Starring Spencer Tracy - 1/14
If acting was easy for Spencer Tracy, life was very hard. Throughout his sixty-seven years he suffered from depression and alcoholism which made him a man of contradictions. When he was sober, he loved his brother, Carroll, and when drunk hated him so much he'd try to throw him out of a window. He could be incredibly kind to young actors like Van Johnson and Robert Wagner, and incredibly cruel to others. Tracy was a mystery to everyone who knew him. Clark Gable once said, "Spence? I got as close to him as anybody could. God knows, we did a lot of drinking together, and when a guy boozes with a friend, he usually lets his hair down and let you know something about what's going on inside his noggin. But not Spence. It was like he had a curtain in there. He was a guy with a lot of things bothering him, but he never lifted that curtain to let me know what was buggin' him." Even Katharine Hepburn never knew. Nearly twenty years after his death, she wrote "Living wasn't easy for you, was it? ...What was it? Was it some specific life-thing, like being a Catholic - and you felt a bad Catholic?"
Catholicism was a big part of Tracy's life, even if he didn't always follow it to the letter. He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 5, 1900 to John Tracy, an Irish-Catholic businessman and his Protestant wife Carrie, who was descended from the Browns of New England who founded Brown University. His brother Carroll later said, "Dad was a tough, decisive, no-nonsense man, and there was never any doubt that we'd be raised as Catholics. When we were old enough, Spence and I both became altar boys. Later, in the Catholic schools, Spence got very interested in the theology of the Church. One of dad's greatest hopes was that one of us would become a priest. We both disappointed him. His second hope was that, if neither of us went into the Church, he'd be able to form a trucking company with us which he'd call Tracy and Sons. Again, we disappointed him. I think Spence carried a lot of guilt around about disappointing Dad. Spence was more Mother's favorite and I was Dad's, and I always figured Spence was in a constant battle with himself to win Dad over."
He didn't win over his teachers - Tracy was either withdrawn from schools by his parents or expelled for fighting or truancy. He once said, "I attended maybe fifteen to eighteen grammar schools before I finally graduated." Tracy spent a lot of time hanging out with two friends, Mousey and Ratty Donovan, in their father's saloon. After the family's money troubles forced them into a poorer neighborhood, he fell in love with the movies. "The only reason I went [to school] was so I could read the sub-titles in the silent movies." It was around this time that he met a boy named Bill O'Brien, who would later change his name to Pat O'Brien, and even at a young age already wanted to become an actor. Because O'Brien was attending the Catholic Marquette Academy, Tracy begged his parents to let him go. The Tracys were shocked that their son wanted to go to any school, and doubly surprised when he began to talk about becoming a priest.
All this changed when World War I broke out. Tracy and his brother joined the Navy with O'Brien but got no closer to Europe than Norfolk, Virginia where he spent most of his time scrubbing pots and standing guard. After the war, he briefly returned to Marquette with O'Brien, but didn't stay long. He also no longer wanted to be a priest. While attending Ripon College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, he became involved in drama - and found his calling. He auditioned and won a place at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in February 1922. By coincidence, Pat O'Brien had just been accepted at the Academy and the two lived together for a year as struggling student-actors. They claimed that they survived "on pretzels, rice and water" and would have been homeless frequently if not for the kindness of their Irish landlady. Bit parts were scarce, O'Brien had left to appear in a play and Tracy's veteran's benefits had just run out when he received an offer to join a stock company in White Plains, New York. On the train, he met his future wife, Louise Treadwell.
Shortly after their marriage, Louise found that she was pregnant and Tracy had to go on the road in various plays to earn enough money to support his new family. His son John was born on June 26, 1924. When the boy was ten months old, his parents discovered that he was deaf. It was a hard blow for Tracy and he reacted in a way that would become a pattern for him over much of the rest of his life. As Pat O'Brien recalled, "What happened next was typical of both Louise and Spence. Louise suffered, and took her boy to doctors to find out what could be done. Spence suffered and went out and got drunk. It was the first big drunk of his life, as far as I know. He was gone for days and finally was found holed up in the St. George Hotel there in Brooklyn." Actor Lynne Overman, another good friend of Tracy said, "My feeling is that some good and some bad came out of this business of John's deafness. On the good side, Spence actually was a very lazy man, but the need for giving John all the help possible to overcome his handicap made Spence work so hard at his craft that he became one of the finest actors in the world." After Tracy had become a Hollywood star, Louise Tracy dedicated the rest of her life to running the John Tracy Clinic, which has become a worldwide organization for deaf children and their parents. Louise Tracy was a remarkable and highly honored woman who was able to turn a personal tragedy into an opportunity to help others. Her husband supported the clinic financially in its earliest days and always made himself available to speak about the clinic, even if he wasn't always available for his family.
In 1930 after spending years in touring companies in the northern United States and Canada, Tracy landed a role in the Broadway show The Last Mile which brought him to the attention of the critics and director John Ford, who was so impressed he brought Tracy to Hollywood for his new film Up the River (1930) which also starred a young Humphrey Bogart. Within five years he had made over 25 films at Fox including Goldie (1931) with a young Jean Harlow and Dante's Inferno (1935) with Claire Trevor. MGM signed Tracy in 1935 and he would remain with the studio for nearly thirty years. It would be here that Tracy would make the films that established him as a Hollywood icon. Films like Fritz Lang's harsh indictment of lynching, Fury (1936), Captains Courageous (1937) (for which he would win an Oscar® for Best Actor) and a trio of films in which Tracy would play a priest San Francisco (1936), Boys Town (1938) (earning him his second Oscar® for Best Actor ) and the sequel Men of Boys Town (1941). Tracy would later say, "I had a tough time deciding whether or not to get myself out of the part. I thought of how my father wanted me to be a priest, and I wondered if it would be sacrilegious for me to play a priest. All of my Catholic training and background rolled around in my head, but then I figured Dad would have liked it and I threw myself into the role."
At Fox and at MGM Tracy would periodically disappear during production. Sometimes he would hop on a train and get off wherever he chose, go into a hotel and lie in a bathtub for two weeks while he got drunk. Other times he would get into brawls and end up in jail. The studios had enough money and influence to keep it out of the newspapers and they tolerated it because Tracy's films brought in money. By the end of the decade, he was one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. He was also separated from his wife and family, which now included daughter Susie.
His life would change in 1941 when he was signed to make Woman of the Year (1942) with another strong-minded redhead - Katharine Hepburn. The unlikely couple fell in love. They were together for the rest of his life, although Tracy never divorced his wife. It is almost unthinkable now in an age of paparazzi where celebrities dominate the news, but Hepburn and Tracy managed to keep their private relationship a secret with the cooperation of the press. They never appeared in public together out of respect for Louise Tracy and her work. Hepburn and Tracy made nine films together from 1941 until 1967, including Without Love (1945), Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). They were the perfect screen couple, though their life together was far from perfect. Their close friend, director George Cukor said, "He could be extremely gruff with her, that was the little roughneck boy from Milwaukee filtering through, but he had enormous respect for her and he listened to her. In the terrible matter of his drinking, I believe she did extend his life. She made sure he went to the finest doctors when the inevitable complications of his drinking set in, and she even went so far as to tie him to his bed in the little house [on Cukor's property in which they lived] when she sensed the symptoms indicating that one of his major disappearance-binges was coming on. Mostly she helped him by distracting him from his drinking with love, and with finding fascinating things they could do together in the entire new world of culture she had opened up to him. They went to museums together, they made several trips to Europe together; she introduced him to great music and literature. It was fun watching them wandering around my property hand in hand, looking at the flowers, and then sitting down in the sun to read, or to listen to a Brahms concerto or a symphony on their portable record-player."
By the early 1960s, Tracy was, by his own admission 'gray and fat', but he still managed to get starring roles in important films like Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) (earning him another Oscar® nomination) and Inherit the Wind (1960) in which he gave one of his greatest performances in a fictionalized portrayal of lawyer Clarence Darrow during the famous 'Scopes Monkey Trial'. The film earned Tracy another of his nine Best Actor nominations, but he lost to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry (1960).
Though the roles were still coming to Tracy, his health had begun to fail. Years of heavy drinking had taken their toll. By the time he made his final film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner he was only sixty-seven but looked ten years older because he was visibly frail. He was also dying. It was Hepburn who convinced him to take the part. Director Stanley Kramer remembered how precipitous his health was. "Kate said, 'Spencuh [Kramer's imitation of Hepburn's New England accent], you should make this picture,' and she amazed me by adding, 'and I'll play your wife.' He grumbled and he said, as he had three times before on my films with him, 'But I get tired, you know.' I said, 'You won't get tired. I'll send you home every day at one in the afternoon. I'll fix it so the studio will never know.' He said, 'Well, OK.' Kate was grinning and clapping her hands silently behind his back." Production began in January 1967 and ended on May 26th. Tracy could not attend the end of shooting party, but he celebrated at home by calling his friends and proudly telling them "I finished it. By God, I finished it." Fifteen days later, in the early hours of June 10, 1967, Spencer Tracy died of a heart attack.
Comedians often do impressions of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and James Cagney. But no one does Spencer Tracy. He was inimitable.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol by Bill Davidson
The Internet Movie Database