I spent half my money on gambling, alcohol and wild women. The other half I wasted.
Born William Claude Dukenfield, W.C. Fields was raised in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family.
Fields had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic and did not progress beyond grade school. At age twelve he worked with his father, selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields's running away once again.
Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life is believed to have been reasonably happy. He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.
In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. He later said, "I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler." In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Bernhardt, first at the New York Palace and then in England in a royal performance for George V and Queen Mary. He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915.
Beginning in 1915, he appeared on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's Ziegfeld Follies revue, delighting audiences with a wild billiards skit complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots. His pool game is reproduced in part in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind in 1934. The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to many editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the 1923 Broadway musical comedy Poppy, wherein he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man. In 1928, he appeared in The Earl Carroll Vanities.
His stage costume from 1915 onward featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane. The costume had a remarkable similarity to that of the comic strip character Ally Sloper, who may have been the inspiration for Fields's costume, according to Roger Sabin. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens's Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film.
Fields appeared in thirteen feature films for Paramount Pictures, beginning with Million Dollar Legs in 1932. In that year he also was featured in a sequence in the anthology film If I Had a Million. In 1932 and 1933, Fields made four short subjects, distributed through Paramount Pictures, for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett. These shorts, adapted with few alterations from Fields's stage routines and written entirely by himself, were described by Simon Louvish as "the 'essence' of Fields". The first of them, The Dentist, is unusual in that Fields portrays an entirely unsympathetic character: he cheats at golf, assaults his caddy, and treats his patients with unbridled callousness.
Nevertheless, the popular success of his next release, International House, established him as a major star. A shaky outtake from the production, allegedly the only film record of that year's Long Beach earthquake, was later revealed to have been faked as a publicity stunt for the movie.
Fields's 1934 classic It's a Gift includes another one of his earlier stage sketches, one in which he endeavors to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch, where he is bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen. That film, like You're Telling Me! and Man on the Flying Trapeze, ended happily with a windfall profit that restored his standing in his screen families. With those screen successes, Fields in 1935 was able to achieve a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber in MGM's David Copperfield.
The strain of all this activity exacted a terrible physical toll on Fields's health. He fell ill with influenza and back trouble requiring round-the-clock nursing in late June 1935 and then was emotionally shattered by the sudden deaths of two of his closest friends, Will Rogers on August 15 and Sam Hardy on October 16. The combination of these events provoked a complete breakdown for Fields that laid him up for nine months.He was gingerly approached the next year to recreate his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures; he accepted but was very weak throughout the production and a double was often used in long shots. After filming was complete, he relapsed when he learned another close friend and screen partner, Tammany Young, had died in his sleep on April 26 at age 49. Losing three friends in less than a year sent Fields into a deep depression, plus he stopped eating, his back pain flared up, and his chronic lung congestion trouble returned with a vengeance, eventually turning into pneumonia. He would be in hospitals and sanitariums for various treatments until the summer of 1937.
In September 1937 Fields returned to Hollywood to "star" in Paramount's complicated musical variety anthology The Big Broadcast of 1938, appearing with Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, and Bob Hope. In an unusual twist, Fields plays the roles of two nearly identical brothers (T. Frothingill Bellows and S. B. Bellow), collaborating with several noted international musicians of the time, including Kirsten Flagstad (Norwegian opera soprano), Wilfred Pelletier (Canadian conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Tito Guizar (Mexican vocalist), Shep Fields (conducting his Rippling Rhythm Jazz Orchestra), and John Serry Sr. (Italian-American orchestral accordionist). The film received critical acclaim and earned an Oscar in 1939 for best music in an original song (Thanks for the Memory). Fields, however, loathed working on the film and particularly detested the director, Mitchell Leisen, who felt the same way about Fields and thought him unfunny and difficult. (The arguments between Fields and Leisen were so constant and intense during the five-month shoot that when the production concluded on November 15, 1937, Leisen went home and had a heart attack.
Bro. Fields was raised in E. C. Mitchell Lodge No. 605 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.