Born William Claude Dukenfield, Fields ran away from home at age 11 and entered vaudeville. By age 21 he was traveling as a comedy juggling act, and in 1906 he made his Broadway debut in the musical comedy The Ham Tree, signing with impresario Flo Ziegfeld.
Like many vaudevillians, Fields worked in silent films and one-reelers, but he first hit big fame in 1923 in the Broadway musical Poppy, where he perfected his persona as an oily, failed confidence man. Fields later appeared in talking feature films and short subjects, including the 1934 gem It's a Gift, which contained his stage sketch about trying to sleep on the back porch in the midst of nagging family and noisy neighbors.
Illness, worsened by his heavy drinking, stopped Fields' film work for a time, but he made a comeback trading insults with ventriloquist's dummy Charlie McCarthy on radio in 1938. In 1940 he made My Little Chickadee with Mae West, perhaps his best-remembered role, and The Bank Dick.