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Obituaries

From the Archives: Spencer Tracy, 67, Dies After Screen Career of 37 Years

Spencer Tracy
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Woman of the Year.”
(Associated Press)

Spencer Tracy, one of Hollywood’s great actors, died here Saturday of a heart attack. He was 67.

Mr. Tracy, whose rugged good looks and forceful manner were enjoyed by movie fans for 37 years, completed his last film only three weeks ago.

In typical off-screen fashion, Mr. Tracy lived in semi-seclusion during his last weeks.

His housekeeper, Mrs. Ida Gheezy, discovered at 6 a.m. that he had been stricken when she checked his bedroom after he failed to follow his habit of arising early.

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Mrs. Gheezy summoned Dr. Mitchel D. Covel, who pronounced Mr. Tracy dead.

Also summoned to the house at 9191 St. Ives Drive, in the hills about West Hollywood, was Mr. Tracy’s older brother, Carroll.

Arriving shortly afterward were Mr. Tracy’s wife, who lives nearby, and their son, John, 42, and daughter, Suzy, 34.

Katharine Hepburn Arrives

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Katharine Hepburn, Mr. Tracy’s longtime friend and co-star in nine films, arrived with director George Cukor, who for years had rented the hillside house to the two-time Academy Award winner.

Mr. Tracy had frequently been in ill health since 1963, when he collapsed from pulmonary edema at the Trancas Beach home of Miss Hepburn.

In 1965, he was critically ill after prostate surgery.

Stanley Kramer, producer-director of Mr. Tracy’s last film, “Guess Who’s  Coming to Dinner?”, observed that the actor’s health had been relatively good lately.

“I did four films with Spence,” Kramer said. “Ironically, he was better physically in this one than in any of the others.

“When we started ‘Inherit the Wind,’ he was very ill and wanted to back out. In ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ he was not well. In ‘Mad World’ he looked very bad.”

“But this time he was full of the old pizazz.

“But three day before we finished the picture, he said to me:

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“ ‘I looked at the script last night and I figured out that even if anything happened to me tonight, you can still release the picture.’ “

Kramer, who said he “worshiped” Mr. Tracy, added:

“I’m glad for his sake he could make the picture. It was better than sitting at home. That wasn’t his way.”

The last film brought Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn together on the screen after a 10-year lapse.

Vernon Scott, UPI reporter who visited the movie set at Columbia studios, reported this conversation with the famed acting team two months ago:

“ ‘He is the best actor I’ve ever seen or worked with,’ (Miss Hepburn) said in that distinctive, crackling voice of hers. ‘I’m still learning things from Spence.’

“Tracy, white-haired and as gruff as a bear, shook his head: ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

“ ‘Oh, yes I do. The thing that fascinates me is your ability to concentrate on one single thing at a time. Nothing distracts you.’

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“Turning to me, she added: ‘He can focus on a line or an expression thoroughly. His mind seems absorbed totally by what he’s doing. I’ve never seen anything like it. I try, but it’s not the same.’ “

Long Acting Career

Admiration and acclaim surrounded Mr. Tracy during his long acting career. His eight Academy Award nominations were the most ever accorded one performer.

He won the award in 1937 for portraying a Portuguese fisherman in “Captains Courageous,” a role which required him to sing, talk with an accent and curl his hair.

A year later he became the only actor to win Oscars back-to-back when he took the award for playing the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan in “Boys Town.”

Despite his great success, Mr. Tracy was moody and a worrier off the screen.

‘Too Much Money’

His wife, former actress Louise Treadwell, once said that long after Mr. Tracy became a success, he often complained:

“I’m getting too much money, they’re going to get on to me one of these days—it’s just one of those flashes in the pan.”

The actor, whose shock of red hair changed to a silver thatch through the years, rarely was able to sleep more than five or six hours a night.

Mr. Tracy was long estranged from his wife, whom he married in 1923 after they met in a White Plains, N.Y., stock company.

Their son was born deaf in 1924, and Mrs. Tracy devoted herself to aiding the deaf—a quest which led to foundation of the renowned John Tracy Clinic for the deaf at USC.

Mr. Tracy often kept to himself, reading voraciously and taking drives. He shunned publicity and never a personal press agent.

He emerged from his shell last September to meet reporters at a press conference marking the launching of his last picture, and was asked what it is like to work with Miss Hepburn.

“Gee whiz,” he said. “I can’t remember. What’s it been? Ten years? ‘Desk Set’ was the last one. No, we worked well together. We didn’t mind cutting one another off now and then.”

He told an anecdote about their first meeting, for “Woman of the Year” in 1941.

“We were walking across the lot—Kate, Joe Mankiewicz and I. Kate said: ‘Mr. Tracy, I’m afraid I may be a little taller than you are.’

“Joe said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll cut you down to size.’

“Everybody’s always thought that I said it, but it was Joe.”

Mr. Tracy, who exuded an inner warmth through his craggy Irish face, had a magnetic rapport with film audiences for four decades as he played a variety of roles in 65 motion pictures.

He was the light-hearted Portuguese fisherman in “Captains Courageous,” the stern but human Catholic priest in “Boys Town,” the brawling companion of Clark Gable in “Test Pilot” and “Boom Town,” the explorer in “Stanley and Livingstone,” the inventor in “Edison, the Man,” the romancer in “Adam’s Rib,” “Pat and Mike” and “Desk Set.”

Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in “Father of the Bride”
Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in “Father of the Bride”
(MGM )

He was the harried parent in “Father of the Bride,” the aging politico in “The Last Hurrah,” and the Clarence Darrow-like orator in “Inherit the Wind.”

He played roles ranging from the adventure of “Northwest Passage” to the slapstick of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” to the tragic hero of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Mr. Tracy was born April 5, 1900, in Milwaukee, the son of John Tracy, a truck company sales manager of Irish descent and Carrie Brown, who traced her American ancestry to colonial days.

His boyhood was marked by truancy and fighting. And twice he ran away from home.

In World War I, he enlisted in the Navy but never saw action.

Later, he finished high school and entered Ripon College in Wisconsin.

It was at Ripon that his professors interested him in dramatics, and in 1922 he transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He lived there in a furnished room with a boyhood friend, actor Pat O’Brien.

He and O’Brien landed roles in a Theater Guild production—as robots at $15 a week. But before the play closed, he won a small speaking part, and when the show went on the road, he got a featured role for $42.50 a week.

From there it was a steady rise on Broadway. And then came Hollywood.

Requiem Mass for Mr. Tracy will be celebrated Monday at 9 a.m. in Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, 4950 Santa Monica Blvd. Internment will be in Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, under direction of Cunningham and O’Connor Mortuary.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that contributions be made to the Tracy Clinic.

news.obits@latimes.com

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