Honey, I didn’t lose my talent, I didn’t lose my sense of humor,” comedienne Totie Fields rasps in her famous foghorn voice. “I just lost a leg.”
Last spring she also nearly lost her life. During a touch-and-go struggle against phlebitis, her doctors were forced to amputate her left leg above the knee. Now, after almost a year’s absence, Totie Fields, 46, is back onstage—a stand-up comic once again.
On an artificial limb, aided by a cane, she opened last week at the new 3,816-seat Sunrise Musical Theatre near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Next month Totie will return to her adopted hometown, Las Vegas, for a three-week, two-shows-a-night grind at the Sahara Hotel.
“I’ve never known a fright like it,” she says of her comeback. “But I’ve never been so happy or confident.” She admits being “scared to death” at the thought of losing her balance onstage. “But,” she adds after brief reflection, “if I fall on my ass, so what? I’ll get up and do my act. We have to make the best of it, that’s all.”
She spent six months in four hospitals in New York and California and two months, mostly in bed, at her home in Los Angeles. Her 4’10” frame dropped from 190 pounds to 120. “The pain was so bad they had me on every kind of dope,” she recalls. Continual transfusions damaged the nerves in her hands, and “my most exciting moment was when I could unscrew the cap on the toothpaste all by myself.
“My sense of humor got me through,” Totie says. “Everything struck me funny, things that some people cry over.” She laughed when her new leg squeaked and had to be oiled, again on Valentine’s Day when her husband, George Johnston, fastened a gold charm to it engraved “Badleg” (“so I’d know which one was the phony”). “I never had good legs anyway,” she cracks. “You never heard people say, ‘Geez, what a pair of gams that Totie Fields has.’ ”
Born Sophie Feldman, daughter of a shopping center owner in Hartford, Conn., Totie (“That’s the way I pronounced ‘Sophie’ as a child”) was singing on local radio at 4. She toured the Borscht Belt at 14 and worked as an all-purpose tummler in Boston strip joints before she was 20.
She married George (then a fellow comic, now her music director) during those Boston years. She became the mother of two daughters—Jody, 25, a teacher at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Debbie, 22, an artist in Los Angeles. Totie also got fat. She tried dieting, then settled for making her size the subject of her jokes. “The only way to lose weight, really,” she now concludes, “is to have someone put you in a bed where you can’t get to the refrigerator.”
Even during her darkest moments last year, Totie resisted the blues. “I never thought I wouldn’t work again—and I never, ever thought I would die,” she says. Just five days after the operation, she dreamed of her comeback before a wildly cheering audience—and then fell out of the hospital bed. “It set back my recovery, but, ahh, that applause,” she says, still savoring her dream. “It was divine.”