Remembering Totie Fields

Totie Fields (1930-1978) occupied a perfect show biz niche. A stand-up comedian and singer, her act was basically that she was an overweight Jewish woman, which was much more of an iconoclastic thing in the 1960s when she first gained national fame than it is now. Comparisons are inevitable, hence my reference though to a “niche”. First, she seemed an heir apparent to Sophie Tucker (In the obvious way of course, as a stout Jewish comic singer with a sense of humor, but also in a more literal way. Both women were born in Hartford, Connecticut, and Totie’s real name was actually Sophie — Sophie Feldman.) Totie’s act also had a lot in common with those of Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. She liked to play the low-class housewife, and to push her appearance to garish, crass extremes. I would be astounded to learn that she wasn’t a huge influence on John Waters’ star Divine, especially in appearance, the make-up, the clothes, and so forth. Often, when looking at Divine in old movies and clips, I think of him as rocking a Totie Fields costume.

Though born in Hartford, Fields grew up in Boston, where she started singing in local clubs as a teenager. In the early ’60s she moved to New York. Everything changed when she gave a series of critically acclaimed performances at the Copacabana. This led to bookings on The Ed Sullivan Show, which led to…everything else. Mike Douglas seemed to love her the best. She appeared on his show no less than 71 times (sometimes as guest host or cohost). She also appeared on The Jerry Lewis Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Joan Rivers Show, Kraft Music Hall, The Jim Nabors Hour, The Carol Burnett Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Dinah!, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Sammy and Company, The Merv Griffin Show, and Hollywood Squares, as well as Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, and Alan King TV specials and a a Dean Martin celebrity roast of Lucille Ball.

Fields also appeared in a 1972 episode of Here’s Lucy, and this I think brings up the topic of why she isn’t better remembered today. While she was a constant presence on television, and an indefatigable live act in nightclubs in places like Las Vegas, she only took acting roles on about a half dozen occasions, in TV movies, or guest shots on dramas or sitcoms. So while she left a voluminous legacy, it’s not the sort of thing an average person tracks — you have to actively seek out her old stand-up clips. But it’s strange and sobering to live in a world where someone that prominent and widely loved has grown obscure.

The other major factor in her sad eclipse was her early death. If she’d lived longer, she might easily have gone on to some movie roles. But over the last three years of her life, she developed bonkers, tragic health problems. A long time diabetic, in 1976 a blood clot forced the amputation of her left leg. This was followed by two heart attacks. The following year brought breast cancer and a mastectomy. She lost a huge amount of weight. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be comical — like that Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s as though she were disappearing piecemeal. But through it she kept her sense of humor and she continued performing. Indeed, her health problems actually replaced the self-deprecating fat jokes as the focus of her act. But sadly in 1978, a pulmonary embolism delivered the coup de grace, and Totie Fields became an ever receding memory.

Funny to be writing this one day after No Diet Day! The reason I didn’t include Totie in my Hall of Plus-Sized Comedians is that that post is about slapstick comedy in the cinema, whereas Fields used her size as verbal material in her stand-up act. By the way: she also wrote a humor book: 1972’s I Think I’ll Start on Monday: The Official 8 1/2 Ounce Mashed Potato Diet. 

To learn more about variety enterainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous