One might assume a film featuring Hollywood heavyweights like Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sydney Poitier would be a straightforward task. At the time of filming, Tracy and Hepburn had already established a relationship on and off screen, and Poitier had just won his first Academy Award a few years prior.
When approached by director Stanley Kramer, all three principle actors were willing to put their all into the production of the film. So it was a surprise to crew when many believed one of them wouldn’t make it to see the end of filming.
After years of declining health, Spencer Tracy was about to go into his hardest season yet. In July 1965, he was diagnosed with hypertensive heart disease. After a close call that same year, Tracy became homebound, spending the majority of his time with Katharine Hepburn. Despite his health, both Hepburn and Tracy committed to their roles in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It was soon discovered filming while Tracy was ill would be more difficult than expected. Tracy had to be insured in order to begin filming. Due to his existing health issues, the insurance companies denied coverage.
Tracy and Hepburn were allowed to put their salaries from the film in escrow, in the event another actor had to take over the role. Once filming began, Tracy’s health caused even more concern. His scenes were filmed early morning so that he could rest for the remainder of the day. Katharine often helped Tracy with his lines and monitored him closely while on set. In dialogue scenes, a stand in was used so that Tracy didn’t physically have to be there. According to Poitier, "The illness of Spencer dominated everything. I knew his health was very poor and many of the people who knew what the situation was didn't believe we'd finish the film, that is, that Tracy would be able to finish the film.”
Tracy did finish the film and despite the challenges, the film was well received by audiences and went on to become a box office hit, eventually winning Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Hepburn also walked away with an Oscar for Best Actress. Unfortunately, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was Spencer Tracy’s last film. He passed away 17 days after filming wrapped. For his performance, he was posthumously nominated for Best Actor.