W.C. Fields

On this date in 1880, comedian W.C. Fields (né William Claude Dukenfield) was born in Philadelphia. His father was a Cockney immigrant and his mother a native Philadelphian. Fields dropped out after four years of schooling to work with his father, who ran a horse-drawn vegetable cart. A rough home life drove Fields away by the age of 11. He lived on the streets, was occasionally beaten up and sometimes jailed.

By 13 he had become skilled at juggling and playing pool. That year he moved to Atlantic City, where he was hired to juggle (perfecting the appearance of losing his juggling pieces) and, when business was slow, to pretend to drown for crowd amusement.

At 19 he was dubbed “The Distinguished Comedian.” By 23 he had played at Buckingham Palace in London, appearing the same evening as Sarah Bernhardt. Fields was on the program with Charles Chaplin and Maurice Chevalier at the Folies-Bergeres. Fittingly, his first movie, at age 35, was “Pool Sharks” (1915).

Fields appeared in 37 movies, including “David Copperfield” (despite his adage “Never work with animals or children”) and “My Little Chickadee” (1940). Known for his poses as a caustic curmudgeon and imbiber, Fields actually had two sons (one outside marriage who was raised by foster parents) and did not appear in public inebriated.

In 1945, crippled by arthritis and weakened by cirrhosis of the liver, he moved out of his Bel Air home into Las Encinas Sanitarium, where he died on Christmas Day 1946 of a gastric hemorrhage at age 66. His son and estranged wife contested a clause in his will leaving part of his estate to establish a “W. C. Fields College for Orphan White Boys and Girls, where no religion of any sort is to be preached.” (Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields by Simon Louvish, 1997.)

Actor Edgar Bergen, speaking at Fields’ memorial service in Forest Lawn, said: “Of the five hundred religions in the world he had his own, and he hoped his friends would understand his requests. It seems wrong not to pray for a man who gave such happiness to the world. But this is the way he wanted it.” (D. 1946)

PHOTO: Fields as Micawber in the 1935 film “David Copperfield.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation