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Spencer Tracy, Hollywood Priest

Famous actor was lifelong Catholic despite personal failings

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

In "Boys Town," Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan keeps Mickey Rooney in line.

Screen legend Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), who won one of his two Academy Awards for portraying a priest during Hollywood's golden age, played Catholic clergymen three other times, but was never comfortable with it, reveals a forthcoming book about the star.

In Spencer Tracy: A Biography, to be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf, James Curtis writes that MGM director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke had to talk Tracy into taking the role of Father Tim Mullin, the pugilistic childhood friend of Clark Gable’s character Blackie Norton, in the 1936 film “San Francisco.” Before then, clerical roles in films had always been assigned to character players, not leading men.

“If he had any fear,” Curtis writes, “it was the fear of artificiality, the fear that lifelong Catholics would look at Father Tim and see a movie star pretending to be a priest and not the soul of a real priest.”

As it turned out, Tracy's portrayal was so convincing, his fan mail began to include requests for spiritual advice, leading him to reflect to his secretary, “You can’t live up to an idealistic role.”

Tracy, a lifelong Catholic whose boyhood parish was St. Rose of Lima in Milwaukee, played a priest for the last time as Father Matthew Doonan, rescuing children from a doomed hospital in “The Devil at 4 O’Clock” (1961).

But he’s best remembered for two portrayals of Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948) in “Boys Town” (1938) and its 1941 sequel, “Men of Boys Town.” Tracy won an Oscar for the first film. “Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town,” the real Father Flanagan wrote Tracy, “because of the anticipated picture you are going to make for us.”

Tracy never resolved his real-life conflicts about his faith. Though his Catholic sensibilities – perhaps along with other factors – prevented him from divorcing his wife, actress Louise Treadwell, with whom he had two children, he nonetheless engaged in a number of extramarital affairs, most famously a longtime relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Yet Curtis writes that the actor still acknowledged his spiritual needs.

One example took place during a 1966 visit from then-Maryknoll Father Eugene Kennedy, after Tracy’s health had begun its final decline. Tracy, the former priest recalled, embraced a wooden statue of the Madonna he had found in Chamonix, France, and told Kennedy, “This is something I truly love. It’s so simple.” Just before dinner that evening, Tracy confided, “You know, I thought about being a priest once; I guess every Catholic kid does, or did, anyway. I don’t know how they feel with all these changes taking place. Now Pope John XXIII, he was my kind of pope. But with this Vatican II, I’m not sure that priests believe in sin anymore or still hear confessions.”

He paused, then asked Kennedy, “You still know how to?”