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.

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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.

Oprah: On the shelf in your den, I noticed the TV Guide cover with you as the Flying Nun. When you think back on those years, does it remind you of how far you've come?

Sally: That's the good news about getting older: I can see that I've traveled a long way. But I'm always torn with feeling that it isn't enough. I've had such an odd career. I always wanted to be a great actor. I wanted to be Katharine Hepburn–ish—there was a bit of nobility about her. Instead I've always felt like the mutt standing on the sidelines, panting and saying, "Me, too! How about me?" That's just part of my personality.

Oprah: You also have two Oscars on that shelf. What does that mean to you?

Sally: It means that in the 1970s and 1980s, I got to do some great work. The Oscars are really nice, but the best part is that I had the opportunity to do that kind of work.

Oprah: When I was preparing to talk to you, I didn't realize that Gidget was on for only one season. I thought that show had been part of my life for years!

Sally: When it aired in 1965, a season had 36 shows, which is huge. At 18 I didn't see how the show was perceived. I barely had all my consciousness at that point, and I never read reviews or saw ratings. I had my own TV series, yet I'd never been on a plane or even been out of the state.

Oprah: You were raised in Hollywood.

Sally: Yes, but we were working class. My stepfather—his name was Jock, which was very appropriate—was on a 1950s TV series called Yancy Derringer, mostly as a stuntman. My mother had a few roles in Bonanza and Perry Mason. It was an insecure existence; we lived in the Valley, but one day someone came and took all our stuff away, and we had to move to a tract house. My stepfather never came to grips with the idea that what you have today might not be here tomorrow.

Oprah: I've heard that your stepfather didn't treat you well.

Sally: He was a colorful character.

Oprah: Is it true that he once threw you across a yard?

Sally: Yes. He was really big and handsome—I was both terrified of him and madly in love with him. Unfortunately, that stayed with me as I grew up: I was attracted only to men I simultaneously feared and loved. My stepfather was both cruel and loving, and therefore our relationship was very confusing. I felt I was in danger all the time.

Oprah: So if he became upset, he would pick you up and throw you?

Sally: Yes, although the emotional abuse was even worse. But in some ways, he saved my life. Even though my mother is a loving person, she and my real father were extremely passive and repressed. My stepfather, on the other hand, created a situation in which my survival was dependent on getting angry. So when I was 14 or 15, I would literally stand on the coffee table to look this 65 man in the face and scream at him. During my adolescence, that was the only communication that could go on between us. I couldn't swallow my feelings, or something in me would have died. I fought for everybody else in the family, too, including my older brother.

Oprah: Was your stepfather often physically abusive?

Sally: No. There was always the threat of violence in the air, and a few times, it turned physical. I never felt safe. In high school, acting is what I did to stay sane. It wasn't about showing off; it was about revealing parts of myself that I couldn't reveal anyplace else.

Oprah: Did you think you'd pursue an acting career after high school?

Sally: I had no idea what I would do after high school. I never even took the SAT. During that era, few people had great expectations for women. I didn't even have enough sense to panic; I just put myself in a fog. I couldn't feel a lot. The only thing I knew was that I had to keep acting. I must have known that a person could go to New York to study and become a real actress, but I couldn't see that for myself. So when I graduated, I asked my stepfather if he knew where I could study. He mentioned an old lot at Columbia Pictures that was used for acting workshops at night. I borrowed $25 from my real father to pay for it; I'd never asked him for money before. My mother auditioned with me. We did a piece from the Lillian Hellman play Toys in the Attic. It must have been horrible beyond belief! But I got in—only to find, from the first day, that I didn't like the techniques being taught. Thank God I had a place inside me that knew this wasn't for me. It was a kind of arrogance, but it gave me the strength to say, "I know I can do this. I have something."

Oprah: I know what you mean. I started talking in front of people in the church when I was 3 years old, so I've always known I could do that. How did you get the role in Gidget?

Sally: After the first night of my workshop, a casting guy asked me if I had an agent. I didn't, but I still went in for an interview. The waiting room was filled with girls who looked like movie stars. They all had professional head shots; the only pictures I had were wallet photos of me with my friends. At my screen test, I walked in and said, "Which one is the camera?" The crew members were like, "Oh, boy." But the casting director said, "You're it." God was looking out for me. He thought he'd throw me in the ocean and see if I could swim.

Oprah: What was it like?

Sally: It was such bliss. I was in heaven, learning as much as I could learn. I loved, loved, loved every minute of it. On the show, Don Porter, who played my father, was this sweet, loving, gentle, generous man you wished was your father. He didn't scare you. He didn't hurt you.

Oprah: I wanted Gidget's father, too! And Ward Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver. There were so many girls like me who were enamored of Gidget. How much of you was in the character?

Sally: That character was the superficial part of me that I learned to use to protect myself. I played Gidget when I wanted to entertain people but keep some distance. When I was Gidget, no one ever really knew me. And by playing Gidget, I learned about me—about how deeply I wanted things I hadn't even let myself see.

Oprah: You began to feel. When did you know that the show had hit a nerve with the public?

Sally: When I practically got mobbed at a fashion show! I flew to San Francisco—and remember, I had never been on an airplane. Flying was different then; you had to have a travel outfit, and my mother and I wore hats with gloves. Anyway, at the fashion show, hundreds of fans showed up. When I went out to talk to them, I remember feeling so lonely for friends, for my peers.

Oprah: It's so odd to hear that. From my living room, I could only imagine the fabulous life you must have been leading, and it turns out that you were lonely.

Sally: That's my flaw. I've grown used to being lonely over the years, so I don't seek to change it. But aren't there many people who are lonely?

Oprah: I think so. "Lonely" would be the word I'd use to describe myself as a kid, but now I treasure my alone time.

Sally: I do, too. You can't get me out of my bedroom.

Oprah: So after Gidget, you came back as the Flying Nun.

Sally: Once Gidget was canceled, the producers came up with this flying nun show to get me on the air again. I didn't want to do it. I was trying to figure out who I was, but I knew who I wasn't: a flying nun. I was almost 19, and my sexuality needed to be explored. My real father was Catholic, and I had issues with all religions. So I said no, which I thought was incredibly brave. But my stepfather said, "Don't get on your high horse. If you don't take this part, you may never work again." The assumption was that I wasn't good enough. At the time, I wasn't old enough, strong enough, or sophisticated enough to tell him that he was wrong.

Oprah: That was from his viewpoint—as a stuntman who didn't have steady work.

Sally: Exactly. But I listened to him. I was so blind. It was one of the times in my life when fear made the decision for me, and when fear makes the decision, it's a mistake. That job was three long, hard years, and The Flying Nun became a huge joke. Bob Hope and all the other comics poked fun at it. I couldn't tell the difference between jokes about Sister Bertrille, my character, and jokes about me. It was deeply humiliating. I felt denigrated as a person.

Oprah: That makes me want to cry.

Sally: I'm sure it didn't seem so tragic to others; many people must have looked at my life and thought I was quite fortunate. But I felt lousy about myself—and as you now know, I didn't come from a place where I had a lot of self-confidence. And then during the show, I married Steven Craig and became pregnant. You can only imagine what a pregnant flying nun looked like.

Oprah: Of course, of course.

Sally: I was a walking sight gag. But I wasn't embarrassed by the fact that I was pregnant. In fact, something in me started to take care of myself in a way that I hadn't been able to before. I started to change and heal. I grew up and moved out of the fog. And ultimately, the experience of being on the series gave me tremendous strength. It made me want to be a real actor, no matter what. When you hold your feet to the fire long enough, you realize just how much you don't like that fire. It hurts like holy hell.

Oprah: It burns your toes! How did you break into movies?

Sally: I was persona non grata because of The Flying Nun, so I had to drop out of television for a while. In those days, TV people were not used in film. I just had to hold on to the belief that when I worked hard enough, my situation would change. I eventually got a call for Bob Rafelson's film Stay Hungry. And I'll never forget that as I was waiting to meet Rafelson, I could hear him yelling to the casting person, "Why are we wasting our time seeing her?"

Oprah: You could hear that? Ay ay ay!

Sally: It just fed my resolve. When I came in for the audition, I blew them out of the room because I was so angry. By this time, I knew where to put my anger; I knew how to focus on the work. The audition wasn't about the scene as much as it was about who I was the minute I walked in that door. I had to convince them that everything I'd done before was the acting and that in reality I was this little tart, this little nymphomaniac I was playing. That was hard, because I was really shy. But when I did my reading, I actually threw down the script and straddled Charles Gaines, the man who'd written the book and cowritten the screenplay, while I did the scene. It was intense! I'd had so many years of feeling insignificant and pushed around by men. And then to learn how to use that—to carefully, quietly, and slowly own it—it's pretty mesmerizing. After that, I was called back again and again by Rafelson. He said, "You were, without a doubt, the best one to come in, but it must be because you've had so much experience auditioning." I said, "Bob, I've auditioned only once in my life, for Gidget."

Oprah: You did a nude scene in Stay Hungry. How did you feel about that?

Sally: Mortified. But I hid myself so carefully for most of the shoot. I kept thinking that I had to pretend to be this character, because I was sure that if Rafelson found out who I really was, he would run. Still, when it came down to doing the nude scene, I couldn't hide how humiliating it was for me; I burst into tears. But I got through it, and shortly after, I auditioned for Sybil, which changed everything for me. Again, no one wanted me for that role; they wanted Vanessa Redgrave and a couple of other big names. When I showed up for the audition, I came as the character. Sybil was really reserved and frightened, never looked anyone straight in the face, so I sat in the corner as this person. The casting directors later told me they thought I was unhinged. But I knew this character belonged to me; she was too much like me.

Oprah: Which part of Sybil was like you?

Sally: I'm not a multiple personality, but I understood her. As I said before, I would go into Gidget when I needed to make people happy or make them not threatening to me or when I didn't want to be sexual. I was safe there. That's how Sybil was. I knew her so well. And believe it or not, that role led to Smokey and the Bandit. This time, Burt Reynolds called me up personally. I pretended it wasn't shocking and scary that he would call me. He said he had this movie and the script wasn't very good but that he trusted me and would make it work. Actually, there was no script; in the end, we made up half the movie. The challenge for me was that people saw Sybil and said, "Boy, she can act—but man, is she ugly!" So I thought if I did a movie with Burt and he thought I was cute, then somebody else might think I was cute and I could continue acting. It was a really hard time for women in film. There were mostly just tall, gorgeous models working, and I wasn't pretty. But by then, I was single with two kids. I had to earn a living.

Oprah: Did you and Burt become romantically involved during that time?

Sally: Yes. We were off and on, but we were together pretty solidly for three years.

Oprah: What did that relationship teach you about yourself?

Sally: Burt was very similar to my stepfather in so many ways, and with all due respect to what an interesting man Burt is, a lot of our time was about my needing to be able to walk away from that profound connection to my stepfather.

Oprah: The universe is so compassionate; it allows you to draw in what you need in order to heal yourself.

Sally: Yes—to finally choose health over neurotic behavior.

Oprah: As children we don't have that ability. We just fight our way through it. But you can't just get up and walk out without repeating the behavior over and over.

Sally: The dilemma for me now is that I have no dilemma to repeat, so I stand stationary. If I were ever to have a relationship again, I'd have no pattern to head toward.

Oprah: But you've come clean. Isn't that great?

Sally: It's daunting. It would be exciting if I let myself go there, but I don't. I feel frightened.

Oprah: Because you have no patterns to repeat? How did you reach that point, anyway? Have you learned all of life's good lessons?

Sally: I certainly haven't learned all of them; you've done that when you take your last breath. I'd say I've learned the easiest lessons, even though for me they weren't so easy. But to answer your other question, yes, it's daunting to be without patterns. Even destructive patterns are comforting in a way. It's uncomfortable to be without them. I feel like I'm falling.

Oprah: That's fascinating. After talking to you for a while, your 1985 Oscar speech for Places in the Heart, when you said, "You like me, you really like me," makes more sense.

Sally: I was trying to own that—for this one moment in time—this amazing thing was happening to me. I said, "I can't deny the fact that you like me right now, you like me!" That line has been interpreted in all sorts of ways. For me, it was about admitting that the moment was real. When you've had a career that lasts a while, the hard times impact you so greatly, especially if you allow yourself to feel them; they sock you in the stomach. The challenge is always to move forward out of them. But you do the work and your life such a terrible disservice if you aren't able to feel the good. You would never have the strength to move on to the next place unless you took a moment to stop and say, "Something good is happening here. I have been successful. I am seen and appreciated." If you're busy thinking, "Gosh, I'm not pretty or smart enough," your spirit is undernourished. So that speech was about accepting that I'd achieved what I'd always wanted—which was to do good work and to have that work be recognized. It came out the way it did because the light was flashing to signal a commercial break.

Oprah: Were you hurt when people made jokes about the speech?

Sally: I had been through so much by then that I was able to say, "Who gives a rat's hind end?" The people who stand on the sidelines and criticize aren't actually in the arena, spilling their blood. It's your courage and skill that got you there.

Oprah: It took me getting to my 50s before I could say "Whatever!" about other people's criticism, especially when it's not true.

Sally: It still hurts like hell. The minute you tell yourself, "I'm never going to feel those things again," you stop growing because you're too busy armoring yourself.

Oprah: That's right. You realize that even though it hurts, you can't sit in your house and mope about it.

Sally: Especially if you have children to feed. I had Peter, my first, at 22; Eli, my second, shortly after; and Sam when I was 40. So I had a kid in college, another at home being a rascal, and one just being born.

Oprah: You won an Emmy for your role as the mother of grown children on Brothers & Sisters. Did raising three sons influence your portrayal of Nora Walker?

Sally: In every way! God stepped in and handed me this role to work out so many things in my own life. Like turning 60: What does that mean, especially when you don't have a mate? And what does it mean to be the mother of three grown-ups? It's hard for me to tell where Nora ends and where Sally begins. Except Nora doesn't have a career, and she's a little overbearing in a way that I'm not—or at least, I think I'm not. My sons might have a different take on that.

Oprah: If your sons were with us now, what kind of mother would they say you've been?

Sally: You mean if they were going to be honest? Eli would say that I've been a good and loving mom, but that I haven't done a lot of things well. It's true; when he was grown, he told me that I didn't discipline him enough. Can you believe it? I said, "I'd like you to try to discipline the kind of boy you were. You were absolutely uncontainable!" I now see him parenting his own son, and watching your kids become parents tells you what kind of parent you might have been. You know that at least something you gave them gives them the ability to care for their own children. My oldest son is this miraculously loving parent to his two little girls. When I watch him with them, I think, "Boy, I would have liked to have had comfort like that." They won't have any trouble knowing how to love or be loved. To raise children who go on to be great parents is an accomplishment—that's the Oscar moment in life.

Oprah: That's why America has responded so well to the show.

Sally: This whole world is about family. War is really about what someone has done to hurt our families.

Oprah: Speaking of war, had you planned to say what you did in your recent Emmy speech—"If mothers ruled the world, there wouldn't be any goddamn wars in the first place"?

Sally: I didn't. I knew I wanted to say something about mothers because of my role on the show. On the series, my character's son is going to Iraq, and he has been in Afghanistan, which he is troubled by. I wanted to say that I owe this to the mothers of the world who stand and wait for their children to return from harm's way. Up until then, the ceremony had been so subdued and numbed. I thought, "We're giving each other awards while people are over there killing each other?" When I said the word "war," everybody woke up and the room erupted. My mind was scrambling: "Don't forget what you're going to say!" Then the signal for a commercial break came, and my mistake was that I added the word "God" and the word "damned" in front of the word "war." But when it comes to war, I think it's the only thing God would actually damn. I strongly believe that. To have a mother's sensibility, you don't need to be female; you don't even have to have children. You just need to have a soul that cares about the future more than you care about yourself. That's what mothering is—laying down your life for the young so they can grow up into full people.

Oprah: I never heard it put that way before. Now that your mother has moved in with you, do you feel you've come full circle as a daughter and as a mother?

Sally: Yes. My mother is older now and she really shouldn't be alone; her health isn't perfect. It's time for me to be around her in a way that I haven't been before, and I'll be grateful to have had this time. I must force myself to use it and not be annoyed when I don't want to deal with doing the daughter thing at a given moment. When I'm in the kitchen, she'll sit and watch me, and I have to stop what I'm doing and consciously remind myself to be there with her. That doesn't come naturally for me. I have to stay with her, especially through this scary health time.

Oprah: Speaking of health, you've done commercials about osteoporosis.

Sally: I have it myself. I'm trying to get the message out to women to ask for a bone density test at the same time that they go in for a Pap smear. One out of every two women over age 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture, yet people don't realize how huge a threat this is. Some women think, "Well, hell, then I won't ski or Rollerblade anymore when I get older." But when your bones lose density, they become like chalk; you can break your hip or spine simply by sitting down on a hard bench. You can fracture your back by picking up a bag of groceries.

Oprah: Throughout your career, you've always seemed to have this quality of vitality and happiness. Are you happy?

Sally: I don't know what happiness is. I have periods of feeling joyous and peaceful and excited about what I'm doing, but I am also frequently very sad. There's a great deal of longing inside me, as well as anger. Every now and then, moments of bliss come in little shots of light.

Oprah: Do you feel at ease with yourself?

Sally: Yes. In my late 50s, I began to embrace myself in a way that I hadn't been able to before. I find that I'm not as worried anymore about what other people think. That's a comfortable place to be. And I'm starting to let go of the feeling that I need to push myself to do things I don't want to do—an impulse that has always been linked to the feeling that I'm not enough. For instance, I didn't have a formal education, and I've always thought I wanted to get one. But do I really want it, or do I want to want it? I'd like to take some classes at the Omega Institute, a holistic retreat in upstate New York, but do I still really want to go to college? I don't think so.

Oprah: Do I get a vote? If so, the vote is no! Just do what stimulates you. There are no "shoulds" at this point in life. What do you know for sure, Sally?

Sally: That I'm 61, and I'm 52 [laughs]. No, really: I know that I love my family. I think that I'm a pretty good actor, and I'm sure that I love acting. My family and acting are the two things that matter most.


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