Totie Fields was a fantastically funny borscht belt comedienne who is, sadly, pretty much forgotten today. In the 1960s and 1970s she was a star of supper clubs, comedy records (remember them?), and a frequent presence on TV which, at the time, provided a large, exciting platform for comics because of the plethora of game shows and talk shows. Remember, there were only six stations on your TV, seven if you count PBS. If you were a kid growing up at that time, especially a gay Jewish kid like me, Totie was just mishpokhe—family. She was also warm, funny, and quick. My babysitter, Mrs. Betty Pealman and I, would perk up whenever our beloved Merv Griffin would announce Totie was on his show because we knew we were in for some bawdy fun. You see, Mrs. Pealman and I had exactly the same taste in TV so we got along well: The Joker’s Wild, Beat The Clock, The Hollywood Squares followed by the Merv Griffin Show, with a crappy Swanson’s TV Dinner thrown into the line-up and a make over with my mother’s cosmetics for dessert.
On TV talk shows of the period the segments were long—not like today where they break for commercials after four minutes. When the star sat on the panel they might talk for 12 or 15 minutes. Oh, and the hosts weren’t trying to be clever. Folks like Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Dinah Shore were the least self-involved interviewers ever. Even though I like many of the contemporary hosts, the thing about comics who are talk show hosts is that they’re always looking for the joke, which not only slows the interviews down, but in a subtle way makes it about them. Back in the day, Merv, Mike and the bunch were as serious as a heart attack. In fact, so much of what I know about old Hollywood is from watching those warm, expanded interviews. (I heartily recommend the Merv Griffin DVD box set for your stocking stuffers.) Then there was the friction on the panel. You never knew what would happen as people with different temperaments and sensibilities sat side by side. The shows had a spontaneity and unpredictability that has all but vanished from the genre.
Which leads me back to the great Totie Fields. Perhaps her greatest moment was the time she made mincemeat of Kiss’ Gene Simmons on the Mike Douglas show in 1974. Only during that era could you even have two disparate entities like Totie Fields and Gene Simmons inhabiting the same stage; they were simply from two totally different planets, she from the Catskills and he from Mars. Or were they? As you will see, after walking out in his over-the-top Kiss get up and doing his very best to freak out the audience with his grandstanding, tongue-wagging shtick, little Totie Fields, with an eye roll and five little words, exposed the future rock ‘n roll entrepreneur as the phony he is. It is the 1970s talk show equivalent of that scene in Raiders Of The Lost Arc when that bad guy is doing all that crazy show-offy shit with the whip and Harrison Ford finally pulls out a gun and shoots him! This is a sublime TV moment!
Later on I was both fascinated and saddened when I learned that poor Totie had a leg amputated due to diabetes. I think it was the first time I’d ever pondered what it was like to lose your leg. At least a leg that was attached to someone as thoroughly wonderful as Totie Fields. If life was fair, which it most certainly isn’t, Totie Fields would be a two-legged bazillionaire and Gene Simmons would be consigned to the discount section at Bleecker Bob’s Records. But that’s just me: a gay, Jewish boy who’s partial to funny women and makeovers.
You may also enjoy: