W. C. Fields


Actor, Comedian
W. C. Fields

About

Also Known As
Charles Bogle, Mahatma Kane Jeeves, William Claude Dukenfield, Otis Criblecoblis
Birth Place
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Born
January 29, 1880
Died
December 25, 2046
Cause of Death
Pneumonia

Biography

A renowned gambler and card-shark, a gin drinker, and hater of children, iconic actor- comedian W.C. Fields was known as all these things and more - a pool hustler, a juggler and an ordinary man struggling against life. Some widely held beliefs were true; some were part of the act, but above all the cantankerous man with a bulbous nose and a drawling voice was one of the funniest, riches...

Photos & Videos

The Bank Dick - Lobby Card
Million Dollar Legs - Movie Poster
Million Dollar Legs - Lobby Cards

Family & Companions

Harriet Hughes
Wife
Vaudevillian, showgirl. Met in late 1890s when they were both in appearing in vaudeville; became engaged in 1899; married in San Francisco on April 18, 1900; separated shortly after birth of son Claude; she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1906 and refused to grant Fields a divorce; died on November 7, 1963.
Bessie Chatterton Poole
Companion
Chorus girl. Together c. 1914 to c. 1916; gave birth to a son William on August 15, 1917, who later claimed to be Fields' illegitimate son; Fields reportedly paid child support for the boy until 1927 when Poole signed an agreement that William would make no further claims on any future inheritances and swearing that Fields was not the boy's father in return for $20,000 paid by Fields.
Maude Fenwick
Companion
Had relationship c. 1916 to c. 1923.
Mildred L Blackburn
Companion
Chorus girl. Had relationship c. 1923 to c. 1928.

Bibliography

"Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: W.C. Fields on Business"
Ronald Fields with Shaun O'L Higgins, Prentice-Hall (1999)
"Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields"
Simon Louvish, W.W. Norton & Co. (1997)
"W.C. Fields By Himself"
complied by Ronald Fields (1973)
"Fields for President"
W C Fields (1940)

Biography

A renowned gambler and card-shark, a gin drinker, and hater of children, iconic actor- comedian W.C. Fields was known as all these things and more - a pool hustler, a juggler and an ordinary man struggling against life. Some widely held beliefs were true; some were part of the act, but above all the cantankerous man with a bulbous nose and a drawling voice was one of the funniest, richest and most influential comics of the twentieth century. While Charlie Chaplin drew our sympathy, Buster Keaton earned our astonishment and the Marx Brothers made us blush, Fields spoke directly to what made us human - our dark desires, the unspoken urge for meanness, the depravity which we all held quiet, all the while making us laugh when he got away with it. Fields was the man whom audiences hated to admit reminded them of themselves.

William Claude Dukenfield was born on Jan. 29, 1880 and raised in Philadelphia, PA. From the start, he had show business in his blood. But unlike comics of later generations, he drew from real life instead of television or a Harvard education. During his childhood, his mother's withering asides about passing neighbors fueled what would become one of Field's classic bits - smiling openly while delivering tart-tongued comments under his breath. In later years, it came to light that Fields often embellished stories of a youth filled with hardship - with the likely truth being that his family was supportive of his dreams to enter show business.

Nonetheless, stories circulated that Fields grew up in an abusive household - years of listening to his father imbibe and sing religious songs, followed by a slap to the head, left him averse to music but open to drinking, as demonstrated in his later years. After just a few years of education, Fields was plucked out of school by his father and put to work, manning the vegetable cart that was the family business. At nine years old, the resourceful Fields sneaked into a vaudeville act and witnessed something that wound up changing his life: a juggling act. Determined to become a juggler himself, Fields practiced with his father's vegetables, frequently dropping them and earning not only his ire but, reportedly, a shovel to the head. At 11 years old, Fields ran away from home and never returned.

Working several odd jobs and often in trouble with authorities for stealing, Fields developed a fondness for vice and hustling money at billiards by age 15. He also kept up the juggling and became so skilled that he was hired by an amusement park in Norristown, PA, not far from where he was born. While juggling for appreciative crowds, he stumbled upon a sure-fire gag - he pretended to be clumsy and inept, dropping what he juggled, which including everything from cigar boxes to hats. But as each mishap translated to another miraculous feat, he earning laughs as well as applause. Soon after, he took a job juggling on the pier in Atlantic City, NJ.

At 18, he made his way to vaudeville, performing his juggling act as well as a variety of stock roles in other shows. Billed as "The Distinguished Comedian," Fields was reportedly so successful that he opened bank accounts in every city he played in. In fact, by the age of 23, he was already performing at London's Buckingham Palace with performer Sarah Bernhardt. Among his showbiz talents, Fields was also a skilled artist and drew cartoons for newspapers, as well as posters for his shows. Beginning in 1915, Fields landed a place in the enormously popular Ziegfield Follies, appearing in each show from that year through 1921. Still young and thin, he bore scant resemblance to the crusty persona for which he was later remembered. He perfected his clumsy juggler act and also developed a comedy pool routine, with strangely shaped pool cues and a custom-built pool table rigged for gags.

During this time he also developed his classic speech style, mumbling and grumbling his observations. His command onstage led to his first Broadway success in the musical, "Poppy," where he perfected his signature role of a sneaky, untrustworthy huckster. After his highly successful stint in the Follies, he ventured into the relatively new medium of film, appearing in silent films and "one-reelers," or 10-minute shorts. His first acting and writing effort - "The Pool Sharks" (1915) - saw a fake-mustachioed Fields comically competing against a rival for the affections of a woman. He soon completed other silent films before returning to vaudeville to star in a production of "Vanities." Fields was well-compensated for his efforts: fearing that he may fall back into poverty, the comic clamored for the best pay he could. By 1915, he was earning $800 a week; in later movies, he would earn as much as $5,000 a week.

Though Fields had made strides in the movie business, his commitments to the stage prevented him from stepping back in front of the camera until 1924. He returned to films with a brief comic appearance as a British officer in William Randolph Hearst's epic showcase for mistress Marion Davies, "Janice Meredith" (1924). Fields soon landed starring roles in a slew of silent comedies, all of which saw him wearing his then-trademark fake black mustache. In "Sally of the Sawdust" (1925), he was a crusty card shark who befriends a dancer (Carol Dempster) while working a carnival. Fields starred later that year in D.W. Griffith's crime drama, "That Royale Girl" (1925), playing a small time crook whose daughter (Dempster) falls under the suspicion of a district attorney (James Kirkwood) after her boyfriend murders his wife.

Fields continued to star in silent fare throughout the 1920s, though later generations were unable to see several titles because they were lost in the dustbins of time. After comic roles in "It's the Old Army Game" (1926) and "So's Your Old Man" (1926), he starred in "Two Flaming Youths" (1927) as the owner of a dog-and-pony operation that desperately tries to stay ahead of creditors and the authorities. In "The Potters" (1927), he puts his family into financial jeopardy after investing their life savings in worthless oil stock, while in "Running Wild" (1927) he starred as a henpecked family man who becomes aggressive at home and at work, thanks to a stage hypnotist who puts him under a spell. Fields made his final silent film, "Fools for Luck" (1928), donning his cheap black mustache one last time - he ditched the prop when he moved into talkies - to once again play a schmuck who invests all his money in a dry oil well.

When he reached his fifties - a time when most Hollywood actors have been pushed aside - Fields signed with producer Mack Sennett, famous for his comedy shorts, and felt a resurgence in his career. He churned out seven "two reelers" - typically running around 20 minutes each - including "The Golf Specialist" (1930), "The Dentist" (1932) and "The Fatal Glass of Beer" (1933). The shorts cemented what would become Fields' patented routine, and remain some of the funniest work of his career. With the feature film "International House," Fields signed a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures, which led to roles in 16 feature-length comedies, including "Million Dollar Legs" (1932) and "Tillie & Gus" (1933). On the former project, he met co-star Carlotta Monti, with whom he shared a relationship for the rest of his life. Monti would later write a book detailing the couple's involvement.

While never remembered for actually being drunk or disorderly, Field rightfully earned his reputation as a drinker. In the mid-1930s, Fields stopped appearing in movies for a spell due to illness brought about and exacerbated by alcohol. But during his convalescence, however, he started a career as a comic radio personality, frequently appearing as a guest on Charlie McCarthy's radio show and often trading insults with the host. As his health improved, Fields made a return to the movies - in a big way. In 1935, he played the character of Wilkins Micawber in "David Copperfield" - a thrill for the comic, due to his of his love of author Charles Dickens. The next year, he appeared in the film version of "Poppy" (1936) where he uttered one of his most famous lines: "Never give a sucker an even break!" The picture heralded his comeback.

Once again near the top of his game, Fields was offered the role of the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), but did refuse the part. The story went that he considered the role too small and that MGM did not offer him enough money - his going rate at the time was $100,000 per picture. But just as likely a story was that Fields was too busy writing his next film with his former radio partner, McCarthy - "You Can't Cheat and Honest Man" (1939). Like many of his later films, Fields wrote under a humorous-sounding pseudonym - in this case, Charles Bogle. He would also write under the names Otis Criblecoblis and Mahatma Kane Jeeves; a take on the then-popular phrase, "My hat, my cane, Jeeves."

In 1940, he co-starred with Mae West in "My Little Chickadee," which he also wrote. That same year he wrote and starred in "The Bank Dick," his most popular movie. A career highlight, he played the lead role of unlikely bank detective Edgar Sousé, a name derived from a slang term for a drunk, only with a more refined pronunciation. Fields delivered a number of classic lines, including asking a bartender if he had been in the night before and spent $20 - when the bartender answered that he had, Sousé showed relief and replied, "What a load that is off my mind. I thought I'd lost it." Ambling about town, Sousé encountered all manner of people and situations, scarcely improving them with his presence. Approaching a chauffeur working on a broken down car, Sousé utters the helpful hint that the problem may be with the wheelbase of the vehicle. He volunteers his help, asking for a monkey wrench, then knocks a perched toolbox down into the engine, which he leaves behind in even more of a mess. A madcap car chase in the climactic ending - including a detached steering wheel which Sousé places in the backseat, certain they will need it later - is made all the funnier by his characteristic deadpan reactions.

The film was nearly to be his last. Fields appeared as himself the following year in "Never Give a Sucker and Even Break" (1941), again written by him, where he played Uncle Bill or Bill - the name for which he was known by his friends. But by 1942, the roles dried up and Fields was at an end. He spent the last of his days in a hospital, suffering from various illnesses and deteriorating vision At Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, CA, Fields died at the age of 66 from a stomach hemorrhage on Christmas Day in 1946 - a holiday that he reportedly only pretended to hate despite his love for Dickens. He was soon laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, CA. When alive, he had often joked that he wanted his gravestone to say, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," which was interpreted as either a joke about his home state or a reference to the common comedian's lament that performing anywhere was better than performing in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Monti's account of her life with Fields - W.C. Fields & Me" -- was published in 1971 and made into a movie in 1976, with Rod Steiger playing Fields. In what may have been all-too-common circumstances of confusing fiction with real life, Fields was well known for loathing children. A widely circulated but nasty rumor had him spiking the milk of Baby Leroy with gin on the set of "Tillie & Gus," when the famous child star was just one-year-old. Later accounts, however, portrayed Fields as a devoted father and grandfather. Fields left behind a legacy of comedy that appeared in everything from the self-referential stage routines of Lenny Bruce to the strange names and odd asides in characters performed by Chevy Chase. He celebrated bad, astonishingly boorish behavior decades before Larry David. Yet thanks to his everyday humor and timeless scenarios of golf, pool and beer drinking, he remained contemporary well past his time.

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Down Memory Lane (1949)
Sensations of 1945 (1944)
Himself
Song of the Open Road (1944)
Himself
Follow the Boys (1944)
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
The great man [W. C. "Uncle Bill" Fields]
My Little Chickadee (1940)
Cuthbert J. Twillie
The Bank Dick (1940)
Egbert Sousé
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
Larson E. Whipsnade
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
T. Frothingill Bellows/S. B. Bellows
Poppy (1936)
Prof. Eustace McGargle
Mississippi (1935)
Commodore Orlando Jackson
The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)
Ambrose Wolfinger
David Copperfield (1935)
[Wilkins] Micawber
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934)
Mr. [C. Ellsworth] Stubbins
The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
The Great McGonigle
It's a Gift (1934)
Harold Bissonette
You're Telling Me! (1934)
Sam Bisbee
Six of a Kind (1934)
Sheriff ["Honest"] John Hoxley
The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
Squire Cribbs
International House (1933)
Professor [Henry] Quail
Tillie and Gus (1933)
Augustus [Q.] Winterbottom
Alice in Wonderland (1933)
Humpty Dumpty
If I Had a Million (1932)
Rollo
Million Dollar Legs (1932)
The President
Her Majesty Love (1931)
Lia's father
Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928)
Ringmaster
Fools for Luck (1928)
Richard Whitehead
Running Wild (1927)
Elmer Finch
Two Flaming Youths (1927)
Gabby Gilfoil
The Potters (1927)
Pa Potter
So's Your Old Man (1926)
Samuel Bisbee
It's the Old Army Game (1926)
Elmer Prettywillie
That Royle Girl (1925)
Her Father
Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
Prof. Eustace McGargle
Janice Meredith (1924)
A British sergeant
His Lordship's Dilemma (1915)

Writer (Feature Film)

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
Original Story
My Little Chickadee (1940)
Original Screenplay
The Bank Dick (1940)
Original Screenplay
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
Story
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
Contract Writer
The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)
Story
It's a Gift (1934)
Story
The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
Story

Writer (Short)

Too Many Highballs (1933)
Writer (Uncredited)
The Pharmacist (1932)
Writer

Misc. Crew (Short)

W.C. Fields (1961)
Archival Footage

Life Events

1898

Left home just before his 18th birthday and made stage debut peforming in vaudeville in Philadelphia

1898

Began touring with the Monte Carlo Girls

1899

NYC debut at Miner's Bowery Theatre (January)

1900

Solo debut on the Orpheum circuit; began tour in San Francisco

1901

Embarked on European tour, beginning in Berlin, Germany; later played London and Paris

1902

Returned to Europe, playing Berlin, Vienna, Prague and London

1903

Traveled to Australia and then South Africa

1904

Toured Great Britain; also appeared in France and Italy

1905

After completing performances in Denmark, Germany and Spain, returned to USA for first time in nearly three years

1905

Broadway acting debut in "The Ham Tree"; toured with show on and off until 1907

1907

Resumed vaudeville performances, returning with a juggling act

1908

Continued to divide time appearing throughout the USA, in Europe, South Africa and Australia

1915

Film acting debut in short, "Pool Sharks"

1922

Appeared in Ziegfeld rival George White's "Scandals of 1922"

1923

Starred as Eustace McGargle on stage in "Poppy"

1924

Returned to films after nine years; made feature film acting debut in cameo role in "Janice Meredith"

1925

Starred in "Sally of the Sawdust", directed by D.W. Griffith, a film adaptation of the stage play "Poppy"; recreated stage role of Eustace McGargle

1925

Began making features for Paramount; first was "That Royle Girl" (no longer extant), directed by Griffith

1925

Returned to the "Ziegfeld Follies"

1927

Acted in feature "Running Wild", helmed by Gregory La Cava

1928

Appeared in Earl Carroll's "Vanities"

1928

Played the ringmaster in "Tillie's Punctured Romance"

1928

Last Paramount silent, "Fools for Luck" (no longer extant)

1930

Made final appearances in vaudeville at the Palace Theater

1930

First sound film, the RKO short "The Golf Specialist", recreating routine from the "Ziegfeld Follies of 1918"

1930

Again co-starred in Earl Carroll's "Vanities"

1931

First sound feature film role, played a barber in "Her Majesty Love"

1933

Radio debut as guest on "California Melodies"

1933

First film with Baby LeRoy, "Tillie and Gus"

1933

Cast as Humpty Dumpty in the screen version of "Alice in Wonderland"

1934

Provided the stories (under pseudonym Charles Bogle) for "The Old Fashioned Way" and ""It's a Gift"

1935

Delivered sole career dramatic performance playing Mr. Micawber in the George Cukor-directed "David Copperfield"

1935

Starred in and provided story for "Man on the Flying Trapeze", a loose remake of "Running Wild"

1936

Again reprised stage role in "Poppy", a remake of "Sally of the Sawdust"

1937

Co-starred on the NBC radio program "Chase and Sanborn Hour", alongside Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy

1938

Last film for Paramount, "The Big Broadcast of 1938"

1939

Reportedly declined to play the title role in "The Wizard of Oz", feeling the film would be a flop

1939

Signed on at Universal for more than $100,000 per picture; first vehicle, "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man"

1940

Teamed with Mae West for the comedy "My Little Chickadee"; also credited with co-writing screenplay with West

1940

Starred in the comedy "The Bank Dick"; wrote screenplay under pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves

1941

Last starring vehicle, "Never Give A Sucker an Even Break"; also wrote story under pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis

1944

Recreated his legendary pool routine in the vaudeville-inspired feature "Follow the Boys"

1945

Made last feature film appearance in "Sensations of 1945"

Photo Collections

The Bank Dick - Lobby Card
The Bank Dick - Lobby Card
Million Dollar Legs - Movie Poster
Million Dollar Legs - Movie Poster
Million Dollar Legs - Lobby Cards
Million Dollar Legs - Lobby Cards

Videos

Movie Clip

It's A Gift (1934) - Your Uncle Bean It's actually big news arriving, as Bissonette (W.C. Fields) attempts to share the bathroom with his daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol) while he's shaving, in Paramount's It's A Gift, 1934.
It's A Gift (1934) - I Want Ten Pounds Of Cumquats The second source of frustration in the life of New Jersey grocer Bissonette (W.C. Fields), where he has incompetent help (Tammany Young), a customer seeking cumquats (Morgan Wallace) and another who’s blind (Charles Sellon), in It’s A Gift, 1934, co-written by Fields as “Charles Bogle.”
It's A Gift (1934) - Sleigh Bells Just a portion of the epic back-porch sequence, as Bissonette (W.C. Fields) carries on his battle to get some sleep, in It's A Gift, 1934.
Bank Dick, The (1940) - New Old Lompoc House Now on the job, Sousè (W.C. Fields, also screenwriter) observes son-in-law-to-be "Og" (Grady Sutton) executing the embezzlement scheme he proposed, until the bank examiner (Franklin Pangborn) appears, in The Bank Dick, 1940.
Bank Dick, The (1940) - Hearty Handclasp Now a town hero for having foiled a robbery, inebriate Egbert Sousè (screenwriter W.C. Fields) attempts to visit the bank president (Pierre Watkin), who has a lame handshake and offer, in The Bank Dick, 1940.
Bank Dick, The (1940) - Motion Picture History Lush Egbert Sousè (screenwriter and star W.C. Fields) has bluffed his way into substitute-directing a movie shooting in his hometown, Reed Hadley his star, his young daughter (Evelyn Del Rio) blowing it, in The Bank Dick, 1940.
Bank Dick, The (1940) - Cod Liver Oil Mine His mother and wife (Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel) and younger daughter (Evelyn Del Rio) griping, Egbert Sousè (W.C. Fields, star and screenwriter, his first scene) escapes, joining barkeep Joe (Shemp Howard), early in The Bank Dick, 1940.
Alice In Wonderland (1933) - In Order Of Appearance The unique opening credit sequence, remarkable in many ways including the presentation of the only cast ever to feature both Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, from the Paramount 1933 version of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, starring Charlotte Henry, co-written by designer William Cameron Menzies.
David Copperfield (1935) - I Have Arrived! Arrived in London, David (Freddie Bartholomew) meets Mrs. Micawber (Jean Cadell), spritely Clickett (Elsa Lanchester) and the man himself (W.C. Fields) fleeing creditors, in MGM's David Copperfield, 1935.
David Copperfield (1935) - A Personal Claim Upon Me Now grown-up David (Frank Lawton) with Uriah Heep (Roland Young), then Micawber (W.C. Fields) then Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), Agnes (Madge Evans) et al seeing him off to London, in George Cukor's David Copperfield, 1935.
You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939) - Circus Giganticus Opening scenes having established his semi-normal adult children, and lawmen on his trail, we meet W.C. Fields as Larson E. Whipsnade, with his traveling circus, beset by a crooked union rep (Edward Trophy) and would-be apprentice (Grady Sutton), in You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, 1939.
You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939) - Are You Eating A Tomato? Much as it would have played in their earlier vaudeville days, W.C. Fields as circus proprietor Whipsnade, and Edgar Bergen with his ever-present dummy Charlie McCarthy (playing off the latter’s long-running radio feud with Fields), plus the dumber Mortimer Snerd, in You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, 1939.

Trailer

Family

James L Dukenfield
Father
Fruit and vegetable seller. British immigrant; served in the Union Army during the Civil War;.
Kate Dukenfield
Mother
Walter Dukenfield
Brother
Younger.
Adel Dukenfield
Sister
Younger.
May Dukenfield
Sister
Younger.
Leroy Dukenfield
Brother
Born in 1895.
Claude Fields
Son
Born in July 1904; parents separated c. 1905.

Companions

Harriet Hughes
Wife
Vaudevillian, showgirl. Met in late 1890s when they were both in appearing in vaudeville; became engaged in 1899; married in San Francisco on April 18, 1900; separated shortly after birth of son Claude; she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1906 and refused to grant Fields a divorce; died on November 7, 1963.
Bessie Chatterton Poole
Companion
Chorus girl. Together c. 1914 to c. 1916; gave birth to a son William on August 15, 1917, who later claimed to be Fields' illegitimate son; Fields reportedly paid child support for the boy until 1927 when Poole signed an agreement that William would make no further claims on any future inheritances and swearing that Fields was not the boy's father in return for $20,000 paid by Fields.
Maude Fenwick
Companion
Had relationship c. 1916 to c. 1923.
Mildred L Blackburn
Companion
Chorus girl. Had relationship c. 1923 to c. 1928.
Fay Adler
Companion
Chorus girl. Together c. 1928 to c. 1933.
Carlotta Monti
Companion
Actor. Began on-again, off-again relationship with Fields in 1933; detailed their relationship in book "W.C. Fields and Me"; later biographers of Fields disputed many of her claims.
Judith Allen
Companion
Actor. Began short-term relationship in 1934.

Bibliography

"Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: W.C. Fields on Business"
Ronald Fields with Shaun O'L Higgins, Prentice-Hall (1999)
"Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields"
Simon Louvish, W.W. Norton & Co. (1997)
"W.C. Fields By Himself"
complied by Ronald Fields (1973)
"Fields for President"
W C Fields (1940)
"W.C. Fields and Me"
Carlotta Monti
"The Art of W.C. Fields"
William K Everson
"W.C. Fields"
Nicholas Yanni