The image of W.C. Fields in most people's minds is a caricature: the top-hatted, hard-drinking, bulbous-nosed crook and swindler who loved to say "my little chickadee," "never give a sucker an even break" and "Godfrey Daniel," his euphemism for swearing.
But there was much more to Fields than that: Like the other great early film clowns — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy — he was a true artist.
Born William Claude Dukenfield on Jan. 29, 1880, in Philadelphia — the first child of a huckster-horse trainer and his wife — Fields took his stage name at age 17 when he performed as a juggler. Touring in burlesque and vaudeville and eventually headlining in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, he developed a number of comic routines including a golf and pool huckster and a beleaguered family man.
Fields may have had a running on-screen feud with Baby LeRoy, but the fact of the matter is he liked children. He was a soft touch with a buck when it came to friends in need. Although his screen characters liked to drink some, he never played a drunk. And despite cultivating the persona of a cynical curmudgeon, there was a definite sentimental streak running through most of his films.