiography: “What was it? … Never at peace … Tortured by some sort of guilt. Some terrible misery.”
Illness and death
As he entered his sixties, years of drinking, smoking, taking pills, and being overweight left Tracy in poor health. On July 21, 1963, he was hospitalized after a severe attack of breathlessness. Doctors found that he was suffering from pulmonary edema, where fluid accumulates in the lungs due to an inability of the heart to pump properly. They also declared his blood pressure as dangerously high. From this point on Tracy remained very weak, and Hepburn moved into his home to provide constant care. In January 1965, he was diagnosed with hypertensive heart disease and also began treatment for a previously ignored diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Tracy almost died in September 1965: a stay in the hospital following a prostatectomy resulted in his kidneys failing, and he spent the night in a coma. His recovery was described by his doctor as “a kind of miracle”.
Tracy spent the majority of the next two years at home with Hepburn, living what she described as a quiet life: reading, painting, and listening to music. On June 10, 1967, 17 days after completing what was his last film role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Tracy awakened at 3:00 am to make himself a cup of tea in his apartment in Beverly Hills, California. Hepburn described in her autobiography how she followed him to the kitchen: “Just as I was about to give a push, there was a sound of a cup smashing to the floorthen clumpa loud clump.” She entered the room to find Tracy lying dead from a heart attack. He was 67. Hepburn recalled, “He looked so happy to be done with living, which for all his accomplishments had been a frightful burden for him.” MGM publicist Howard Strickling told the media that Tracy had been alone when he died and was found by his housekeeper.
A Requiem Mass was held for Tracy on June 12 at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in East Hollywood. Active pallbearers included George Cukor, Stanley Kramer, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, and John Ford. Out of consideration for Tracy’s family, Hepburn did not attend the funeral. Tracy is interred at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park, near his wife, Louise and son, John.
Reputation and acting style
Tracy had a high reputation among his peers and received considerable praise from the film industry. After his death, Dore Schary, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, said, “There can be no question that he was the best and most protean actor of our screen.”Humphrey Bogart,Clark Gable,James Cagney,John Ford,Garson Kanin and Katharine Hepburn also called Tracy the greatest actor of his generation. Richard Widmark, who idolized Tracy, said: “He’s the greatest movie actor there ever was … I’ve learned more about acting from watching Tracy than in any other way.”
Tracy was particularly respected for his naturalism on screen. Hume Cronyn, who worked with Tracy on The Seventh Cross, admired his co-star’s screen presence: “His method appeared to be as simple as it is difficult to achieve. He appeared to do nothing. He listened, he felt, he said the words without forcing anything.”Joan Crawford likewise expressed her admiration for Tracy’s seemingly effortless performances. His four-time co-star Joan Bennett said, “One never had the feeling he was ‘acting’ in a scene, but the truth of the situation was actually happening, spontaneously, at the moment he spoke his lines.” James Cagney noted that Tracy was rarely the target of impressionists, because “You can’t mimic reserve and control very well” and “there’s nothing to imitate except his genius and that can’t be mimicked.” Specifically, Tracy was praised for his listening and reacting skills. Barry Nelson said that Tracy “brought the art of reacting to a new height”;Stanley Kramer declared that Tracy “thought and listened better than anyone in the history of motion pictures”.Millard Kaufman noted that ” listened with every fiber of his entire body”. Burt Reynolds, in But Enough About Me, similarly noted Tracy’s emphasis on naturalism when, as a rookie actor, he observed Tracy on the sets of Inherit the Wind. When Reynolds later introduced himself to Tracy as an actor, Tracy replied, “An actor, huh? Just remember not to ever let anyone catch you at it.”
Despite the perception of being able to perform effortlessly, acquaintances of Tracy said that he would carefully prepare for each role. Joseph L. Mankiewicz lived with Tracy during the production of Test Pilot, and recounted that the actor would lock himself in his bedroom “working extremely hard” each night. Many co-workers commented on his strong work-ethic and professionalism. Tracy did not like to rehearse, however, and would lose his effectiveness after two or three takes. Kanin described him as “an instinctive player, who trusted the moment of creation.” Tracy’s close friend Chester Erskine pinpointed his acting style as one of “selection”he strove to give as little as was needed to be effectivereaching “a minimum to make the maximum.”
Tracy disliked when he was asked about his technique, or about what advice he would give to others. He often belittled the profession, for instance saying to Kanin, “Why do actors think they’re so God damn important? They’re not. Acting is not an important job in the scheme of things. Plumbing is.” Tracy was humble about his abilities, telling a journalist, “it’s just that I try no tricks. No profile. No ‘great lover’ act … I just project myself as I amplain, trying to be honest.” He was known to have enjoyed the quip once made by Alfred Lunt: “The art of acting islearn your lines!” Katharine Hepburn, in an interview six years after Tracy’s death, suggested that Tracy wished he had held a different profession.
Assessment and legacy
In the 21st century, Tracy is best known to general audiences for his association with Katharine Hepburn. He continues to receive praise from film scholars: critic Leonard Maltin calls Tracy “one of the 20th centurys finest actors”, while film historian Jeanine Basinger describes his career as a “golden record of movie achievement”. Charles Matthews, writing for The Washington Post, argues that “Tracy deserves to be remembered for himself, as a master of acting technique”.
An award for excellence in film acting is bestowed in Tracy’s name at the University of California, Los Angeles. Past recipients of the UCLA Spencer Tracy Award include James Stewart, Michael Douglas, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Kirk Douglas and Morgan Freeman.
A 1986 PBS documentary titled The Spencer Tracy Legacy was hosted by Hepburn. It includes clips from Tracy’s films, and behind-the-scenes archival footage and home movies of Tracy’s private life and career, as well as newly filmed interviews with many of his former co-stars, and with his daughter Susie Tracy. In 2009, Tracy provided inspiration for the character Carl in Pixar‘s Oscar-winning film Up. Director Pete Docter explained that there is “something sweet about these grumpy old guys”. In 2014, a film about Tracy’s relationship with Katharine Hepburn was announced to be in development.
Several of Tracy’s films, particularly his comedies, are regarded as classics of American cinema. He starred in four of the titles on the American Film Institute‘s list of “100 Years … 100 Laughs“: Adam’s Rib, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Father of the Bride and Woman of the Year.Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was included on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies, while Captains Courageous was featured on their list of America’s most inspiring movies.
Awards and nominations
Tracy was nominated for nine Academy Awards for Best Actor, a category record he holds with Laurence Olivier. He was the first of nine actors to win the award twice, and is one of two actors to receive it consecutively, the other being Tom Hanks. Tracy was also nominated for five British Academy Film Awards, of which he won two, and four Golden Globe Awards, winning once. In addition, he received the Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor and was once named Best Actor by the National Board of Review.
Tracy was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the following performances:
- 1937: Nomination for San Francisco
- 1938: Win for Captains Courageous
- 1939: Win for Boys Town
- 1951: Nomination for Father of the Bride
- 1956: Nomination for Bad Day at Black Rock
- 1959: Nomination for The Old Man and the Sea
- 1961: Nomination for Inherit the Wind
- 1962: Nomination for Judgment at Nuremberg
- 1968: Nomination for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (posthumous nomination)
- Up the River (1930) with Humphrey Bogart
- 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) with Bette Davis
- The Power and the Glory (1933) with Colleen Moore
- Man’s Castle (1933) with Loretta Young
- Whipsaw (1935) with Myrna Loy
- Fury (1936) with Sylvia Sidney
- San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable
- Libeled Lady (1936) with Jean Harlow
- Captains Courageous (1937) with Freddie Bartholomew and Lionel Barrymore
- They Gave Him a Gun (1937 film)
- Test Pilot (1938) with Clark Gable
- Boys Town (1938) with Mickey Rooney
- Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable
- Northwest Passage (1940) with Robert Young and Walter Brennan
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) with Ingrid Bergman
- Woman of the Year (1942) with Katharine Hepburn
- Keeper of the Flame (1942) with Katharine Hepburn
- A Guy Named Joe (1943) with Irene Dunne
- The Seventh Cross (1944) with Hume Cronyn
- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) with Van Johnson
- Without Love (1945) with Katharine Hepburn
- Sea of Grass (1947) with Katharine Hepburn
- State of the Union (1948) with Katharine Hepburn
- Adam’s Rib (1949) with Katharine Hepburn
- Malaya (1949) with James Stewart
- Father of the Bride (1950) with Elizabeth Taylor
- Father’s Little Dividend (1951) with Joan Bennett
- Plymouth Adventure (1952) with Gene Tierney
- Pat and Mike (1952) with Katharine Hepburn
- Broken Lance (1954) with Richard Widmark
- Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with Robert Ryan
- The Mountain (1956) with Robert Wagner
- Desk Set (1957) with Katharine Hepburn
- The Old Man and the Sea (1958)
- The Last Hurrah (1958) with Jeffrey Hunter
- Inherit the Wind (1960) with Fredric March
- The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) with Frank Sinatra, Kerwin Mathews
- Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) with Burt Lancaster
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) with Jonathan Winters
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) with Katharine Hepburn