Rangy, red-headed and straightforward to the bone while possessing distinctively adenoidal vocal tones, this actor with a voracious appetite for high living was a fine cinematic representation of the racy and race-paced style of pre-Code Hollywood. Lee Tracy patented with peerless skill the lightning rod timing and machine gun delivery so identified with that period and would have continued on handsomely in films had severe typecasting, a hair-trigger temper and a notoriously reckless off-camera life not gotten the best of him.
Christened William Lee Tracy on April 14, 1898, the Atlanta-born actor was the son of a traveling railroad superintendent and a former school teacher. Lee attended Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, while growing up, and then relocated with his family to upstate New York. Lee may have studied engineering at Union College in 1918, but he also showed an interest in dramatics and was almost immediately asked to join a theater company upon his graduation. WWI interrupted his nascent stage career when he joined the army. Following his discharge, he cast aside thoughts of a theater career and instead became a U.S. Treasury agent. Within two years’ time, however, he was back via the vaudeville stage and touring stock companies. This all culminated in a most auspicious Broadway debut in “The Showoff” in 1924.
It took but a couple of years for Tracy to achieve certified stardom with the George Abbott production of “Broadway” (1926), in which he played a song-and-dance man, receiving the New York Drama Critics Award for his efforts. In 1928, following more vaudeville work, Lee found his quintessential role in the form of Hildy Johnson, the hustling, fast-talking newspaperman, in Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s timeless play “The Front Page”. If ever an actor and role fit together like a hand in a glove, this was it, and it was highly unfortunate, with all due respect to actor Pat O’Brien, that Tracy was not afforded the proper chance to transfer this prototype Broadway part to the 1931 film. During this time he was also developing an off-stage reputation as a carouser and heavy drinker.
Nevertheless, Fox Studios immediately signed Tracy and offered up a fine screen debut for him co-starring with Mae Clarke in the early talkie Big Time (1929) as the male half of a husband-and-wife vaudeville team who breaks off with his mate and falls on heavy times while she becomes a star. In Born Reckless (1930), Tracy played the first of his Walter Winchell-like, staccato-styled characters. Tracy went on to perfectly evoke his fast-talking image in such Depression-era films as the drama Liliom (1930) and the ribald comedy She Got What She Wanted (1930).
A highly impulsive man, Tracy abandoned Hollywood at this early stage of the game and returned to his former glory, Broadway, appearing to fine advantage in “Oh, Promise Me” and “Louder, Please” in 1930 and 1931, respectively. But films continued to beg for his services; this time it was Warner Bros. He contributed greatly to both the melodrama The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) and the horror opus Doctor X (1932) and easily stole the proceedings, this time in a comic mode, as the cynical, scandal-sniffing columnist in Blessed Event (1932). Columbia Studios decided to get in on the action with a three-picture deal. Tracy played a no-holds-barred politico in Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), the title role in The Night Mayor (1932) and an ex-con in Carnival (1935). In between, however, trouble started brewing with his unrestrained night life and patterned absences from the set.
A fourth big studio, MGM, took him on in 1933 with a contract boost despite his “bad boy” reputation, yet more personality problems surfaced. Despite excellent performances in such films as Clear All Wires! (1933), The Nuisance (1933), Turn Back the Clock (1933), Advice to the Forlorn (1933), and the MGM classics Dinner at Eight (1933) and Bombshell (1933), both showcasing MGM’s comedic sex siren Jean Harlow, Tracy went too far. During the filming of Viva Villa! (1934) in Mexico City, Tracy displayed shocking, ungentlemanly behavior that resulted in fisticuffs with the law and a high-profile arrest on public morals charges. MGM not only kicked Tracy off the picture but felt compelled to apologize publicly to the Mexican people for his disrespect and terminate the actor’s five-year contract.
Tracy freelanced thereafter, often for RKO, but the quality of his pictures began to slide and his constant rash of quicksilver reporters, columnists and press agents had worn out their welcome. He returned to the stage in both New York (“Bright Star”) and London (“Idiot’s Delight”) and was warmly received. In the midst of it all, he married Helen Thoms Wyse, a nonprofessional, in 1938 and, defying all odds, made the marriage work. She survived him by thirty years.
With his last postwar film at the time being High Tide (1947), Tracy’s looks had hardened dramatically and he looked at TV being a possible medium for his talents. Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, he appeared on a number of shows, including “Kraft Television Theatre”, “Wagon Train” and “Ben Casey”. He also took on series leads, such as The Amazing Mr. Malone (1951), Martin Kane (1949), and New York Confidential (1959). And there was always the stage.
Tracy’s last hurrah, both on Broadway and in film, was Gore Vidal’s blistering political drama The Best Man (1964). Recreating his 1961 Tony-nominated role of the crusty, terminally ill U.S. president, he received his only Oscar nod for this standout part. The rest of his working years went by with less distinction. In the summer of 1968 he was diagnosed with liver cancer and succumbed to the illness on October 18 of that year in a Santa Monica hospital.
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