Oscar Actors: Tracy, Spencer–Background, Career

Research in Progress (March 12, 2021)

Spencer Tracy Career Summary: Part 1

Occupational inheritance:

Social Class:


Stage debut:

Broadway debut: 1930

Film debut:

Oscar awards: 2 Best Actor Awards

Oscar nominations:

Other awards:

Career span (screen): 1930-1967; acting, 1921-1967

Last film:

Marriage: actress Louise Treadwell (m. 1923); partner, actress Katharine Hepburn (1942–1967)


Death: 1967; age 67


One of Hollywood’s major stars, Tracy won two Best Actor Oscars from nine nominations, sharing the record for nominations in the category with Laurence Olivier.

Tracy first discovered his talent for acting while attending Ripon College, and he later received a scholarship for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA).

He spent 7 years in the theatre, working in stock companies and on Broadway.

Tracy’s breakthrough came in 1930, with his lead performance in “The Last Mile,” which caught the attention of Hollywood.

He made a successful film debut in John Ford’s Up the River (also featuring Humphrey Bogart), and was signed to a contract with Fox Film Corporation.

His five years with Fox featured good work, but he remained unknown to audiences after 25 films. None of them were hits, though his performance in “The Power and the Glory” (1933) was praised at the time.

In 1935, Tracy joined MGM, then Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. His career flourished from Fury (1936) onwards.

In 1937 and 1938 he won consecutive Oscars for Captains Courageous and Boys Town.

He made 3-office successes supporting Clark Gable, the studio’s most prominent stars.

In 1942, he appeared with Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, beginning another partnership leading to nine movies over 25 years.

Tracy left MGM in 1955, and continued to work regularly as a freelance star, despite increasing weariness and aging. His personal life was troubled, with a lifelong struggle against alcoholism and guilt over son’s deafness.

Tracy became estranged from his wife in the 1930s, but the couple never divorced, conducting a long-term relationship with Katharine Hepburn in private. Towards the end of his life, Tracy worked almost exclusively for director Stanley Kramer.

His last film, Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” was completed just 17 days before he died.

During his career, Tracy appeared in 75 films and was considered one of the screen’s greatest actors.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Tracy as the 9th greatest male star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 5, 1900, the second son of Caroline and truck salesman John Edward Tracy. His mother was a Presbyterian from a wealthy Midwestern family, while his father was of Irish Catholic descent. His brother, Carroll, was four years older.

Tracy was a difficult and hyperactive child , with poor school attendance. Raised Catholic, he was placed in the care of Dominican Order nuns at the age of 9 in order to transform his behavior.

He became fascinated with movies, watching the same ones repeatedly and then re-enacting scenes to his friends and neighbors. He attended several Jesuit academies in his teenage years.

Tracy was a key member of his college debating team, which he later said helped with his acting career. At Marquette Academy, he began attending plays with fellow actor Pat O’Brien, awakening his interest in the theatre. With little care for studies, Tracy, then 18, and O’Brien enlisted in the Navy together. They were sent to the Naval Training Station in North Chicago, when World War ended. Tracy achieved the rank of seaman second class, but never went to sea and was discharged in February 1919.

His father’s desire drove Tracy back to high school to finish his diploma. Studies at two more institutions, plus the additional allowance of “war credits”, won Tracy a place at Ripon College. He entered in February 1921, intending to major in medicine.

Tracy made his stage debut in June 1921, playing the lead in “The Truth.” He quickly developed passion for the stage. He and some friends formed an acting company, the Campus Players, which they took on tour. As a member of the college debate team, Tracy excelled in public speaking.

During a tour with the debate team, he auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City. He was offered a scholarship to attend the school after performing a scene from an earlier role.

Tracy left Ripon and began classes at AADA in April 1922. O’Brien was also enrolled there and the two shared a small studio, but money was scarce and they lived on meals of rice and pretzels and shared one decent suit between them.

New York and Broadway Debut

Tracy was deemed fit to progress to the senior class, allowing him to join the academy’s stock company. He made his New York debut in the play “The Wedding Guests, which opened in October 1922. He made his Broadway debut three months later, playing a wordless robot in R.U.R. He graduated from AADA in March 1923.

After graduation, Tracy joined a new stock company based in White Plains, New York. Unhappy there, he moved to a company in Cincinnati, but failed to make an impact.

In November 1923, he landed a small part on Broadway in the comedy A Royal Fandango, starring Ethel Barrymore. Reviews for the show were poor and it closed after 25 performances.  When he took a position with a struggling company in New Jersey, Tracy was living on an allowance of 35 cents a day. In January 1924, he played his first lead role with a company in Winnipeg, but the organization soon closed.

Tracy finally achieved some success by joining forces with the stock manager William H. Wright in the spring of 1924. A stage partnership was formed with the young actress Selena Royle, who had already made her name on Broadway. It proved a popular draw and their productions were favorably received.

One of these shows brought Tracy to the attention of a Broadway producer, who offered him the lead in “The Sheepman,” which previewed in October 1925, but it received poor reviews and closed after its trial run in Connecticut. Dejected, Tracy was forced back to Wright and the stock circuit.

In the fall of 1926, Tracy was offered his third shot at Broadway, in a new George M. Cohan play called “Yellow.” Tracy swore that if the play failed, he would leave stock and work in a “regular” business instead. “Yellow” opened on September 21 to mixed reviews but it ran for 135 performances.

It was the beginning of an important collaboration for Tracy: “I’d have quit the stage completely,” he later said, “if it hadn’t been for George M. Cohan.” Cohan wrote a part specifically for Tracy in his next play, The Baby Cyclone, which opened on Broadway in September 1927 and was a hit.

Tracy followed this success with another Cohan play, Whispering Friends, and in 1929 took over from Clark Gable in “Conflict,” a Broadway drama. Other roles followed, but it was the lead in “Dread,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Owen Davis that gave Tracy high hopes. The story of a man’s descent into madness, Dread previewed in Brooklyn to an excellent reception, but on the next day—October 29—the New York stock market crashed. Unable to obtain funding, Dread did not open on Broadway.  Disappointed, Tracy considered leaving the theatre and returning to Milwaukee for a more stable life.

In January 1930, looking to cast the lead role of a murderer on death row in “The Last Mile,” producer Herman Shumlin offered Tracy the part. “The Last Mile” opened on Broadway in February, and was a hit with critics, running for 289 performances.

In 1930, Broadway was scouted for actors to work in the new medium of sound films. Tracy was cast in two Vitaphone shorts (Taxi Talks and The Hard Guy), but he had not considered becoming a film actor.

One person who saw Tracy in The Last Mile was director John Ford. Ford wanted Tracy for the lead role in his next picture, a prison movie. Production company Fox Film Corporation were unsure about Tracy, saying that he did not photograph well, but Ford convinced them that he was right for the role.

“Up the River” (1930) marked the film debut of both Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. After seeing the rushes, Fox immediately offered Tracy a long-term contract. But he needed the money for his family—his young son was deaf and recovering from polio—Tracy signed with Fox and moved to California. He appeared on the stage only once more in his life.

Winfield Sheehan, the head of Fox, committed to making Tracy a bankable commodity. The studio promoted the actor, releasing adverts for his second film Quick Millions (1931) with the headline “A New Star Shines.” Three films were made in quick succession, all of which were unsuccessful at the box office. Tracy was typecast in comedies, usually playing a crook or a con man.

The mold was broken with his seventh picture, Disorderly Conduct (1932), and it was the first of his films since Up the River to make a profit.

In 1932, after 9 pictures, Tracy remained unknown to the public. He considered leaving Fox once his contract was up for renewal, but a rise in his weekly rate to $1,500 made him stay. He continued to appear in unpopular films, such as “Me and My Gal” (1932).

He was loaned to Warner for 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), a prison drama co-starring Bette Davis, but despite good reviews, it was not a breakthrough role.

Tracy appeared with Loretta Young in Man’s Castle (1933). Critics began to notice Tracy with The Power and the Glory (1933), the story of a man’s rise to prosperity with a screenplay by Preston Sturges.

“Shanghai Madness” (1933) gave Tracy a previously unseen sex appeal and advanced his standing. Despite this attention, Tracy’s next two movies went largely unnoticed. Man’s Castle (1933) with Loretta Young made only a small profit. The Show-Off (1934), for which he was lent to MGM, proved popular, but his subsequent outings continued to be unsuccessful.

Tracy drank heavily during his years with Fox, and gained a reputation as an alcoholic. He failed to report for filming on Marie Galante in June 1934, and was found in his hotel room unconscious after a two-week binge. Tracy was removed from the Fox payroll while he recovered in a hospital, and then sued for $125,000 for delaying the production. He completed only two more pictures with the studio.

Tracy maintained that he was fired for his drunken behavior, but the Fox records do not support his account.  In need of a new male star, MGM contacted Tracy on April 2, 1935, offering a seven-year deal. The contract between Tracy and Fox was terminated “by mutual consent”.

Tracy made 25 pictures during the 5 years he was at Fox Film, most of which were box office flops.