Sally Field on surviving 'The Flying Nun,' fighting for 'Lincoln' and 'spectacular human' Robin Williams

Getty Images / The Everett Collection
(Photo: Getty Images / The Everett Collection)

Sally Field does not like to look back. Or at least, she was clearly not thrilled about the prospect of doing such when we interviewed her for our career retrospective series Role Recall. Maybe she was having a bad day. Maybe she was exhausted from the rigmarole of endless junket interviews promoting her latest film, the poignant romantic drama Spoiler Alert. Maybe because, in her own words, she has “baggage.”

In any case, after making the gesture of shooting herself in the head at the outset of our sit-down, the 76-year-old screen vet begrudgingly soldiered on, revisiting highlights of a career that began in her late-teens as the star of TV’s short-lived but long-rerun surfing comedy Gidget and included two Academy Awards (for 1979’s Norma Rae and 1984’s Places in the Heart, the latter of which led to her famous, oft-wrongly-quoted “You like me!” speech). At points, she even offered generously long and thoughtful stories — about doing The Flying Nun for all the wrong reasons, about refusing to laugh at Robin Williams’s madcap improvisational detours on Mrs. Doubtfire, about the Herculean effort it took to land Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

There were other subject matters the actress didn’t want to touch. Like her late Smokey and the Bandit co-star Burt Reynolds, whom she made four movies with and dated for as many years, but didn’t talk to for the last 30 years of his life. (Field was in a much lighter mood calling Reynolds, who died in 2018, her worst kiss on Watch What Happens Live.)

Sally Field in 'Spoiler Alert' (Focus Features)
Sally Field in Spoiler Alert. (Photo: Focus Features)

Field has been busy of late, playing mother to John C. Reilly’s Lakers owner Jerry Buss in HBO’s much-hyped series Winning Time. In Spoiler Alert, she’s mom to Ben Aldridge’s Kit Cowan, a terminally ill New York photographer battling terminal cancer in a story told through the eyes of his longtime partner-turned-husband Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons). The film is based on the tearjerking memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by Ausiello, a veteran entertainment journalist-turned-author.

Here’s what Field had to say about some of the most seminal roles in her career, leading up to Spoiler Alert.

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On why she would never call her breakout role in Gidget (1965-1966) “a break”:
“What kind of break did that feel like? Jeez, I don't know. I was a 17-year-old. I had just graduated from high school. I wasn't a member of the [Screen Actors Guild]. I didn't have an agent. It was serendipitously meant to be, I guess. But I had been in the drama department in my junior high, middle school and high school... And matter of fact, I almost didn't graduate because they couldn't get me out of the drama department to go to any other classes... So I had to go to summer school to graduate, which was also fun… You don't call that a break. You call that a turn in the road. That's a fork in the road that changes your existence. That's not a break. That's literally a turn of the wheel [where you] go down a whole ‘nother road. It changes your life.”

On Gidget ending after only one season:
“In those days, television episodes were not [like today]. Something on cable will be six or 10 episodes, or on-network 21 or 22… In those days, we did 36 or 38 shows in a year. That's a lot. And so by the end of that year, which is nine, 10 months of the year, I was so overwhelmed. So by the time I knew it wasn't going to be [renewed], I should have been more heartbroken. But I wasn’t… I was then 18, just about to turn 19. I was inarticulate with my own emotional process at that time, but I think I felt the whole world was opening. And so I couldn't stand and grieve the loss of the show. I knew that there would be pieces of Gidget that would stay with me, so I hadn't lost her. But I felt like I had to take a step forward in some way. And I didn't know where.”

On making her film debut opposite screen titans Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark in the 1967 Western The Way West:
“I was raised in a working class show business family. They weren't stars. My stepfather had been a stunt man... And my mother had been a working actress doing guest spots in Bonanza one week, then Perry Mason another... It's really a hard life to live. You never know where your future is or if there will be one. And I had an agent who'd been sort of thrust at me because my stepfather knew him. And I don't think this agent really thought very much of me… I got Gidget without an agent. So I think he didn't think that he needed to care very much what happened after that... I didn't have to really audition for The Way West, which was weird. I only met with the director… I was offered the play Take Her She’s Mine [in the San Fernando Valley where I lived], but I turned that down and accepted the offer to do this film with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark. They were actors that I knew of, even though I was really young, because my mother and I used to watch old movies… I had taught myself how to departmentalize things. If I felt nervous around them or overwhelmed by their presence, I didn't allow myself to feel it. I could compartmentalize, departmentalize, whatever it is. I could put that in a little spot and try to do the work, work at that time that I didn't really know how to do. Be an actor. I didn't really know other than how to memorize the lines and thrust yourself in it. I didn't know what the craft was. So doing this film was a turning point in my life because I realized I needed to learn a craft.”

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On her reluctance to take The Flying Nun (1967-1970), and how little she enjoyed filming the show:
“[After Gidget] I was immediately offered this show and I turned it down. I was 19. I did not want to be dressed as a nun all day long, every day. It was during the sixties when my whole generation was running around naked and eating granola and God knows what… The world was protesting and fighting against [The Vietnam War]. And I was gonna be part of the establishment? I wanted to be part of my generation, although I didn't know how. I hadn't gone to college. I'd been cut off from my generation totally. And I kept turning it down and turning it down. I did not wanna do this. And my stepfather, who had been in the business and struggling in the business, came to my house and said, ‘Sally, they called me.’

"The studio had called him to talk me into it. Because Gidget had become very popular after it had gone off the regular season and gone into reruns, because now the kids could find it. They had misprogrammed it [at first]. So they wanted to put me in another show. And I didn't wanna do it. And my stepfather came and said these crucial words, he said, ‘You know what? Consider this role, because you may never work again.’ I went, ‘Oh my God, really? No one will ever ask me to do anything again?’ So I did it for all the wrong reasons. And that was that. I was scared.

"So I called them up… I went in and they'd already hired somebody else. And they fired her. I didn't know they'd hired somebody else and started to shoot the pilot. I came in and two days later began this show that ran for three years. It was certainly a turning point for a lot of reasons in my life. But not for any craft reasons… I learned survival techniques. I learned tools that were hugely helpful. I learned little exercises to keep myself from tearing my hair out because it was so boring.”

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When asked about meeting Burt Reynolds for the first time on Smokey and the Bandit (1977), and if their connection was instantaneous:
“Oh, we’re gonna do all this. Let's see, what can I say about that? Yes, of course it was. Everybody knows that. You know that. Everybody's had me talk about this ad nauseam. Yes, it absolutely was. And it's there on the screen.

“I hadn't done many films at that point. I had just done a miniseries called Sybil. And it was hard to get any of these things. It took a long time to where they would let me in the door to even audition for anything. I was persona non grata because I had come from such quintessential situation comedy… After I wrapped that, I was starting to get a reaction to it. And the thing that was coming back is ‘Yes, she can act, but she's so unattractive.’ [laughs]. And then when Burt called me, he had this film that he wanted me to do, and he hadn't sent me the screenplay yet. He said, ‘Read the screenplay, but it stinks. I just want you to know it stinks, but we're gonna fix it. We're gonna make it happen. So don't take it off the page. Just listen to my voice and if you trust me, maybe we can make this happen.’ And I thought, ‘Why is he even calling me? I mean, he hasn't seen any of my work.’ And he said, ‘I'd loved you in Gidget.’ I thought, ‘Huh, that's kind of strange.’ But yes. We instantly became what you saw. And he was right. We did invent it as we went along. It wasn’t there in the script. And we were what we were.”

On her worldview changing as she played a union organizer in Norma Rae (1979):
“It was the first film I actually starred in. I met a very key in person in my life. And that was the director, Marty Ritt. He changed my life, not only my career, but he changed me as a person because I had never been around someone who looked at the world the way he did. He looked at people struggling and put himself in their shoes, whether they were working class people or people in another country. I think by that point, I had spent so much of my life worried about putting my own feet on the ground. And by then I had two kids. And I don't think I ever looked up to look at the world and [thought], ‘People are struggling, people are hurting, people are facing massive injustice.’ I never saw it before. And Marty, who had been blacklisted, was a remarkable man with a great sense of humor. And he taught me to look outside of my own comfortable spot, however uncomfortable my spot might seem to me, it was a hell of a lot more comfortable than so many others. That really started to change me as a person.”

On bonding with her famed co-stars while filming Steel Magnolias (1989):
“It was just a wonderful gift of an opportunity. One that certainly I’ve never had since, and never will again. All of us were locked into Natchitoches, Louisiana in the full-on heat of summer. And we just loved each other tremendously. We would hang out together. We would have parties over the weekend and play games. I think what we really felt about each other, you can see on the screen. I loved all of them so much. And it was hard work. It was hot. But so much laughter and so much caring about each other. A gift.”

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On resisting the on-set shenanigans of her late Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) star Robin Williams:
“He [was a] spectacular human, even more than his humor to me was Robin himself. We shot it in San Francisco, and I was living in a house not too far from him. And he'd come over to my house and we'd play [the Nintendo game] Zelda together. It was when Zelda was newly out, and I was a Zelda freak and still am. We'd play Zelda and we would scream at each other, ‘Don't do that! You can't do that! Kill him, kill him!’ And he named his daughter Zelda [who was born already, in 1989].

“There was this thing with Robin that he always tried to make me laugh. Everybody was always breaking up in the scene, falling apart in the scene because Robin was always improvising and [saying something funny]. And people were laughing. Crew was laughing. Everyone except me. I would be like, ‘What? Just this?’ and keep going. It would drive him crazy that he couldn't break me up in the scene. I just went, ‘I'm a professional, Robin… Just keep going. If you do it, I promise you, I won't laugh.’ And I never did. And towards the end, we were finishing the last sequences, which were the last part of the picture. We were around this dinner table forever [for that scene] in a restaurant. And Pierce Brosnan made this inappropriate [fart] noise on his arm. And I fell down laughing. I mean, that was it. They had to cut for the day, practically. And Robin said, ‘Well, who knew that it was only potty humor that you were gonna laugh at?’ It was Pierce that made me laugh and broke me up, and not Robin. Robin would say that it drove him nuts that he couldn't do that. He couldn't make me laugh.”

On the massive success of Forrest Gump (1994), in which she played the mother to Tom Hanks’s iconic character:
“You never know [it’s going to be so successful]. You never know anything. You just have to do your work. You can't project yourself into the future. It puts too much weight on what you're doing. [You can’t] walk around thinking, ‘You know what? This is gonna be a big, big hit. Everybody back up.’ You just do what you can.

“I never found myself quoting the movie. Ever. Though when I got my fist email account, which was AOL… I was using something from the movie… I won't tell you what that name is, because then everybody will know I still have it.”

On getting cast by Steven Spielberg to play Mary Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012), which earned Field her third Oscar nomination, and first in 28 years:
“It’s a whole story and a half. Where [have] you been? You haven’t heard this before? I’ve told this a million times… I was at a party and Steven was there. He was doing Lincoln and he [told] me he wanted me to play Mary. I was beside myself. I was just starting to do Brothers and Sisters at the time. And then some little voice inside of me kept saying, ‘That's never gonna happen.’ Many years went on and there's so many stories of the various versions of it and various actors that were involved playing Lincoln. And they kept dropping out. And then Tony Kushner came onboard to write the screenplay. And Daniel Day-Lewis was taking on the role. And I knew it, ‘This is it Field, you're gonna be dumped.’ And sure enough, Steven called me and said, ‘I owe you this call, Sal… I just don't think you go together. I just don't think it's right.’ And I said, ‘Steven, you're wrong.’ And it was a long conversation of me saying, ‘I know everything that I am. I know the baggage I bring in. I know I'm 10 years older than Daniel. I know Mary was 10 years younger than Lincoln, but I know that I'm Mary. I know that if I thought there were somebody else that could deliver the things that need to be there, the physicality, emotionality, the weight that I'm capable of now, that I know I can do on the screen… I would say, ‘You're right. It's somebody else.’ I know the baggage I have, but I also know that you're wrong and that this is mine. And I said, ‘Steven test me.’

“We tested once and I knew it wasn't right because I tested alone…. I was talking to nobody… And he called me a few days afterwards and said, ‘I’m so sorry. It just didn't happen. It didn't seem right.’ I said, ‘OK, thank you Steven so much for giving me this opportunity. It means so much to me. Thank you for letting me fail. It's as important as anything.’ I hung up and, of course, was devastated. Then the next day Steven called me back… Daniel wants to meet me. And I went, ‘I'm there, wherever it is.’ [Steven] said, well, ‘Daniel's in Ireland. He's cocoonizing himself becoming Lincoln. How about New York? [Field was shooting Brothers & Sisters in Los Angeles, desperately trying to get written out of her scenes so she could fly to New York.] Then I found out that Daniel, bless his heart, decided that Steven wouldn't know if I was right unless he saw us together. So Daniel flew in from Ireland to Hollywood… [It] was a magical moment. At Steven's office we did like an hour-long improv. I had no idea what we did. I thanked everybody and figured I better leave quickly. And on the way home, they both called me on a conference call and said, ‘Would you be our Mary?’”

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