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W.C. Fields – Bio of a Great Comedian

Posted by on Dec 10, 2013

photo14Whenever we think of famous people who smoke cigars, we immediately picture the most serious of men—Sir Winston Churchill, and why not? The man was so fond of smoking that he had actually had a type of cigar named after him, and cigars are a serious business, right? Maybe not so much!  This is the first in a series of articles to tell brief histories of famous cigar smokers whom we do not typically think of as great cigar smoking men. These men make us laugh when the universe wants us to cry. These men are the great comedians of history. The articles in this series are going to be biographical, and will not focus specifically on their lives as cigar smokers. Enjoy!

At my age, people usually think it’s strange that my favorite comedian is W.C. Fields, but I grew up watching his movies. It was stranger that he was my father’s favorite comedian considering he died in 1946—five years before he was born.

Born William Claude Dukenfield in 1880, Fields ran away from home at eleven years old and began his show business career as a juggler on the Vaudeville Circuit. His juggling skills were second to none, and he was soon billed as “the world’s greatest juggler”. Though his act was very popular, he felt it was missing something, so he began adding a bit of comedy. He would tell funny stories, and impress audiences with his unparalleled wit.

From 1916 to 1922 he starred on Broadway in the world-famous Ziegfeld Follies revues performing his highly lauded juggling routines, as well as his masterful billiards trick shots. In 1923 he starred in the musical comedy Poppy. It was while starring in Poppy that he developed his lifelong character of a sharp-witted con-man; a character that made him one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood during his era.

Beginning in the mid-1920’s, Fields starred in dozens of motion pictures. He performed juggling/balancing acts in many of his movies, which delighted fans who recalled his days on the vaudeville circuit.

Years of lonely nights away from home drove Fields to drink heavily—an aspect in his life that was highly publicized, and eventually become an extension of his character. He would always have a flask at hand during filming. He referred to this as his “pineapple juice”. Once, while on set, a prankster switched his booze for actual pineapple juice. When Fields took a drink, he spit the juice out and yelled, “Who put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?”

The character he portrayed on screen became synonymous with his off-screen persona. He was a drunk, smarter than most people in any room, a curmudgeon, told risqué jokes and one-liners, and had what could only be described as an endearing hatred for animals and children, though this is the subject of heavy debate. Many books have been written about Fields, describing him as nothing like the characters he portrayed—except, of course, for the drinking.

One story that incorporates both his drinking and his alleged hatred of children involved a movie set, and his frequent co-star, Baby Leroy, who was an actual toddler. The story goes that Baby Leroy would not stop crying on set, so Fields put gin in his bottle causing Leroy to get drunk and fall asleep.

Fields’ physical appearance changed throughout the years. When he was performing on stage, he was trim and in very athletic shape, but as his health declined he grew fat, and his nose got bigger and redder. He always wore a top hat, and carried a cane, and was rarely seen on screen or off without a cigar in hand or mouth. Images of Fields appearing this way have become iconic in the world of Hollywood and the world of comedy.

Alcoholism quickly took over Fields’ body, and he died on Christmas Day in 1946 to an alcohol related stomach hemorrhage. He was sixty-six years old. Fields’ life was documented by his long-time friend and lover, actress Carlota Monte, in the book W.C. Fields and Me. The book was made a movie in 1976 starring Rod Steiger as Fields.

Fields was a world-class performer, who brought so much joy to his fans for three decades. His popularity decreased in the years after his death, but his legend will go on forever. I truly urge you to get your hand on some of his movies, and introduce yourselves, or re-introduce yourselves to one of the world’s only true comical geniuses.

W.C. Fields Quotes:

“I’d like to see Paris before I die…Philadelphia would do”

“Whilst traveling through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days.”

“I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I’m so indebted to her for.”

“I didn’t squawk about the steak, dear. I merely said I didn’t see that old horse that used to be tethered outside here.”

Fields: Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?

Bartender: Yeah

Fields: Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind… I thought I’d lost it!

 

Amazing juggling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytgPGr6JhLo

Great diner sketch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOHGr8r5Cs4

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DK

DK is a born and raised Philadelphian. Creator of the 2gentlemenreview.com. Lover of cigars, Hamm's beer, the Flyers and Phillies. DK is an amateur Rock’N’Roll historian with a focus on early rhythm and blues and 1950’s vocal groups. When he grows up, he wants to be a writer.

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3 Comments

  1. Great job bro.

  2. Thank you, sir. Great pic! It’s a shame you’re not funny!
    BAZINGA!

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