Spencer Tracy

Spencer Bonaventure Tracy (1900-1967) was an out standing and versatile actor whose career spanned over 30 years and brought him nine Academy Award nominations and two Oscars.

Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 5, 1900. He was the younger of two sons of John and Caroline (Brown) Tracy. He grew up in a comfortable, Catholic environment. On America's entry into World War I in 1917, while in his third year of high school, he joined the Navy, spending most of his enlistment at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia. After graduating from Northwestern Military Academy he spent two years at Ripon College, leaving in 1921 to pursue a theatrical career (the college awarded him an honorary degree in 1940).

After some training at the Sargent School in New York City, Tracy made his Broadway debut in a non-speaking role as a robot in the 1923 Theatre Guild production of Karel Capek's R.U.R. Over the next years he played a variety of roles with different stock companies in the East and Midwest, occasionally succeeding in obtaining Broadway roles. By the end of the 1920s he had established himself in New York City as a respected journeyman actor. His big break came in 1930 playing the role of "Killer" Mears in the tough prison drama The Last Mile; he was a sensation and attracted the attention of Hollywood. Tracy returned to the Broadway stage only once more: in 1945 he starred in an unsuccessful production of Robert Sherwood's The Rugged Path, winning much better notices than the play.

Tracy's film career began in 1930. While still playing the lead role in The Last Mile, he made two short dramatic films for the Vitaphone Company at their New York City studio. His first Hollywood role came at the behest of director John Ford, who, seeing him as Mears, cast him in a comedy about prison life (Up the River, 1930). Signing a contract with Fox films, Tracy made over 20 films between 1930 and 1935, the bulk of them for Fox. He was typed as a "tough guy" in films such as Quick Millions (1931), Sky Devils (1932), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), Looking for Trouble (1934), and The Murder Man (1935). He demonstrated a capacity to extend himself beyond such type-casting in films such as the unconventional The Power and The Glory (1933), but it was not until he moved to MGM in 1935 that he made a real mark and became known for the quality of his acting.

He spent over three decades under contract to MGM and during that time made over 30 movies for that studio as well as a few on "loan-out." After he left MGM in 1956 Tracy made nine more films, the most impressive and successful being those undertaken with producer-director Stanley Kramer. During these years, Tracy—who off-camera often was irascible, moody, and crusty—garnered a splendid reputation as a stylish, strong, authoritative actor and developed into one of the top stars of the business. Never conventionally handsome, he proved extremely versatile in the range of roles he addressed and managed to mature successfully as the years passed. Always well-prepared, Tracy gave such restrained, natural, seemingly effortless performances in his films that at one time he was dubbed "The Prince of Underplayers."

Over the years Tracy garnered nine Academy Award nominations (more than any player in his lifetime) and won the Oscar twice. His range and versatility are well-demonstrated by the roles for which he won these nominations, including the happy-go-lucky Portuguese fisherman Manuel in Captains Courageous (1937 Academy Award), Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938 Academy Award), the eponymous Stanley Banks in Father of the Bride (1950 nomination), the Clarence Darrow character in Inherit the Wind (1960 nomination), an American jurist dealing with German war criminals in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961 nomination), and the liberal, put-upon father of a daughter who wishes to marry a Black man within 24 hours in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1968 nomination). But no matter what the role, Tracy brought to it authority, sincerity, and great skill, and he was admired by the members of his craft, critics, and the public.

Tracy married fellow stock company player Louise Treadwell in 1923. They had two children, Susan and John (who was born deaf). Although Tracy often lived apart from his wife, they never divorced, and he generously supported her endeavors to deal with the problems faced by deaf children through the John Tracy Clinic which she established in Los Angeles in the early 1940s.

An avid polo player during his early years in Hollywood, Tracy also became known for being a rakehell. He often went on alcoholic benders and had a number of intense romantic liaisons with some of his leading ladies, such as Loretta Young. This aspect of his life just about ended when he established a long relationship with Katherine Hepburn that lasted until his death. They met in the 1942 filming of Woman of the Year, and this movie marked the beginning of a romantic and professional relationship which lasted until his death in 1967. Among the more successful of the nine films they made jointly are the marvelous comedies Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), as well as the serious dramas Keeper of the Flame (1942) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), his last film.

During the last years of his life Tracy suffered greatly from ill health, and between 1962 and 1967 he did not perform at all. It was by all accounts a real effort, requiring great determination on his part and much patience on the part of other cast members and crew, for him to make his last film. He died but weeks after its completion.

Tracy belongs to an era of film-making now gone forever. A great personality as well as a consummate actor, he limited himself to one medium. He did what he knew best and did that very well, being solid, dependable, and outstanding.


Further Reading on Spencer Bonaventure Tracy

See biographies by Larry Swindell (1983) and Romano Tozzi (1974); Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn (1971); and Donald Deschner, The Complete Films of Spencer Tracy (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Davidson, Bill, Spencer Tracy, tragic idol, New York: Dutton, 1988, 1987.

Fisher, James, Spencer Tracy: a bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.