Screen legend Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), who won one of his two Academy Awards for portraying a priest during Hollywoodâ€™s golden age, played Catholic clergymen three other times, but was never comfortable with it, reveals a forthcoming book about the star.
In â€œSpencer Tracy: A Biography,â€ to be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf, James Curtis writes that MGM director W.S. â€œWoodyâ€ Van Dyke had to talk Tracy into taking the role of Father Tim Mullin, the pugilistic childhood friend of Clark Gableâ€™s character Blackie Norton, in the 1936 film â€œSan Francisco.â€ Before then, clerical roles in films had always been assigned to character players, not leading men.
â€œIf he had any fear,â€ Curtis writes, â€œit 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.â€ As it turned out, Tracyâ€™s portrayal was so convincing, his fan mail began to include requests for spiritual advice, leading him to reflect to his secretary, â€œYou canâ€™t live up to an idealistic role.â€
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 1961â€™s â€œThe Devil at 4 Oâ€™Clock.â€ But heâ€™s best remembered for two portrayals of a real-life cleric, Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948), in 1938â€™s â€œBoys Townâ€ and its 1941 sequel, â€œMen of Boys Townâ€ â€“ winning an Oscar for the first film.
It took another Catholic â€“ Eddie Mannix, production manager at MGM – to persuade Tracy to take the part of Father Flanagan. â€œYour name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town,â€ Father Flanagan eventually wrote Tracy from the Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the charity he had founded in 1917, â€œbecause of the anticipated picture you are going to make for us.â€ [more]