William Lee Tracy (April 14, 1898 – October 18, 1968) was an American actor.
Tracy was born in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from Western Military Academy in 1918 he studied electrical engineering at Union College, and then served as a 2nd lieutenant in World War I. In the early 1920s he decided to work as an actor. He became a Broadway star by way of his starring role in the original 1924 production of George Kelly's play The Show-Off.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1929, where he played the role of newspapermen in quite a number of pictures. He played reporter Hildy Johnson in the original stage production of The Front Page(1928) and a Walter Winchell-type gossip columnist in Blessed Event (1932). Tracy starred as the columnist in Advice to the Lovelorn (1933), very loosely based on the novel Miss Lonelyheartsby Nathanael West, and played a conscience-stricken editor in the 1943 drama The Power of the Press, based on a story by former newspaperman Samuel Fuller.
He played The Buzzard, the criminal who leads Liliom (Charles Farrell) into a fatal robbery, in the film version of Liliom (1930). He also played Lupe Vélez's frenetic manager in Gregory LaCava'sThe Half-Naked Truth (1932), and portrayed John Barrymore's agent in Dinner at Eight (1933), directed by George Cukor.
His flourishing film career was temporarily disrupted on 19 November 1933, while he was on location in Mexico filming the Wallace Beery vehicle Viva Villa! According to Desi Arnaz, Tracy stood on a balcony in Mexico City and urinated on a military parade that was passing below. In his autobiography, Arnaz, who worked on the picture, claimed that from then on, if one watched the crowds, they would visibly disperse any time an American stepped out onto a balcony.
However, other crew members there at the time disputed this story, giving a sharply different account of events. In his autobiography, Charles G. Clarke, the cinematographer on the picture, said that he was standing outside the hotel during the parade and the incident never happened. Tracy, he said, was standing on the balcony observing the parade when a Mexican in the street below made an obscene gesture at him. Tracy replied in kind, and the next day a local newspaper printed a story that, in effect, Tracy had insulted Mexico, Mexicans in general and the Mexican flag in particular. The story caused an uproar in Mexico, and MGM decided to sacrifice Tracy in order to be allowed to continue filming there. Original director Howard Hawks was fired for refusing to testify against Tracy, and subsequently replaced by Jack Conway. Tracy was replaced by Stuart Erwin.
During World War II, Tracy returned to uniform. Later, he had two television series in the 1950s. One was Martin Kane: Private Eye, in which he was one of four actors to play the title role. The others were William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, and Mark Stevens. In 1958, he returned to a newspaper reporter role in the syndicated New York Confidential. After World War II, his screen career was largely relegated to television, but he portrayed the former President of the United States, Art Hockstader, a character loosely based on Harry Truman, in both the stage and film versions of The Best Man (1964), written by Gore Vidal. The movie version featured Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Tracy received his only Academy Award nomination, as Best Supporting Actor, for his performance in the film.
Lee Tracy died in Santa Monica, California from liver cancer on October 18, 1968, aged 70.
He is buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Shavertown, North East Pennsylvania, where he had maintained a home for many years.