Sally Field and Oprah
She's gone from the embarrassment of Sister Bertrille ("a pregnant flying nun.... I was a walking sight gag") to the triumph of Brothers & Sisters (with a string of awards along the way). Now the amazingly resilient actress talks about growing up in the shadow of violence, using anger as a survival tool, hiding herself in Gidget, finding herself in Sybil, and how, at 61, she's finally found a measure of peace.

In the den in Sally Field's Malibu home, two Oscars, a few Emmys, and a couple of Golden Globes stand in full salute aside a framed cartoon drawing of Sally as Gidget, the 1965 TV character that launched her career. The hallways and shelves are filled with photos that span four decades of Sally's life. In one shot, she beams as her eldest son, Peter Craig, then a toddler, sits on her shoulders; another frame holds the TV Guide cover of Sally in The Flying Nun, a comedy beloved by viewers but the cause of much angst for its star. Looking at the photos, it's incredible to realize that Sally had her own TV series before she was 20 and two kids before she was 25.

For a child born in Pasadena, California, to an actress, Hollywood might not seem a large leap. Sally's success, though, was hard won. Her mother, Margaret Field, divorced Sally's father, U.S. Army captain Richard Dryden Field, when Sally was 4; Margaret then married stuntman Jock Mahoney (his stage name, changed from O'Mahoney), a volatile stepfather whom Sally feared yet whom she credits for forcing her to learn to survive. Once Sally got beyond the perky characters of her early TV career, her childhood struggles to stand up for herself became something to draw on for deeper, sometimes darker roles. She played a student with multiple personality disorder in the 1976 TV movie Sybil, a resolute union organizer in Norma Rae, for which she won her first Oscar, and a desperate Southern widow in Places in the Heart (which brought her Oscar number two). Most recently, she won an Emmy for playing the matriarch Nora Walker on ABC's Brothers & Sisters.

As her roles became more complex, so did her relationships. At 29 she divorced her high school sweetheart, Steven Craig, after seven years of marriage. She spent five on-and-off years with Burt Reynolds before marrying Alan Greisman, whom she divorced after nine years. The constants in her life have been her sons: Peter Craig, 38, a novelist; Elijah Craig, 35, an actor, writer, and director; and Samuel Greisman, 20, a sophomore in college.

Sally's house was in the path of last October's devastating California wildfires, but somehow it was spared. More than a home, it's a retreat for Sally, now 61 and single, and her mother, who lives with Sally. We share a scrumptious lunch of sirloin steak, peas, rice, and some of the finest shrimp gumbo I've ever tasted, and then talk in the upstairs master suite, an enormous haven that encompasses a bathroom, a dressing-room-size closet (with a floor-to-ceiling column of hats), an office with a writing desk, and a sitting area where Sally knits. She is incredibly honest and very different from the woman you may think she is. I leave with a feeling of gratitude for our time together, as well as a heaping helping of Sally's leftovers in Tupperware containers.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Sally Field

Note: This interview appeared in the March 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.