Universally regarded among the screen's greatest actors, Spencer Tracy was a most unlikely leading man. Stocky, craggy-faced, and gruff, he could never be considered a matinee idol, yet few stars enjoyed greater or more consistent success. An uncommonly versatile performer, his consistently honest and effortless performances made him a favorite of both audiences and critics throughout a career spanning well over three decades. Born April 5, 1900, in Milwaukee, WI, Tracy was expelled from some 15 different elementary schools prior to attending Rippon College, where he discovered and honed a talent for debating; eventually, he considered acting as a logical extension of his skills, and went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first professional work cast him as a robot in a stage production of R.U.R. at a salary of ten dollars a week. He made his Broadway debut in 1923's A Royal Fandango and later co-starred in a number of George M. Cohan vehicles. Tracy's performance as an imprisoned killer in 1930's The Last Mile made him a stage star, and during its Broadway run he made a pair of shorts for Vitaphone, The Hard Guy and Taxi Talks. Screen tests for MGM, Universal, and Warners were all met with rejection, however, but when John Ford insisted on casting Tracy as the lead in his prison drama Up the River, Fox offered a five-year contract.
Tracy's second film was 1931's Quick Millions, in which he portrayed a racketeer. He was frequently typecast as a gangster during his early career, or at the very least a tough guy, and like the majority of Fox productions throughout the early part of the decade, his first several films were unspectacular. His big break arrived when Warners entered a feud with Jimmy Cagney, who was scheduled to star in 1933's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; when he balked, the studio borrowed Tracy, and the picture was a hit. His next two starring roles in The Face in the Sky and the Preston Sturges epic The Power and the Glory were also successful, earning very positive critical notice. Still, Fox continued to offer Tracy largely low-rent projects, despite extending his contract through 1937. Regardless, much of his best work was done outside of the studio grounds; for United Artists, he starred in 1934's Looking for Trouble, and for MGM starred as The Show-Off. After filming 1935's It's a Small World, executives cast Tracy as yet another heavy in The Farmer Takes a Wife; he refused to accept the role and was fired.
Despite serious misgivings, MGM signed him on. However, the studio remained concerned about his perceived lack of sex appeal and continued giving the majority of plum roles to Clark Gable. As a consequence, Tracy's first MGM offerings -- 1935's Riff Raff, The Murder Man, and 1936's Whipsaw -- were by and large no better than his Fox vehicles, but he next starred in Fritz Lang's excellent Fury. For the big-budget disaster epic San Francisco, Tracy earned the first of nine Academy Award nominations -- a record for male stars -- and in 1937 won his first Oscar for his work in Victor Fleming's Captains Courageous. Around the release of the 1938 smash Test Pilot, Time magazine declared him "cinema's number one actor's actor," a standing solidified later that year by Boys' Town, which won him an unprecedented second consecutive Academy Award. After 1939's Stanley and Livingstone, Tracy starred in the hit Northwest Passage, followed by a turn as Edison the Man. With the success of 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he even usurped Gable's standing as MGM's top draw.
Tracy was happily married to actress Louise Treadwell when he teamed with Katharine Hepburn in 1942's Woman of the Year. It was the first in a long series of collaborations that established them as one of the screen's greatest pairings, and soon the two actors entered an offscreen romance which continued for the remainder of Tracy's life. They were clearly soulmates, yet Tracy, a devout Catholic, refused to entertain the thought of a divorce; instead, they carried on their affair in secrecy, their undeniable chemistry spilling over onto their onscreen meetings like Keeper of the Flame. Without Hepburn, Tracy next starred in 1943's A Guy Named Joe, another major hit, as was the following year's 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. Without Love, another romantic comedy with Hepburn, premiered in 1945; upon its release Tracy returned to Broadway, where he headlined The Rugged Path. Returning to Hollywood, he appeared in three more films with Hepburn -- The Sea of Grass, Frank Capra's State of the Union, and George Cukor's sublime Adam's Rib -- and in 1950 also starred as Vincente Minnelli's Father of the Bride, followed a year later by the sequel Father's Little Dividend. On Hepburn's return from shooting The African Queen, they teamed with Cukor in 1952's Pat and Mike. Without Hepburn, Tracy and Cukor also filmed The Actress the following year.
Venturing outside of the MGM confines for the first time in years, he next starred in the 1954 Western Broken Lance. The well-received Bad Day at Black Rock followed, but as the decade wore on, Tracy was clearly growing more and more unhappy with life at MGM -- the studio had changed too much over the years, and in 1955 they agreed to cut him loose. He first stopped at Paramount for 1956's The Mountain, reuniting with Hepburn for Fox's Desk Set a year later. At Warners, Tracy then starred in the 1958 adaptation of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a major box-office disaster; however, The Last Hurrah signalled a rebound. After 1960's Inherit the Wind, Tracy subsequently reunited with director Stanley Kramer for 1961's Judgment at Nuremburg and the 1963 farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The film was Tracy's last for four years. Finally, in 1967 he and Hepburn reunited one final time in Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; it was another great success, but a success he did not live to see. Tracy died on June 10, 1967, just weeks after wrapping production.