SEEING Spencer Tracy act for the first time, says Katharine Hepburn, is like eating a potato for the first time: ``Pure, of the earth, dependable.'' The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn (PBS, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m.) is also like eating a potato for the first time, and for the same reasons. It is pure Hepburn and Tracy.
For 25 years and 9 films, Hepburn and Tracy were a team, starting with ``Woman of the Year'' in 1942 and ending with ``Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'' in 1967. But Tracy's movie career started back in 1930. He was nominated for the Oscar nine times and won it twice.
Tracy fans will revel in the clips from some of his best films like ``San Francisco,'' ``Boys Town,'' ``Captains Courageous,'' and ``The Old Man and the Sea,'' but they will also be amused by clips from some of the less successful films like ``Up the River,'' ``The Power and the Glory,'' ``Boom Town,'' and ``Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.''
This tribute traces him back even further to his early Broadway roles and his short stay at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which only recently also presented a tribute to the man.
There's enough to keep even the greatest Tracy buff happy -- interviews with costars and friends such as Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, and Robert Wagner, as well as clips from about 30 of Tracy's movies, home-movie footage, and archival film. And interspersed among all of the elements is Hepburn, reminiscing, glowing, griev-ing.
There is even an interview with Tracy's only daughter, who points out some of his diary entries. Home movies also show pictures of Spencer's wife, Louise Treadwell, from whom he was separated.
Hepburn makes it apparent that her relationship with Tracy cannot be described in routinely romantic terms. ``We balanced each other's natures,'' she explains, referring to their many movies together as well as their friendship. In their films, she says, they came to symbolize the strong male-female relationships based on an equality that existed long before the feminist movement.
``Learn the lines and don't bump into the furniture,'' was Tracy's acting philosophy, which he often expressed to young players who asked for advice. Actress Elizabeth Taylor describes his acting this way in the tribute: ``It seemed almost effortless, as if he wasn't doing anything -- and yet he was doing everything. It came so subtly out of his eyes and every muscle in his face. He was a film actor.''
According to Hepburn, Tracy was a man who ``found acting easy and life difficult.'' His drinking, his insomnia, his guilt were elements of his character which she tried to assuage. And in an unforgettably moving conclusion to the tribute, Hepburn reads a letter she wrote posthumously to her dear departed Spence in which she wonders why he was so troubled. Her deeply felt concern and puzzlement make it clear that at least in his last days, Spencer Tracy was rewarded with a true friend.
``The Spencer Tracy Legacy'' is not only a tribute to Spencer Tracy, the actor; it is a poignant and revealing tribute to Spencer Tracy, the man.