William Tracy: A Dude Named Dodo

The career of William Tracy (1917-1967) was fairly blessed while he remained young (and young-ish, thanks to a boyish face and persona) but hit a brick wall all at once in middle age.

The Pittsburgh native attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and got cast right away in two Broadway shows in 1937: Hitch Your Wagon with Jim Backus, Mary Wickes, and Keenan Wynn, and as a replacement in Brother Rat. He and Eddie Albert were retained for the screen version of the latter show, joined by Ronald Reagan, Priscilla Lane, Jane Wyman, and Wayne Morris. Thus began a busy Hollywood career playing enthusiastic but goofy young men, marrying a stage name that evoked Lee Tracy and a persona that was not unlike Eddie Bracken’s. In rapid succession he was in the third Dead End Kids picture Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the 13th Jones Family comedy The Jones Family in Hollywood (1939), and Million Dollar Legs (1939) with Betty Grable and Donald O’Connor.

Tracy was one of the few who was able to work in major features and B movies simultaneously. He was cast as the title character in the serialized film version of the comic strip Terry and the Pirates in 1940. The following year he was also in the movie of Tillie the Toiler, another popular comic strip. Classic comedy fans may know him best as part of a comedy team with Joe Sawyer (who later played Sgt Biff O’Hara on the tv version of Rin Tin Tin) in a series of eight “Streamliners” produced by Hal Roach between 1941 and 1952. In these service comedies, Tracy was one Sgt. “Dodo” Doubleday, an earnest fellow with photographic memory; Sawyer was his gruff foil, Sgt. Ames. At the same time, Tracy played supporting roles in such classics as Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the Mickey and Judy musical Strike Up the Band (1940), Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), John Ford’s adaptation of Tobacco Road (1941), and George Washington Slept Here (1942) with Jack Benny. Richard Quine’s Sunny Side of the Street (1951) was his last film with a decent part, outside of the Tracy and Sawyer comedies. He also did lots of work in radio in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Tracy had a supporting part as Hotshot Charlie on the TV version of Terry and the Pirates (1952-53), now too old to play the main character as he once had. And this may speak to what became of him. Traditionally cast as boys, he was now pushing 40. It was now no longer possible to perpetuate the illusion that he was young, but neither was he acceptable to audiences as a middle-aged man apparently. After this he was strictly a bit player, with walk-ons in Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1937), Jack Webb’s -30- (1959), and a handful of episodes of the original Perry Mason. His last credit was in 1964. he died three years later, just 49 years old.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.