Spencer Tracy in his final film, 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Spencer Tracy's path to becoming a film legend had an undignified start. Born in Milwaukee on April 5, 1900, Tracy was expelled from numerous elementary schools in his youth. A talent for debating discovered while attending Ripon College inspired Tracy to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A $10 a week role as a robot in a stage production of R.U.R. was Tracy's first professional gig.
Tracy's Broadway debut came in 1923's Fandango, and he became a stage star for his performance as an imprisoned killer in 1930's The Last Mile. It would take several years for that success to transfer from stage to screen. While acting in The Last Mile on Broadway, Tracy saw his screen tests rejected by MGM, Universal and Warner Bros. John Ford's insistence that Tracy be cast in his prison drama Up the River led to 20th Century Fox offering the actor a five-year contract.
Frequently cast as heavies and gangsters early in his career, Tracy appeared in several forgettable films in the early 1930s. A dispute between Jimmy Cagney and Warner Bros. provided Tracy's career an important break. After Cagney hesitated to star in 1933's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, the studio selected Tracy instead. The movie was a success, as were the next two movies he headlined, The Face in the Sky and The Power and the Glory. Despite this, 20th Century Fox, which had extended his contract through 1937, still wasn't offering Tracy noteworthy projects. The studio fired Tracy after he refused to once again play a hood, this time in The Farmer Takes a Wife. Although skeptical of his sex appeal, MGM signed him.
Tracy's early films at MGM did little to advance his career, but his performance in San Francisco earned him the first of his nine Oscar nominations. He won his first Best Actor Oscar for 1937's Captain Courageous. 1938 was a banner year for Tracy. Around the time the enormously successful Test Pilot was released, Time magazine called Tracy "cinema's number one actor's actor." Tracy not only repeated as Best Actor for playing Father Edward Flanagan in Boys Town, released later that year, he became the first performer to win Oscar for playing a real person who was still living on the night of the ceremony. The success of 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made Tracy MGM's biggest star.
1942's Woman of the Year marked the first of Tracy's nine films with Katharine Hepburn. The two soon began a romance that endured for the remainder of Tracy's life. However, Tracy was married to actress Louise Treadwell and refused to get divorced because of his Catholic faith. Tracy enjoyed two more successes with 1943's A Guy Named Joe and the following year's 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, then co-starred with Hepburn in the romantic comedy Without Love. When that movie was released in 1945, Tracy returned to Broadway and starred in The Rugged Path. Upon returning to Hollywood he appeared in a number of films, including 1950's Father of the Bride, in which he played the title character. He won a Golden Globe for his performance in 1953's The Actress but was denied an Oscar nomination. Two years later, he left MGM.
Suffering from emphysema and diabetes, Tracy co-starred with Hepburn in 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, his first film in four years. On June 10, 1967, only weeks after finishing the movie, Tracy suffered a fatal heart attack. Hepburn, who had found him dead, declined to attend Tracy's funeral out of respect for his family. Tracy's final movie earned him his final Oscar nomination, but he lost to In the Heat of the Night's Rod Steiger.