Forty years ago, Field’s résumé consisted merely of zany TV roles such as smiling teen surfer (Gidget) and airborne woman of the cloth (The Flying Nun). Making the transition from small to silver screen seemed about as realistic as…well, a flying nun. ”As far as film is concerned, situation comedy was nonsense,” says Field, now 60. ”It was like you were illegitimate. You were never going to cross that barrier for as long as you lived.” Field, however, broke through: Her Emmy-winning portrayal of a troubled woman in the TV miniseries Sybil led to 1979’s Norma Rae, a role which scored her an Academy Award for Best Actress. A second Oscar followed (for Places in the Heart), along with a string of box office successes such as Steel Magnolias, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Forrest Gump. In another time, that would have been a suitable coda for her career, but as the quality of television dramas has improved, many film actors — Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker, to name a couple — are bouncing freely between the mediums. No one has done it more successfully than Field, who in 2000 returned to TV with an Emmy-award-winning stint on ER. Now, with another possible Emmy nomination for her role as Nora Walker, a passive-aggressive widow with five adult children on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters (Sundays at 10 p.m.), Field looks back at an extraordinary career filled with good fortune and a few bad breaks.
Field, then 17, had just graduated from Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif., when she landed the role of perky teen surfer Frances Gidget Lawrence in ABC’s TV adaptation of the popular movie franchise.
”I was standing on a street corner in Hollywood waiting for my brother to pick me up from an acting workshop when the casting director for Screen Gems came by and asked me if I wanted to come on an interview the next day. So I went into this room with all these professional actresses. I just felt short, round, and too flat, but I also knew that I was the star of the drama club at Birmingham High. The only time I started to feel there was some reaction to the show was when we went on an 18-city press tour. I remember how a mob of girls attacked me and tried to grab my hair, so a security guard picked me up, put me over his head, and then threw me in a broom closet. I just sat there going, Okay, you’re no longer in Kansas. I started to feel it was the beginning of being a celebrity; the sort of love-hate of them wanting to touch you, yet also wanting to tear your eyes out.”
The Flying Nun
ABC canceled Gidget after one season. But after the comedy became a hit during summer repeats, the network enlisted Field to play the exuberant Sister Bertrille, a nun whose wing-shaped cornet — when coupled with strong winds — granted her the power of flight.
”I hated it. I didn’t want to do it, but my stepfather said if I turned it down I may never work again. There were parts of the show that were really cute, and I loved being with my ‘sisters’ on the series, but I was monstrously bored. Gidget, at least, had human problems; there was nothing real about The Flying Nun. The only thing worth loving was that she could fly. Bless her ever-loving, f—ing heart that she could fly! In the midst of the ’60s, when the war was happening and people were taking their clothes off, dropping acid, and changing culture in a big way, she was just out there, flying around.”
Although Field was convincing as a young sexpot in the otherwise forgettable Stay Hungry, producers were skeptical that she could reinvent herself to play a tortured grad student with multiple personalities in this ABC miniseries, especially when Vanessa Redgrave was also up for the role.
”I came in to audition as Sybil, quiet and dumpy. I didn’t look anybody in the eye, and if anybody talked to me, I’d act terribly frightened, like I was in some sort of deep emotional trouble. The role was exhausting for all the best reasons, and the reaction was simply astonishing. People were literally pulling their cars over when I was walking down the street. I was frightened at first, just like I was with those young girls who wanted to touch me and tear my hair out. But these people had tears in their eyes, thanking me.”
Smokey and the Bandit
By this time, Field was a divorced mom with two small boys when she received a call from Burt Reynolds to play the runaway bride Carrie in his campy cross-country car-chase film. It was the beginning of a five-year on- and offscreen relationship, with the actors/lovers also starring in 1978’s The End and Hooper, as well as a 1980 Bandit sequel.
”Out of the blue I get this call from Burt Reynolds, who I had never met, but he was hot stuff. This is how ridiculous he was, with all due respect. I think he wanted me literally based on Gidget — none of the movies I had done had come out yet. I read this thing they sent me and it was just dreadful. There was literally no script! Every time he called, I got farther and farther away from wanting to do it, but part of me was also like, Well, gee — Burt is the No. 1 box office star and he thinks I’m appealing. Maybe other people will think I’m appealing.”
Field won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing an Alabama textile worker who overcomes tremendous obstacles in an effort to unionize her mill.
”I was stuck for a while playing the girl in Burt’s films. And then all of a sudden I got this script sent to me from Martin Ritt, one of the best acting directors around. He had offered the role of Norma to five other women — including Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason, and Jill Clayburgh — and said the studio didn’t want me, but Marty had seen Sybil and felt I could do it. That year was so surreal for me. It started with Cannes, where they gave me a 20-minute standing ovation in the old theater, and then after that I won every single acting award possible — the New York Film Critics, the L.A. Film Critics, the Golden Globes. By the time the Oscars came, I was numb.”
Places in the Heart
Field earned her second Academy Award for playing a Depression-era widow who struggles to keep her farm afloat, but her memorable work in the film was quickly overshadowed by her infamous acceptance speech.
”The script was so exquisite. It was just an incredibly nourishing time of great work. I won many awards for that role, but not like I had won before for Norma Rae, so this Oscar was a little less expected. That was the first year where the Oscars started flashing that light at you that says Get off! Get off! I truly didn’t know that I was going to win, and felt it was bad luck to plan anything, so when I won, I said to myself, Own this one! You gave that last one away because you were so terrified you’d be bad. But then the lights started flashing, and I’m like, Oh God, I’ve said nothing, oh God, get off, but don’t get off, don’t give it away. Had I been more articulate, I could have found a profoundly poetic way of saying, ‘You like me, you like me,’ but since I was the girl who had no education, I went right to the bottom. People immediately criticized me and laughed at me. They don’t understand what it’s like to be an artist, how hard it is to grow and get better. You get the crap beaten out of you, your psyche is pulverized. The fact of the matter is, I had gotten to a place where I could say, You know what? I invite you to say what you like when you win your second Oscar, because the chances of that are slim to none.”
Having just given birth to her third son, Sam, with second husband/producer Alan Greisman (they divorced in 1994), Field relished the opportunity to play Julia Roberts’ mom in this homage to parenting and female friendship.
”We did a lot of screenings of that movie, and around the time when [Roberts’ character is buried] — either during or right after it — someone would always pass out because they were trying not to cry. It was usually a man. Women were not afraid to just go boo-hoo! But the men would hold it in and pass out. We had to have a health-care provider on call at every screening, and at almost every single one, there’d be people rushing down the aisle. It was bizarre.”
Lured to the project by the kindness of its star and the ability to bring young Sam to the set, Field agreed to play Mama Gump for next to nothing.
”I was shooting Mrs. Doubtfire at the time, and Tom Hanks called and said, ‘I have something for you to do, but hold on: You play my mother. And we don’t have any money.’ It was very rough going, but I was being a good friend. I was like, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll even put my little bit of money back into it!’ Being the complete stooge that I was.”
After Field appeared on ER the previous season as Maura Tierney’s mentally unstable mother, she teamed up with the medical show’s exec producer John Wells to star in his new ABC drama about the U.S. Supreme Court.
”This came after the [Supreme Court’s role in the] 2000 presidential election and I was outraged. I loved the idea of doing a show that would bring more information to people about our judicial system, but it was yanked off the air after three weeks. They were having a massive shake-up at ABC, The Court was a hugely expensive show, and I think they just didn’t care. We found out it was canceled by watching Entertainment Tonight. It was handled terribly, especially since we just had a call from then entertainment president Susan Lyne, who said, ‘Ooh, I’m loving it, loving everything.”’
Brothers & Sisters
ABC had already shot the pilot and picked up the freshman family drama for 13 episodes when the network tapped Field to replace Betty Buckley as matriarch Nora Walker.
”Everybody was on board already, so I could see the cast. I went, Wow — it was hard to walk away from that. Then they asked if ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson could call me. I said no because of the way The Court was handled but that he could e-mail me. He sent me the loveliest e-mail about how they’re a different group, and I have loved what ABC has done to turn themselves around. It was flattering and really kind of great, and I still have it on my bulletin board. It felt like if ABC would end up canceling us overnight, at least someone would call me this time.”