“I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was a Sunday.” –W. C. Field
Of the many legends of American comedy, W. C. Fields certainly held his own as a gifted comedian, actor, and writer. Executing the persona of a hard-drinking and egotistical character, he balanced his performances with sympathetic aspects to his on-screen image.
Born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, on January 29, 1880, he was raised in a working-class family. His father, James, worked as a hotel keeper and his mother, Katie, worked as a housekeeper. Due to frequent fights with his father, he would often run away from home to stay with other relatives. His schooling was infrequent, though he did work odd jobs selling produce with his father, in addition to securing jobs at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store and a staff position in an oyster house.
As a child, Dukenfield had a passion for juggling. While attending a local theater performance, he decided to perfect his juggling craft. By 17, he would be performing a juggling act at local church and theater shows as a “tramp juggler,” working under the stage name of W. C. Fields. His parents supported his goal to perform on stage. Though Fields struggled with stuttering, he did not speak onstage.
Over time, he changed his image to appear more eccentric, replicating aspects of this look in some of his eventual films. By 1900, he was regularly labeled the world’s greatest juggler. Fields discovered that adding in sarcastic comments and light comedy to his act garnered a stronger audience response, for example, when reprimanding a ball for not landing in his hand accurately.
In 1900, Fields married Harriet “Hattie” Hughes, who worked as a chorus girl. She became part of his stage act, appearing as an assistant. Hughes was a voracious reader and tutored Fields in reading and writing as they traveled, instilling a love of books and classical works in Fields. In particular, he developed a deep appreciation for the works of Charles Dickens. The couple would have a son, William Claude Fields, Jr.
By 1907, Fields and Hughes separated, though never divorced. They corresponded until his passing and Fields continued to provide for them. He would have another child, William Rexford Fields Morris, with partner Bessie Poole in 1917.
Eventually, Fields transitioned to acting and appeared in musical comedies. He toured in various vaudeville shows before making his Broadway debut in The Ham Tree. He would also appear in 1915’s Ziegfeld Follies in comedic skits dealing with pool trick shots, which would also be reproduced in his films. From then on, his stage costume regularly featured a top hat, cut-away coat, collar, and cane.
In the same year, Fields began appearing in silent films for the Gaumont Company’s Flushing, New York, studio. He would go on to work for major studios such as Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers. While other entertainers worked to integrate parts of his act into their routines in order to find similar success, Fields combatted them by registering his comedy material with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
While Fields did not drink in his juggling days to be sober and focused when performing, the loneliness of frequent travel led him to keep liquor in his dressing room as a means of inviting fellow performers to indulge and socialize with him. Alcohol became part of his image and studio publicists would further promote this connection to Fields and drink.
Fields made his impact upon comedy playing a bumbling hero in films like The Dentist (1932), David Copperfield (1935), My Little Chickadee (1940), and The Bank Dick (1940), to name a few memorable film roles.
Unfortunately, his heavy drinking lead to a decline in his health. He became chronically ill and difficult to work with until he became physically unable to work in films. Nonetheless, he remained popular as a radio personality, making frequent appearances on the air. He would eventually return to films, though would often have to fight for more autonomy in his scripts, roles, and staging.
Fields would make his final radio appearance in 1946 on the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show. He spent the last 22 months of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. He passed away on December 25, 1946, at age 66 and was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park–Glendale, California.
Today, there are various tributes to Fields and locations of relevance to him.
His family’s home in 1880 on Woodland Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, no longer stands.
At the intersection of Market St. and N. 8th St. in Philadelphia, Fields is honored with a historic marker.
In 1902, he resided at 615 Pike St. in Philadelphia with Hattie. This is the location today:
By 1910, he had separated from Hattie and lived with his parents at 3923 N. Marshall St. in Philadelphia. This is the location at present:
By 1932, Fields was living at 9950 Toluca Lake Ave. in Los Angeles, California. The original home no longer remains. This home has since replaced it:
In 1940, Fields resided at 2015 De Mille Dr. in Los Angeles. The home still remains today.
Fields also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for film and radio on the 7000 and 6300 blocks of Hollywood Blvd.
Fields’s comedy continues to be enjoyed through his lengthy filmography and many preserved radio appearances.