Equally comfortable playing hardened criminals and kindly priests, Spencer Tracy is considered one of the most versatile actors of his generation. His average-guy charm provided a compelling foil to the haughty charisma of Katharine Hepburn, his frequent co-star and offscreen lover. But while Tracy seemed to have it all, he seemed profoundly unhappy in his private life, suffering from a private turmoil no one, not even Hepburn herself, ever found out. Here are 42 cagey facts about Spencer Tracy.
1. A Star is Born
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 5, 1900. From childhood, Tracy was infatuated with movies, and occasionally cut class to go to the cinema. Tracy later said “I would have never gone back to school if there had been any other way of learning to read the subtitles in the movies.”
2. Film Friend
Tracy shared his love of movies with a classmate, Pat O’Brien. The two became close friends, and even joined the navy together when they turned 18. Pat O’Brien would go on to enjoy a long career of his own in Hollywood, usually cast as an Irish tough guy.
3. What Made Milwaukee Famous
Tracy loved his hometown. Whenever he needed a break from filming, he would fly back to visit his favorite bars in the city. Not only did he enjoy a drink, but there were so many bars in Milwaukee, he could be sure anyone looking for him wouldn’t find him in a hurry.
4. Transfer Credits
Tracy left the navy after the end of World War I and enrolled in Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. It was here that Tracy discovered his love of acting, and even established a touring theatre company with some friends. While touring with the troupe in New York, Tracy auditioned for the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts.
The AADA offered Tracy a scholarship, and he left Ripon for New York.
5. Hard Times
At the AADA, Tracy was reunited with his old friend, Pat O’Brien, and the two moved in together. Barely making ends meet, the aspiring actors had a single suit between them, which they’d take turns wearing to auditions.
Tracy made his Broadway debut in 1922, playing a robot in R.U.R. He did not have any lines.
7. High Praise
After his graduation from the AADA, Tracy took a series of jobs working with stock theatre companies in the US and Canada. He was sometimes earning as little as 35 cents a week, and considered quitting. He got a much-needed shot in the arm when he landed a part in George M. Cohan’s play Yellow. Cohan, one of the most important figures in Broadway history, declared Tracy “the best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!” and wrote a part especially for him in his next play, The Baby Cyclone.
8. Walk a Mile
Tracy finally got his big break in 1930, playing a convicted killer in The Last Mile. On opening night Tracy received a standing ovation which lasted 14 curtain calls. Tracy ended up performing The Last Mile 289 times.
9. First Timers
Tracy soon caught the attention of Hollywood. Tracy had no intention of becoming a film actor, but John Ford thought Tracy would be perfect for a prison movie he was making called Up the River. Up the River was, coincidentally, the film debut of Humphrey Bogart. While Tracy and Bogart became good friends, it was the only time they appeared in a movie together.
10. Give My Regards to Broadway
Tracy took a two-week leave of absence from The Last Mile to film Up the River. He would not return to the stage for 15 years. He spent four months performing in The Rugged Path on Broadway before returning to film forever.
11. Picked Out of a Lineup
In his early years, Tracy was frequently cast as a convict or a gangster. Warner Brothers even asked to borrow Tracy from Fox when they made their prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.
12. Birthday Party
20,000 Years in Sing Sing gave Tracy the opportunity to star opposite Bette Davis. It was the only time the two would appear in a movie together. The more-established Davis wanted to work with Tracy especially because they shared a birthday, April 5.
Tracy’s career at Fox struggled to take off. Though he developed into a lead actor, he only occasionally caught the critics’ eye, and his movies were modest successes at best. His drinking was also becoming a problem. In 1935, Tracy’s contract with Fox was terminated “by mutual consent.”
14. Wanted for Murder
Tracy was signed almost immediately by MGM. His first film for the company was 1935’s The Murder Man, which happened to be the film debut of his friend, Jimmy Stewart.
15. I’ll Make It Up to You
Tracy finally earned his breakthrough role in Fury, the 1936 film which marked German director Fritz Lang’s first time working in the US. Lang was not used to American scheduling standards, and often refused to let his crew break for lunch. A frustrated Tracy would smear his complicated makeup, buying the crew at least an hour of downtime while he had his makeup fixed.
16. Unpopular Opinion
In 1937, Tracy won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman in Captain’s Courageous. Despite the success, Tracy never felt he was believable as Manuel, and admitted to making up his Portuguese accent as he went along.
17. That’s Comical
Tracy again won the Best Actor Oscar in 1938, this time for his role as Father Flannagan in Boy’s Town. When he received his award, however, he discovered it had been engraved with the wrong name. Instead of “Spencer Tracy,” the award read “Dick Tracy.”
18. Fathers’ Day
There may be some explanation for this confusion. Father Edward Flannagan, the real-life priest played by Tracy in the movie, was still alive when the movie was made. Tracy was, in fact, the first person to win an Oscar for playing a living person. One publicist tried to make hay of this situation by claiming that Tracy would donate his Oscar to Father Flannagan if he won.
The publicist, however, had not run this by Tracy, who publicly responded with “I earned the thing, I want it.” An honorary Oscar was given to Flannagan instead.
19. Best of a Bad Lot?
Tracy was nominated for Best Actor nine times, a feat equaled only by Laurence Olivier. However, despite Tracy’s personal success, none of his films ever won Best Picture.
20. Historic Films
Eight of Tracy’s films have been named to the National Film Registry.
21. Onscreen Romance
In 1941, Tracy starred alongside Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year. It would mark the beginning of a long professional and romantic relationship between Tracy and Hepburn.
22. Let’s Do Lunch
While filming Woman of the Year, Tracy and Hepburn began a practice of taking their lunch breaks together in one of their dressing rooms. They would continue this practice, even when doing movies separately.
23. Keeping It on the Down Low
Tracy and Hepburn would go on to make nine movies together, including Tracy’s last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Their romantic relationship was largely kept secret from the public: Tracy had been married to Louise Treadwell since 1923 and, though they were separated, had never divorced.
24. Ending on an Up Note
Tracy was supposedly the model for the character Carl in the Pixar movie Up.
25. Run and Hyde
Tracy was set to invited to join Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, but turned it down to play the lead in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Critics panned his performance, many saying he was “too American” to convincingly play an upper-class Briton. When he saw the film, Tracy told a friend his career was finished. Jimmy Stewart walked away with the Best Actor award that year, for his role in The Philadelphia Story.
26. Too Much Chemistry
Tracy wanted Katherine Hepburn to be his co-star in Father of the Bride. Producers turned him down: they felt Tracy and Hepburn were too good together to be believable as a long-married couple.
27. Man Overboard
Tracy insisted on receiving top-billing, even over Hepburn. The producers of Adam’s Rib begged him to be more flexible. When one said to him, “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘ladies first’?” Tracy shot back, “It’s a movie, not an [expletive] lifeboat.”
28. Top Dog
Tracy’s best friend in Hollywood was , but that friendship only extended so far. Tracy turned down a role in 1955’s The Desperate Hours because he didn’t want to play second-billing to Bogart.
29. That’s a Bust
One scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner features a bronze bust of Tracy, made by Katharine Hepburn herself. The bust sold at auction in 2003 for $316,000.
30. Everyone’s a Critic
Tracy was nominated for an Oscar for his role in 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea. Ernest Hemingway, whose book the movie was based on, was not impressed, however. He said Tracy looked more like “a rich actor” than a Cuban fisherman. That must have disappointed Tracy, who had flown to Cuba to ask Hemingway’s blessing in taking the role.
31. Law Suit
In the 1970s, MGM was hurting for money, and tried to recoup their losses by selling off as many props, costumes, and set pieces as they could. The suit Tracy wore in Inherit the Wind sold for just $5. It was bought by an attorney, who wore the suit to his next big case: defending Charles Manson.
32. Give ’til it Hurts
Tracy was also conflicted about the lavish salary he earned as an actor. He gave to charity so impulsively that it became more cost effective to hire a personal assistant to make charitable donations for him. Tracy met a young man when he first came to Hollywood; when the young man expressed an interest in becoming a doctor, Tracy paid his way through med school.
In 1967, Tracy took on his first film role in four years when he agreed to star in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner alongside Katharine Hepburn. It was Tracy and Hepburn’s ninth film together, and their last. Tracy was so ill at the time that the production worked off two different scripts, one with Tracy and one without, so the actor could leave the set early.
34. Life Insurance
Both Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer posted their own salaries as insurance to get the film made with Tracy. Producers were concerned he might not make it to the end of filming.
35. Dark Knight
The 1960s Batman TV series drew a lot of camp energy from casting aging movie stars as supervillains. Caesar Romero, Vincent Price, and Milton Berle all took on the Bat at one time or another. Tracy was invited to play the Penguin. He agreed, but only on the condition that he could kill the Caped Crusader. The role then went to Burgess Meredith.
36. Too Big for the Small Screen
In the end, Tracy never appeared on television.
37. Running Up a Tab
Tracy was famously moody, and he could be foul-tempered. His anxiety often manifested in insomnia and week-long drinking binges. One such binge delayed production on a film so badly that Fox Studios sued him for $125,000.
38. I Can’t Look
Tracy died of a heart attack on June 10, 1967, 17 days after filming wrapped for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He was posthumously nominated for the Best Actor award at the 1968 Academy Awards. Katharine Hepburn later claimed that she could never bring herself to see the movie.
39. Eerie Foreshadowing
June 10 was, coincidentally, the date of the wedding in Father of the Bride.
40. Missing Out
Tracy was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. At the request of Tracy’s family, Katharine Hepburn did not attend his funeral.
41. At a Loss for Words
When his friend Humphrey Bogart was dying, Tracy sat at his bedside every night, trying to keep his spirits up. When the time came for Bogart’s funeral, Lauren Bacall asked Tracy if he would read the eulogy. Tracy declined: he was overwhelmed with grief and didn’t think he would be able to finish.
42. Fine by Me
Tracy and Hepburn’s relationship lasted until Tracy’s death, 26 years after they met. Reluctant to divorce because of his Catholic faith, Tracy remained married the entire time. Neither his wife, Louise nor Hepburn herself ever pressured Tracy for a divorce.
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