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W. C. Fields

Born: January 29, 1880
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: December 25, 1946
Place: Pasadena, California

W.C. Fields The man known as W.C. Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 29, 1880. The facts surrounding his youth and family are hazy, partly because of W.C. Fields' own propensity to exaggerate and embellish the truth, mixing fact with fiction. Even his date of birth is a point of contention. Some biographers note that he was born on April 9, 1879 instead of the January 29, 1880 date that we use. We have also seen it humorously noted that W.C. Fields was born in 1879 and then born again in 1880. We'll stick with the 1880 date, which is the date that his grandson Ronald J. Fields believes is correct. We do know that he was born into a poor family in Philadelphia, the oldest of four or five children. His father peddled produce for a living, and the family had a difficult time making ends meet as the family grew. Stories surrounding his schooling vary, but it is agreed that the young Dukenfield did not spend much of his youth in formal schooling. At a young age he helped his father with his produce business, but selling vegetables was not what he wanted to be doing, although hawking produce did give him the opportunity to be on a stage of sorts. It also may have provided him with objects for his interest in juggling, which surely was not what his father wanted him to be doing with his sellable items. Many stories have him leaving home at a very young age (anywhere from age 9 on up), although that, too, is open to question. There are stories of him living on the streets as a youth, stealing for food and money, while other accounts have him leaving home to live with his grandmother. But most biographers agree that Fields took a variety of jobs as a youth, from store clerk to newspaper vendor to delivery boy, and that he was primarily a self-educated young man.

We do know that at a young age, Fields dabbled in card playing and shooting pool, as well as juggling. But juggling was what really interested him, and he became an extremely accomplished juggler. Sometime around the age of 15 he found work as a juggler in an amusement park in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and soon after he moved on to Atlantic City where his juggling act became part of a vaudeville routine. He polished his act, donned a tramp's costume and a fake beard, added comedy to his juggling show, and began making a name for himself as W.C. Fields. During this period, Fields hooked up with various traveling road shows and burlesque companies throughout the eastern states, delighting audiences with his juggling act. In his late teens, his entertainment skills drew him to New York City, where he received great reviews and a steady paycheck for several years. In 1900, W.C. Fields married Hattie Hughes, who worked as his assistant on stage for several years. In the early 1900's, Fields' reputation grew to the point where some were calling him the world's greatest juggler. He and Hattie took their routine to Europe, where they performed in Germany, England, Belgium, France, and Spain.

In 1904, back in Philadelphia, Hattie gave birth to their son, and left the act entirely, preferring not to raise her child on the road. Fields returned to his touring, performing in the U.S. and Europe. In 1915 he began appearances with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. He dropped his tramp makeup, and relied less on his juggling as he focused more on comedy routines. In 1923, Fields starred as con man Eustace McGargle in the Broadway musical comedy "Poppy". The play was a hit, and W.C. Fields' was a star. In 1925 Fields starred in his first major silent film, "Sally of the Sawdust". Fields made many more films during his career, but he also continued to appear in vaudeville routines, as well as performing on radio. When the era of silent films ended, Fields moved permanently to Hollywood and appeared in dozens of films, becoming well known for his portrayals of wisecracking hucksters, drunks, card and pool sharks, and other disreputable characters. His bulbous nose, raspy voice, and his delivery of mischieivous caustic witticisms became the trademarks of his film career. Often providing the script for the films' comedic skits himself, W.C. Fields had become a top star in the motion picture industry. His classics include "It's a Gift" (1934), "David Copperfield" (1935), "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" (1935), "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man" (1939), "The Bank Dick" (1940), and "My Little Chickadee" (1940), in which he starred with Mae West.

In 1940, W.C. Fields published his own book, "Fields for President", but it was a rambling set of attacks on social institutions, and did not sell well. Health problems brought on by his penchant for booze hampered Fields in his later years, and he only appeared in small roles after 1941. W.C. Fields died in Pasadena, California on December 25, 1946.

If you're looking for the best biography of W.C. Fields, we recommend Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields by Simon Louvish. This is a well-researched biography of W.C. Fields written by an instructor at the London International Film School. Mr. Louvish's coverage of the vaudeville era, and W.C. Fields' role in it, are highpoints of this impressive book. It is available now through our association with by clicking here.


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