Hand color tinted photo of Spencer Tracy from the 1942 movie, Woman of the Year
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy (April 5, 1900 – June 10, 1967) was an American theatrical and film actor, who appeared in 74 films from 1930 to 1967. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Tracy 9th among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time. He was nominated for nine Academy Awards for Best Actor in all.
Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the second son of John Edward Tracy, an Irish American Catholic truck salesman, and Caroline Brown, a Protestant turned Christian Scientist. Tracy’s paternal grandparents, John Tracy and Mary Guhin, were born in Ireland. His mother’s ancestry dates back to Thomas Stebbins, who immigrated from England in the late 1630s. Tracy attended six high schools, starting with Wauwatosa High School in 1915 and St. John’s Cathedral School for boys in Milwaukee the following year. The Tracy family then moved to Kansas City, where Spencer was enrolled at St. Mary’s College, Kansas, a boarding school in St. Marys, Kansas 30 miles west of Topeka, Kansas, then transferred to Rockhurst, a Jesuit academy in Kansas City, Missouri. John Tracy’s job in Kansas City did not work out, and the family returned to Milwaukee six months after their departure. Spencer was enrolled at Marquette Academy, another Jesuit school, where he met fellow actor Pat O’Brien. The two young men left school in spring 1917 to enlist in the Navy after the American entry into World War I, but Tracy remained in Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia throughout the war. Afterwards, Tracy continued his high school education at Marquette Academy then transferred to Northwestern Military and Naval Academy near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He finished his last few credits needed to graduate at Milwaukee’s West Division High School (now Milwaukee High School of the Arts) in February 1921.
Afterward he attended Ripon College where he appeared in a leading role in a play entitled The Truth, and decided on acting as a career. Tracy received an honorary degree from Ripon College in 1940. While touring the Northeast with the Ripon debate team, he auditioned for and was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. His first Broadway role was as a robot in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1922), followed by five other Broadway plays in the 1920s. In 1923 he married actress Louise Treadwell. They had two children, John and Louise (Susie).
Tracy performed in stock in Michigan, Canada, and Ohio for several years. Finally in 1930 he appeared in a hit play on Broadway, The Last Mile. Director John Ford saw Tracy in The Last Mile and signed Tracy for Up the River (1930) with Humphrey Bogart for Fox Film Corporation. Shortly after that Tracy and his family moved to Hollywood: 25 films in the next five years featured him.
In 1935 Tracy signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor two years in a row, for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938).
He was also nominated for San Francisco (1936), Father of the Bride (1950), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and posthumously for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Tracy and Laurence Olivier share the record in the number of their nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Tracy’s reputation for versatility and naturalness are based on the twenty years (1935-1955) he acted at Metro Goldwyn Mayer and for the subsequent dozen years when he was an independent actor. Yet the twenty-five films he made prior to his move to MGM are notable in that they demonstrate the range and diversity of characters he would continue to deliver through his post-Fox career (and which would earn him two Academy Awards and nine nominations).
Tracy and Hepburn
In 1941, during the filming of Woman of the Year, Tracy began a relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Their relationship, which neither would discuss publicly, lasted until Tracy’s death in 1967. Their relationship was complex and there were periods during which they were estranged. During one estrangement, Tracy had a brief romance with actress Gene Tierney while filming the Plymouth Adventure in 1952.
Death and legacy
During his later years, Tracy’s health worsened after he was diagnosed with diabetes, exacerbated by his alcoholism. In 1963, he suffered a heart attack, forcing him to pull out of Cheyenne Autumn and The Cincinnati Kid. Edward G. Robinson replaced him for both films. Seventeen days after filming had been completed on his last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Hepburn, he died of a heart attack having long suffered from emphysema. The film was released in December, six months after his death.
In 1988, the University of California, Los Angeles’ Campus Events Commission and Susie Tracy created the UCLA Spencer Tracy Award. The award has been given to actors in recognition for their achievement in film acting. Past recipients include William Hurt, James Stewart, Michael Douglas, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Harrison Ford, Anjelica Huston, Nicolas Cage, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon and Morgan Freeman.
The main character Carl from Pixar’s film Up was primarily based on a combination of Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau, because, according to director Pete Docter, there was “something sweet about these grumpy old guys”.
Filmography and awards
Tracy appeared in 75 feature films, and several short films. With Katharine Hepburn he starred in nine feature films, one of the most successful screen pairings in film history.
Nine of the films he starred in were nominated for Best Picture: San Francisco (Oscar Nomination), Libeled Lady, Captains Courageous (Oscar), Test Pilot, Boys Town (Oscar), Father of the Bride (Oscar Nomination), Judgment at Nuremberg (Oscar Nomination), How the West Was Won and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Oscar Nomination).
He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor on nine occasions, and won the award in 1937, for Captains Courageous, and in 1938, for Boys Town. He won a Golden Globe Award for The Actress (1953) from a total of four nominations. He was awarded a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his posthumously released performance opposite Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
One of his Oscars was mistakenly inscribed to Dick Tracy before being corrected.