William Claude Dukenfield was the eldest of five children born to Cockney immigrant James Dukenfield and Philadelphia native Kate Felton. He went to school for four years, then quit to work with his father selling vegetables from a horse cart. At eleven, after many fights with his alcoholic father (who hit him on the head with a shovel), he ran away from home. For a while he lived in a hole in the ground, depending on stolen food and clothing. He was often beaten and spent nights in jail. His first regular job was delivering ice. By age thirteen he was a skilled pool player and juggler. It was then, at an amusement park in Norristown PA, that he was first hired as an entertainer. There he developed the technique of pretending to lose the things he was juggling. In 1893 he was employed as a juggler at Fortescue's Pier, Atlantic City. When business was slow he pretended to drown in the ocean (management thought his fake rescue would draw customers). By nineteen he was billed as "The Distinguished Comedian" and began opening bank accounts in every city he played. At age twenty-three he opened at the Palace in London and played with Sarah Bernhardt at Buckingham Palace. He starred at the Folies-Bergere (young Charles Chaplin and Maurice Chevalier were on the program).
He was in each of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1915 through 1921. He played for a year in the highly praised musical "Poppy" which opened in New York in 1923. In 1925 D.W. Griffith made a movie of the play, renamed Sally of the Sawdust (1925), starring Fields. Pool Sharks (1915), Fields' first movie, was made when he was thirty-five. He settled into a mansion near Burbank, California and made most of his thirty-seven movies for Paramount. He appeared in mostly spontaneous dialogs on Charlie McCarthy's radio shows. In 1939 he switched to Universal where he made films written mainly by and for himself. He died after several serious illnesses, including bouts of pneumonia.
|Harriet Hughes||(8 August 1900 - 25 December 1946) (his death) 1 child|
Usually portrayed rather pessimistic, aggressive and suspicious-natured men with great fondness of alcohol. Yet, this same character was at the same time dogged by his wife and he rarely managed to speak up against her. He is remembered for his hatred of children, but did in fact frequently possess great fatherly affection for his daughter.
Interred at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California, USA, in the Great Mausoleum, Holly Terrace entrance, Hall of Inspiration.
He was the second choice to play the title role in The Wizard of Oz (1939). There are still some arguments as to why he turned the part down. Some sources say that he refused to play "The Wizard" because MGM wouldn't pay the salary he wanted, but according to Doug McClelland, author of "Down The Yellow Brick Road", Fields was too busy writing and acting in his latest film for Universal Pictures - You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) - to be loaned out to MGM to play the part.
Had a lifetime disdain for music; this he attributed to having to hear his father's singing day and night as a child, loudest when "the old patriarch" was drunk (companion Carlotta Monti claimed Fields once hit her with a cane, to stop her humming with a guitar). When expected to sing in a role, he almost always made a complete farce of both the lyrics and his performance.
Pictured on a 15¢ US commemorative postage stamp in the Performing Arts and Artists series, issued 29 January 1980 (100th anniversary year of his birth).
Grandfather of Ronald J. Fields, who edited a biography titled "W.C. Fields by Himself". The book dispelled many longstanding stories about Fields, including ones of his living for years on the street. Young Fields did indeed run away from home after fights with his father, but usually no farther than his grandmother's, and he would return home the next day. He stayed with his grandmother just before beginning his professional career as a juggler.
Enshrined in the Juggling Hall of Fame.
The lawyer Larsen E. Pettifogger in the comic strip "Wizard of Id" is drawn to look like him.
While stories of Fields' alcohol consumption (and the consequences thereof) were a regular part of his act, and he was rarely seen without a drink at hand, nobody could recall ever actually seeing him drunk, or out of control.
Reportedly had hidden microphones installed along the front walk to his Hollywood home; Fields would slip into a small room to listen to guests talking as they departed. When someone spoke negatively about him, Fields would amuse himself by alluding to what they'd said, the next time he saw them.
Stopped drinking for over a year during his career, when a friend died of alcohol-related causes, but eventually went back to it.
Fields' wife Hattie became his partner in his juggling act after their marriage; he sent her home to his parents when she became pregnant. After Fields returned from the road, they discovered they'd grown apart, but Hattie wouldn't give him a divorce, and when Fields refused to "find a regular job", she began badmouthing him to their young son, William Jr.. Fields predicted that the boy would grow up to see the truth of the situation (Fields never failed to support his family, however much or little he was earning)... and it happened. While father and son rarely saw each other over the years, Fields was proudly introduced to his firstborn grandson (W.C. Fields III) before his death.
Could juggle or balance practically anything he could lift or carry; Fields unnerved his despised mother-in-law by keeping a lit cigar, a candle (in holder), or a beer bottle balanced atop his head at mealtimes, never seeming to notice its presence.
Although one of his most famous quotes is "Never work with animals or children." he secretly admired children.
Biography in: "Who's Who in Comedy" by Ronald L. Smith, pg. 160-163. New York: Facts on File, 1992. ISBN 0816023387
Has a medical syndrome named after him - 'W.C. Fields syndrome', characterized by rhinophyma (rosacea of the nose) associated with alcoholism.
His wife was born in 1878. She died November 7, 1963.
His son, with wife Hattie, William C. "Claude" Dukenfield,was born on July 28, 1904. He had another son, born on August 15, 1917, with girlfriend Bessie Poole, named William Rexford Fields Morris.
Grandchildren: Ruthie, Everett, and Bill.
Appears on sleeve of The Beatles' "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band".
According to film historians, he performed in only one film exactly according to script and as directed. That one was MGM's David Copperfield (1935), in which he co-starred with Freddie Bartholomew, who was only ten years old. Fields admired the Charles Dickens book and wanted desperately to play Mr. Micawber in the movie, so he agreed to forego his usual ad-libs and put aside his distaste at working with child actors.
Slipped a dose of gin into Baby LeRoy's milk bottle during a movie shoot, when the set nurse left for a bathroom break; production had to stop for a day until the child could sober up (Fields reportedly sent money later to LeRoy's family, after the boy's screen career ended and they had financial trouble).
Usually wrote or co-wrote the screenplays to his movies; the aliases he used ("Mahatma Kane Jeeves", "Otis Criblecoblis", etc.) for the writing credits came from the unusual names he encountered on the road, in his vaudeville days.
Legend has it that on the set of You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), a stagehand was cleaning out Fields' dressing room and accidentally bumped into a table on which Fields had placed a bottle of whiskey. He caught the bottle before it hit the floor, but the cork had popped out and he couldn't find it. He placed the bottle back on the table and left. Later Fields came back to the dressing room, and a few minutes afterwards stormed out, roaring "Who took the cork out of my lunch?"
It was generally assumed that his prominent proboscis was the result of his drinking, an assumption he himself fueled in his comedy. However, it is believed to have actually been a physical characteristic inherited from his mother's side of the family.
Through much of his early career, he was a silent juggler. It wasn't until he was in his mid-30s that be began to add verbal comedy to his act
He said that The Marx Brothers were the only act he couldn't follow on the live stage. He is known to have appeared on the same bill with them only once, during an engagement at Keith's Orpheum Theatre in Columbus, OH, in January 1915. At the time the Marx Brothers were touring "Home Again", and it didn't take Fields long to realize how his quiet comedy juggling act was faring against the anarchy of the Marxes. Fields later wrote of the engagement (and the Marxes), "They sang, danced, played harp and kidded in zany style. Never saw so much nepotism or such hilarious laughter in one act in my life. The only act I could never follow . . . I told the manager I broke my wrist and quit.".
Was an accomplished amateur cartoonist. He often provided his own illustrations for his publicity material during his vaudeville days, and sent sketches and self-drawn holiday cards to his friends, all his life.
Lived with Carlotta Monti for fourteen years.
Was good friends with John Barrymore
According to friends, the biggest laugh he ever got as a stage performer was when a monologue he was giving on-stage was interrupted by a long, loud crash of objects backstage. After the crashing stopped, and the audience was silent, Fields gave a one-word comment in a stage whisper: "Mice!"
Although his marriage to Harriet Hughes lasted until his death in 1946, they separated as early as in 1904.
Father of W. C. Fields, Jr. (b. 1903)
Although he is quoted as saying that he was "the best ballet dancer in the world.", secretly he was extremely jealous of Charles Chaplin, whom he had known when he was younger, for achieving worldwide fame and adoration.
Rock-and-roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis has said on several occasions that Fields is his favorite comedian.
Although well known for his addiction to alcohol today, Fields did in fact rarely touch alcohol until he was in his mid-30s. He began his career in vaudeville as a juggler, and with that profession he could not afford to drink a lot, as his act demanded precise coordination and concentration in order to succeed.
His father was a US Civil War veteran; "W.C. Fields by Himself" includes a photograph of his father wearing his old Army uniform.
The last movie he starred in, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), included a character he'd always wanted to have in one of his movies: a young woman (in this case his niece, played by Gloria Jean) who loved him unconditionally.
He admired African-Americans, and spoke out in favor of fairer treatment for them during the days of segregation in the US. He generously paid off the $4000 mortgage on the house of his African-American cook. He once ordered from his premises a man who used the "N-word" within earshot of his staff.
Fields always regretted not having more formal education. He traveled with a trunk of books, reading whenever he could, and thought for a time about hiring a tutor. He lavished praise on "Readers' Digest" magazine, in later years.
He was awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 7004 Hollywood Boulevard and for Radio at 6316 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
Inspired the character Captain Erasmus Mulligan in Morris' Lucky Luke graphic novel Western Circus.
Painter/artist John Decker painted W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria of England.
His much-vaunted detestation of children is generally thought to have been largely put-on. Co-stars Freddie Bartholomew and Gloria Jean both recalled him as being warm and solicitous. Further evidence of this is the case of 18-month old Gregory Quinn. In 1941, the oldest son of Anthony Quinn and Catherine DeMille wandered off his maternal grandparents' (Cecil B. DeMille) property and onto Fields's, next door. There, the youngster accidentally fell into Fields' fish pond and drowned. Fields was said to have been very much disturbed by this, and moved away shortly thereafter.
According to Fields' mistress in her biography "W. C. Fields and Me" his four rules of comedy were (1) Never break anything. (2) A henpecked husband gets surefire laughs. (3)Clothes are of paramount importance: "every crease, fold, and droop of flesh can be the object of hilarity. (4) Everyone has a percentage of sadist in him.
After bring hit on the head by his father, Fields got his revenge by hiding in the rafters of a stable with a large wooden box in his hands. When his father entered the building, Fields dropped it on his head. Following the incident, he ran away from home.
Fields was terrified of slipping back into the poverty of his youth. To forestall this eventuality, he set up dozens of bank accounts across the country under a variety of aliases. Most of the money went unclaimed.
When Louise Brooks was with the Ziegfeld Follies, she was often a drinking companion with W.C. Fields after the shows.
'Twas a woman drove me to drink. I never had the courtesy to thank her.
I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.
[when asked why he never drank water] I'm afraid it will become habit-forming.
[when asked what he would like his epitaph to read] On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.
[when asked whether he liked children] Ah, yes . . . boiled or fried.
[when "caught" reading a Bible] Just looking for loopholes.
Wouldn't it be terrible if I quoted some reliable statistics which prove that more people are driven insane through religious hysteria than by drinking alcohol?
I like, in an audience, the fellow who roars continuously at the troubles of the character I am portraying on the stage, but he probably has a mean streak in him and, if I needed ten dollars, he'd be the last person I'd call upon. I'd go first to the old lady and old gentleman back in Row S who keep wondering what there is to laugh at.
Horse sense is what a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.
What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch?
What fiend put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No use being a damned fool about it.
Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake.
Once during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.
What a gorgeous day. What effulgent sunshine. It was a day of this sort the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an axe.
Hell, I never vote for anybody. I always vote against.
Children should neither be seen nor heard from...ever again.
[looking back on his life] You know, I'd like to see how I would've made out without liquor.
I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.
The only thing a lawyer won't question is the legitimacy of his mother.
Start every day with a smile, and get it over with.
I remember Shakespeare's words because he was a great writer. I can't remember Hollywood lines; just as I may well recall a wonderful meal at Delmonico's many years ago, but not the contents of the garbage pail last Tuesday at Joe's Fountain Grill.
Women are like elephants. They are interesting to look at, but I wouldn't like to own one.
[on reading the Bible] I admit I scanned it once, searching for some movie plots . . . but I found only a pack of wild lies.
A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.
Marriage is better than leprosy, because it's easier to get rid of.
There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation.
[about comedian Bert Williams] He was the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.
[on Charles Chaplin] He's the best ballet dancer in the world.
Hollywood is the gold cap on a tooth that should have been pulled out years ago.
I gargle with whiskey several times a day, and I haven't had a cold in years.
The cost of living has gone up another dollar a quart.
After two days in the hospital, I took a turn for the nurse.
The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep.
Drown in a cold vat of whiskey? Death, where is thy sting?
A man who loves whiskey and hate kids can't be all that bad.
Ah, yes, Mae West - a plumber's idea of Cleopatra...
[on the Academy Awards, 1936] It seems to me that a comedian who really makes people laugh should be as eligible for an award as a tragedian who makes people cry. This isn't a case of sour grapes with me because I didn't grow any grapes last year. I didn't even sow a wild oat.
Ah, the patter of little feet. There's nothing like having a midget for a butler.
I never drink water because if the disgusting things fish do in it.
I once spent a year in Phildelphia. I think it was a Sunday.
If you can't dazzle them with with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
If there' a will, prosperity can't be far behind.
The laziest man I ever met put popcorn in his pancakes so they would turn over by themselves.
A rich man is a poor man with money.
[on children] I'm beginning to understand those animals you read about, where the mother has got to hide the young so the father won't eat them.
Christmas at my house is always six or seven times more pleasant than everywhere else. We start drinking early. And when everyone is seeing one Santa Claus, we'll be seeing six or seven.
|The Dentist (1932)||$5,000/week|
|The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)||$20,000|
|You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)||$125,000|
|My Little Chickadee (1940)||$125,000|
|The Bank Dick (1940)||$125,000|
|Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)||$125,000|
|Follow the Boys (1944)||$15,000|
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