The 'Where the Heart Is' actress and two-time Oscar-winner talks about her years of TV and film acting

By Jeff Jensen
Updated September 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sally Field is hooked on Nintendo. There’s a machine piled in the corner of a den in her secluded home on a cul-de-sac in Brentwood, Calif. She shares it with her 12-year-old son, Sam. Game of choice? Zelda. ”It’s ‘The Hero’s Journey,”’ says Field, smiling, trying to rationalize her fascination with it. ”It’s this little character who goes into dungeons and finds little treasures. There’s these big, big problems you run into, and you kind of figure out how to beat them. I’ve lost days of my life playing it.” She whispers gleefully: ”Highly addictive.”

It would be wise for the Nintendo generation of teenagers who rule our pop-cult roost — the Britneys, Brandys, and Buffys — to study how Field has played this game. For very soon, they will be forced to leave their cozy nests and travel a flight path that will not treat them kindly. They will be ridiculed. Mocked. They will think they’ve reached the end, only to find that the saga bends into crueler corners still. At 53, Sally Field knows that journey. She also knows that if those teen stars are tough enough, strong enough, and smart enough, maybe they too will be liked — really liked — the way we like Sally Field, a two-time Oscar winner, a budding feature director whose first effort has just graced the Toronto Film Festival, and a mother of three who started out, remarkably, as a bikini-clad surf babe and a flying nun. Hers is the victory that millions of women have fought for, generation after generation: to be taken seriously.

The den is airy and spring-scented, illuminated by the sunshine that slips through a ceiling skylight. Sally Field sits below it on a pillow-strewn couch, dressed in jeans and a white men’s dress shirt, oversize and unbuttoned at the top and bottom. A smattering of black-and-white photographs peppers the wall — behind-the-scenes candids from a Hollywood life. Sally as Gidget. Sally as Norma Rae. Sally as Burt Reynolds’ girlfriend — there are two of those, actually. But there is only one picture of her as the Flying Nun. Her trademark features — chubby cheeks, warm brown eyes, klieg-light smile — are gathered in a dispirited pout. She’s wearing that heavy wimple with those starchy albatross wings and that wool habit — a broiling iron maiden encasing her petite, teenage body. ”HELL!” she cries, her voice leaping registers to describe just what it felt like to wear that lunatic costume. ”Absolute torture.”

Ironically, thanks to the obscure logic of television programming, Sally Field was first asked to step into that clerical garb because she had already been so winning as … Gidget, a perky beach teen. ”I was just as cute as I could possibly be. How cute is cute? Me. Soooo cute. Unbelievably cute.” She squeals, bursting into boy-crazed, beach-bunny, Gidgety cuteness. But by the time the kids started watching in numbers large enough to make Field a teen sensation, Gidget was in summer reruns, and ABC had canceled it. Recognizing its mistake, ABC wanted Field back on TV ASAP. The year was 1967, and the network had the perfect vehicle: a comedy about an aerodynamic 90-pound nun stationed in windy Puerto Rico, evading missiles and the unwanted affections of confused pelicans.