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Spencer Tracy

Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born on April 5, 1900, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA to John Edward Tracy who was a truck salesman and Caroline Tracy who was from a wealthy Presbyterian family.  He also had a brother called Carroll who was four years older. 

Tracy was a difficult child and did his best to not attend school.  He was raised Catholic and was placed with a Dominican Order of nuns at the age of nine to alter his behaviour but Tracy always said that the only reason he begrudgingly attended school was so that he could learn to read movie subtitles as movies fascinated him. 

He attended Marquette Academy and became lifelong friends with Pat O’Brien and the pair became interested in the theatre but ultimately lost interest in their studies and joined the navy together when Tracy turned 18.  Although Tracy achieved the rank of seaman second class he never went to sea and was discharged in February 1919.  After his discharge he decided to fulfil his father’s wishes of seeing one of his sons graduate and so went back to studying, this time at Ripon College, which is a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, enrolling in 1921 to study medicine.  Whilst there he auditioned for and won a role in a play called The Truth and discovered that his calling was not medicine but acting.   

He went to New York in 1922 with an acting company he had formed with some of his friends called the Campus Players and whilst there he auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts which offered him a scholarship.  He consequently decided to leave Ripon College and began studying at the AADA in April 1922.  He wasn’t alone either, as O’Brien had also been offered a place and the two moved into an apartment together sharing what meagre resources they had, to buy food and clothes.  Tracy soon made his debut on Broadway albeit in a very small part as a robot and graduated from AADA in March 1923. Over the next few years, he starred in several short-run plays on Broadway but eventually achieved stardom when he played the role of death-row inmate Killer Mears in 1930s The Last Mile. 

As a result, he got noticed by John Ford who cast him in the 1930 movie Up the River which was also the movie that saw the debut of Humphrey Bogart.  Fox studios were so impressed with his performance that Tracy was offered a five-year contract and so Spencer Tracy moved to Hollywood.  During the next five years, he managed to develop such a natural acting technique that it was never obvious to the onlooker that he was acting.  However, after nine movies he was still somewhat of an unknown and he considered leaving Fox but he was persuaded to stay when he was offered a raise in salary to $1500 per week.  He started to receive good reviews from 1933 onwards, but even so his subsequent movies continued to be unpopular.  It is around this time that Tracy developed a drinking problem and at one point he even failed to turn up for work during the shooting of Marie Galante in 1934 and was found unconscious in his hotel room.  Tracy was removed from the payroll while he recovered in hospital and the studio sued him for $125,000 due to production delays.  On 2 April 1935, his deal with Fox was terminated by mutual consent after Tracy had received an offer of a seven-year deal from MGM.  In all, he had made 25 movies with Fox and most of them had lost money. 

His first movie for MGM was The Murder Man which was also the debut movie of Jimmy Stewart.  He initially played second fiddle to MGM’s leading ladies of the time including Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow but 1936s Fury, which was directed by Fritz Lang was the proof the studio needed that Tracy could make a movie a success on his own merit.  Tracy’s first Oscar nomination came soon after, for 1936s disaster epic San Francisco which became the highest-grossing movie of 1936.  Following this, he became the first actor to achieve back-to-back Oscar wins for his performances in 1937s Captain Courageous and 1938s Boys Town.  He signed a new contract worth $5000 per week in April 1941 and by 1944 Spencer Tracy was MGMs biggest money-making star.  He stayed with the studio for twenty years and played many different leading roles and continued to deliver powerful performances into the 1960s such as in Inherit the Wind and in 1961s Judgment at Nuremberg even though he was suffering from respiratory-related illnesses as well as his continual battle with alcoholism. 

In 1923, Tracy had married Louise Treadwell and they had a son together in 1924 called John but Tracy had trouble connecting with his son due to him being deaf and Tracy blamed himself for the problem and through guilt, he distanced himself from his family.  Even so, a daughter called Louise was born in 1932.  Tracy left the family home permanently the following year.  They were reconciled in 1935 but the marriage continued to have problems which wasn’t helped by Tracy’s extramarital affairs with Loretta Young, Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman.  However, the other woman in Tracy’s life was really Katharine Hepburn who he met on the set of Woman of the Year in 1941.  She remained devoted to him until his death 26 years later. 

Spencer Tracy’s lifelong use of cigarettes, alcohol and pills led to poor health by the age of 60 and he had to be taken to hospital in July 1963 suffering from pulmonary oedema and he almost died in September 1965 from kidney failure.  He led a quiet life for the next two years living at home with Katharine Hepburn and spending his time painting, reading and listening to music.  On 10 June 1967, Spencer Tracy suffered a massive heart attack and died at home. A requiem mass was held on 12 June in East Hollywood and pallbearers included Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart and John Ford.

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