Totie Fields was an American stand-up comedian. She was considered as one of the funniest women of Las Vegas and daytime TV shows. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, she started singing on radio at an early age. She began giving singing and stand-up comedy performances at Boston clubs from the age of 20. After her marriage, she moved to New York and performed at nightclubs. Noticing her act at ‘Copacabana,’ Ed Sullivan gave her a break on his show on the national TV. Soon Fields proceeded to have a successful career at the Las Vegas Clubs and on numerous TV shows. She used her size and weight as spoken material in her comedy act and self-deprecatory fat jokes were center of her act. With her quick wit, she always had a swift repartee ready. She worked more on TV shows and live nightclub acts, but only occasionally she took up acting roles; so, despite her popularity during her lifetime, she is not a much-remembered celebrity and has grown obscure. She was married to George Johnston and they had two daughters. Fields suffered many health issues during her last few years and died of pulmonary embolism at the age of 48.
Childhood & Early Life
Fields was born on May 7, 1930, (According to some references, it is 1927), in Hartford, Connecticut, in a family that owned a shopping center. A talented child, she began singing on the local radio stations at the age of 4. During her childhood, the family moved from Hartford to Boston area. She had a sister, Rose Youlovsky and a brother, Eddie Feldman.
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By the age of 20, Fields was singing and working in Boston clubs. She took on the name, ‘Totie,’ which was the way she pronounced her name, Sophie, when she was a child. Later, she also changed her surname from Feldman to Fields. She also began working as a tummler or a professional comedian/entertainer, who entertains the guests in between acts. In the clubs, this role was generally carried out by male, but she broke the rule to become a female tummler.
Mostly, her act centered on the fact of her being ‘an overweight Jewish woman.’ During the acts she projected herself as a garishly dressed, low-class housewife.
Fields and her husband, George Johnston, moved to Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1960s. During her two pregnancies, she put on weight and when all her attempts at dieting did not work, she began incorporating her weight and size as a source of comedy in her act. This brought her closer to her audiences.
After moving to New York, she began performing at various clubs. Her series of acts at ‘Copacabana’ New York, received critical acclaim. After watching one of these acts, Ed Sullivan booked her for his ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ She made her national TV debut on this show on which she appeared for nearly 20 times. This paved way to a career in Las Vegas clubs and other TV shows.
Soon, Fields began performing in a number of TV shows and talk shows including, ‘The Joan Rivers Show,’ ‘Kraft Music Hall,’ ‘The Jerry Lewis show,’ ‘The Jim Nabors Hour,’ ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,’ ‘The Joey Bishop Show,’ ‘Sammy and Company,’ ‘The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,’ ‘The Merv Griffin Show,’ ‘ The Carol Burnett Show,’ among others.
Fields appeared for more than 70 times on ‘The Mike Douglas Show,’ and sometimes she presented the show as a guest host. She made a guest appearance on an episode of ‘Here’s Lucy.’ She also played different characters in the TV special ‘Fol-de-Rol’ (1972).
She wrote a humor book in 1972, titled ‘I Think I’ll Start on Monday: The Official 8 ½ Ounce Mashed Potato Diet.’
Family & Personal Life
In 1950, Fields married George William Johnston Jr. He was a fellow comedian from Boston. Later, he worked only with Fields as her music director. The couple had 2 daughters, elder Jody was born in 1952 and then Debbie was born in 1955.
Final Few Years
Being a long time diabetic, Fields faced a number of health issues, especially during the last few years of her life. Reportedly, a cosmetic surgery (which was not advisable for a diabetic like her) led to further complications. In 1976, an operation to remove a blood clot failed and thus her left leg had to be amputated above knee. Before amputation, she last appeared as a guest in the CBS series ‘Medical Center.’
After amputation, Fields got an artificial leg fitted and returned to work, as she didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. During the recovery period she lost a lot of weight and also suffered 2 heart attacks. Afterwards, she appeared in the HBO series, ‘Standing Room Only’ (June 1977), where the audience mainly comprised of her celebrity friends. After her entry on a wheelchair, when she stood up, she received a loud cheering from the standing audience. Making light of her situation, she stated, “I’ve waited all my life to say this …. I weigh less than Elizabeth Taylor!” She could laugh at her own misfortunes.
A year later, in October 1977, a diagnosis of breast cancer led to the right side mastectomy. Now her humor changed its focus from her weight and size to her health issues. Yet, she continued with her work.
In 1978, the ‘American Guild of Variety Artists’ voted her ‘Entertainer of the Year’ and ‘Female Comedy Star of the Year.’
In August 1978, Fields was to have a two week long program at Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas. But on August 2, 1978, she suffered pulmonary embolism at her home and was immediately taken to ‘Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center,’ where she was soon declared as dead. Initially her ashes were kept at Las Vegas, but after her husband’s death in 1995, her remains were buried with his at ‘Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles.’