00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: One of the first things Sally Field ever performed in front of an audience was a scene from Romeo and Juliet that she’d practiced with her mom. She was 13.
00:00:10 SALLY FIELD: And I was truly — I must have been dreadful. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was so seminal, so incredibly important because I had this magical thing happen to me. I had no idea where I was going, and I didn’t know how it arrived, but I had this glorious out-of-body experience. I was on stage saying words that I really didn’t quite understand.
00:00:40 I had no idea of what a technique was or anything, and I simply floated away. I didn’t exist. There was no Sally, little 13-year-old Sally, on stage. There were hands and feet and a mouth working and saying things, but they weren’t mine. And it is this blissful, glorious high that I had early on in my life. And it is what has taught me and guided me forever because when I lost sight of what on God’s green earth was I doing here, why was I doing this, why was I beating myself up? —
00:01:17 I remembered that moment, and my whole life has been trying to understand how to get back there.
00:01:24 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. On this episode, we’ve got a stunning, intimate interview with actor Sally Field. Some of her stories are painful, but in the end, they are a testament to endurance and reinvention.
00:01:44 ALICE WINKLER: I’m Alice Winkler.
00:01:46 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.
00:01:52 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.
00:01:58 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.
00:02:03 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.
00:02:11 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”
00:02:18 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.
00:02:23 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.
00:02:34 MUSIC: GIDGET SOUNDTRACK
00:02:36 ALICE WINKLER: If you’re in your 60s, you might first picture Gidget when you hear Sally Field’s name. That’s the silly, surfing teenager she played on TV when she was, herself, still a teen.
00:02:48 GIDGET: Through this door passes the most miserable girl in the world, me, Gidget, and all because of having to take a miserable foreign language, English.
00:02:59 ALICE WINKLER: If you’re in your 50s, your go-to Sally Field image is probably Sister Bertrille, better known as the Flying Nun, another kooky, adorable character, but this one able to soar through the air in a habit for some inexplicable reason.
00:03:16 SISTER BERTRILLE: We have a used clothes drive to worry about. And I'm going to start right now by going upstairs and packing up my old habit and cornette.
00:03:29 ALICE WINKLER: Those of you in your 40s, how about Edna Spalding, the widow farmer from Places in the Heart — or the mighty Norma Rae, working class hero.
00:03:39 NORMA RAE: I'm going to get fired.
00:03:41 REUBEN: I'll run your benefit.
00:03:41 NORMA RAE: Oh, thanks a lot. I’ve got three kids, a drawer full of bills, and a husband who doesn't like what I'm doing.
00:03:47 ALICE WINKLER: You 30-year-olds, Sally Field probably entered your life as the ex-wife in Mrs. Doubtfire or Forrest Gump’s mother.
00:03:56 MRS. GUMP: I happen to believe you make your own destiny. You have to do the best with what God gave you.
00:04:05 FORREST GUMP: What's my destiny, Momma?
00:04:09 MRS. GUMP: You're going to have to figure that out for yourself. Life is a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you're going to get.
00:04:19 ALICE WINKLER: And finally, you tender young 20-somethings, your first glimpse might have come watching ER when Sally Field played the bipolar mother of Dr. Abby Lockhart; or maybe it was Brothers & Sisters, where she was the Walker Family matriarch; or might have been the movie Lincoln, where she embodied Mary Todd Lincoln.
00:04:40 MARY TODD LINCOLN: You think I'm ignorant of what you're up to because you haven't discussed this scheme with me as you ought to have done? When have I ever been so easily bamboozled? I believe you when you insist that amending the Constitution and abolishing slavery will end this war. And since you are sending my son into the war, woe unto you if you fail to pass the amendment.
00:05:00 ALICE WINKLER: Okay, I think you get my point. Sally Field has thrived in television and movies and theater for five decades. It has been both a marathon and a sprint. As I write this, Sally Field is 70 and starring on Broadway in The Glass Menagerie. It is literally a dream-come-true for her, but as she told a crowd of students at the 2008 Academy of Achievement Summit, there were many times the end of her career seemed at hand. Here’s an excerpt from that talk.
00:05:34 SALLY FIELD: I have two things that are hanging in my office that I’ve had there a very long time. One of them is a quote and one of them is a cartoon. The quote is by the fabulous Agnes de Mille, and it is: "Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess, we may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark."
00:06:07 And the cartoon that I have right next to it is a cartoon of this man standing with his face pressed up against two bars of his prison, and he’s longingly looking out of his prison, wishing he were free, but he doesn’t turn to look that there are no other bars on his prison, only the ones that he has his face pressed against. I have survived for almost 45 years in a business that has no tenure. I have learned how to survive, and probably more than that, because I’ve learned that the struggle is where the work is, the struggle is the work.
00:06:56 I have learned to understand that, and I’ve learned to recognize transition, which was the very hardest thing to do. When I first started, it was in the '60s in situation comedy television. I did a television series called The Flying Nun, and if you don’t think it wasn’t hard to transition from that to being a serious actor, I’ve got news for you.
00:07:18 It was also at a time when, believe me, situation comedy and television actors were not accepted in mainstream film. You were just not accepted. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pass the audition. It was that I couldn’t get in the door, and I knew that it was up to me, that if I wasn’t where I wanted to be, it was because simply I wasn’t good enough. And I had to get better, and I did. I worked at it. I studied and I studied and I studied, and a moment happened, and I can’t say it was really an opportunity as much as it was, “Get out of my way, folks, here I come,” and I got a role.
00:07:54 I have learned not to panic at not knowing. I've learned how to fall and just fall. I have learned to let go of my own image of myself. This is so incredibly difficult, especially when you’re working on such a grand scale as the public arena — any of us who do that. And the public forms an image of you, and you form an image of yourself. And you will have an image of yourselves — everyone does. But to be able to lose that image and to recreate another one or to allow yourself to exist without an image at all for a while, to allow yourself to leave off the thought of being an achiever, of being successful, of being good — just let it go until something else forms, and the longer you leave it off, the better.
00:08:52 I have transitioned from television — in a very difficult struggle — to film. And when I was in film doing movies, I was proud of — there I was — I had worked so hard to be there, and the films weren’t there. There were no films for women. I had to transition again. I was given the opportunity to develop and produce my own film, something I knew nothing about and had absolutely no desire to do, but I had to do it. I’ve produced five of my own and directed two, something I was never really sure I was very good at, but I transitioned.
00:09:27 And then, as my career went on, I realized now I was getting older, and I was in an industry that wants nothing whatsoever to do with older women. So what was I to do now? I was to transition, yet again, onto the stage, probably the most profound learning experience of my life, as I stood backstage at the Golden Theatre, waiting to go onstage in Edward Albee’s wonderful play The Goat. Standing there, feeling the weight of Mr. Albee’s gorgeous words and my own history, I felt myself sinking to the bottom of this dark, black abyss.
00:10:08 My first instinct was to quickly struggle to the top. I needed to breathe. “Help! Get me to the top!” But I knew then not to panic. I allowed myself to sink to this unknown darkness and to let go. I would just rely on and have the confidence that somewhere inside of me I knew things.
00:10:29 MUSIC: I NEVER THANKED YOU
00:10:38 ALICE WINKLER: Sally Field, still today, looks remarkably like that same girl who played Gidget on TV in 1965, but she is not the same. Her struggles and her victories have made her a philosophical and very mindful veteran actress. After delivering those remarks to students back in 2008, she sat down to talk to journalist Gail Eichenthal for the Academy of Achievement, and they covered a lot of ground, starting all the way back with Sally Field’s parents.
00:11:09 SALLY FIELD: I come from a real working-class acting family. It’s not a glamorous life. My stepfather whom I grew up with was a stuntman/actor but basically a stuntman. My mother, interesting, would one week go to work on Bonanza, and then not work for a few weeks, and then get a job on Perry Mason, and then not work for a while, and then get another job on another television series. So it was really the typical, dangerous working-class actress life, in that you never knew if you were going to have an income.
00:11:50 It's a very difficult life; it's so incredibly insecure. And when I grew up, twice we had all our things in our house repossessed, and it was extremely influential to me to live in a house one day and then not the next.
00:12:08 ALICE WINKLER: And yet, her mother did not try to dissuade her from going into acting.
00:12:13 SALLY FIELD: No. No, my mother certainly didn’t. My mother, from the time I was little, even before she married my stepfather, my mother was under contract to Paramount. She was in the days when they had contract players. She was spotted in the Pasadena Playhouse because she was incredibly beautiful, and then she studied with Charles Laughton. And she always had a great, deep love of the craft of acting because she sat in a small classroom with Charles Laughton and watched him perform all the time, and he was a phenomenal actor.
00:12:50 So I grew up with her loving the classics, reading Chekhov and Shakespeare and loving the real art of what acting is. And acting is storytelling, and it is a very interesting profession because when — if you study and you have a lot of techniques, you learn to step in someone else’s shoes; part of those shoes are created by history. You do research on who this person might have been.
00:13:23 You use the text of the writer who has written it, but you really instill it with your own life. You find parts of yourself that actually link with that human being, even though they may be so — on the page — I'm — "How am I going to do this? There’s no way I can relate to this person." And it transforms you, as a person, to stand in those shoes, because you realize how you are linked to everyone — profoundly, deeply, emotionally linked.
00:14:01 And I have been changed by the strong roles I’ve gotten to play of Norma Rae or Sybil and others, and I go away not the same. And it has made me wonder, “Was John Wayne John Wayne before he played those roles, or did Red River change John Wayne and help him to develop to be the person that he became as a human being?” I think it has to go hand-in-hand.
00:14:36 ALICE WINKLER: Acting started to change Sally Field from the beginning, which, for her, meant high school. Once she discovered the drama department, she practically started living there, she says, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.
00:14:50 SALLY FIELD: I was uneducated, basically, completely and utterly and totally uneducated. I barely went to classes. I only went to the drama classes. I wasn’t really encouraged in my home, as a female growing up in the '50s, to be educated. It was a real lack. My mother did a lot of great things, but she wasn’t educated, so she didn’t know how to support that — and my brother, who became an elemental particle physicist, one of the finest physicists in the world, and I never went to college.
00:15:24 And it really is, in a lot of ways, indicative of what our society was then, and I survived, and I taught myself. But deeply, as a 61-year-old woman — and my sons would be here in the room going "Oy yoy! Here she goes" — I have been possessed with this longing to have an education, a formal, sit-in-the-classroom, write-the-paper, turn-it-in, get-a-B, wish-for-an-A kind of education.
00:16:00 ALICE WINKLER: Her career took off so swiftly, though, that it was a long while before she had that revelation.
00:16:07 SALLY FIELD: I had just graduated. It was that summer of 1964. I had just graduated from high school, and no, my parents didn’t say, "Sal, maybe you ought to be taking SATs and going to college." I had never been out of the state. I had never been on an airplane. I was so incredibly naive and unsophisticated; didn’t know that what I really wanted was to go to New York and study acting; didn’t know that it really existed.
00:16:35 I knew New York was there, but I didn’t know about the actor’s studio. Even though my mother loved acting, she — that’s a whole other story. She sort of was so focused on being married to whom she was married to, she lost a lot of her own voice, I think is the truth.
00:16:51 ALICE WINKLER: Sally Field’s stepfather was a famous Hollywood stuntman, a larger-than-life figure who had a lot of magnetism, but, in her words, he terrorized the family.
00:17:04 SALLY FIELD: I think, in my now 60-some-odd years, he has been the biggest source of conflict, as a person, in my life, in trying to sort out really what my feelings were. He destroyed a lot of good things about his children — his stepchildren and his own children — but oddly enough, I think that I owe a great deal to how difficult he was.
00:17:38 He was — boy, it’s like almost impossible to say right here. He was very aggressive, could be incredibly tyrannical, but I think, as a child, his biggest — the most damaging part of him is that he loved to humiliate. He loved to pick you apart and deeply humiliate you. I think he thought he was parenting.
00:18:13 I’m not really sure, but I — for instance, I remember him telling me — I was the one that stood up. I was the one that wouldn’t take it. I was the one that fought for my brother, for whatever reason, and he — then I became — for other reasons that will go in the book, I became a focus of his tyranny, and I was terrified. I was terrified all the time. I was terrified asleep. I was terrified awake. I was terrified, terrified, just terrified that I would be forced to fight.
00:18:53 And yet something in me wouldn’t be quieted, and I remember him saying to me things, like, when I was 15, maybe, him rising up and being very — he was huge. He was a very big man, almost 6'5", and a — very handsome and charismatic, in his way — probably one of the finest stuntmen that ever lived. He would say to me, this little 15-year-old girl — pointing at me in this big, threatening fashion — that he had this magic, this magic to identify everyone’s Achilles heel, and I was like, "Wow, what is that?"
00:19:33 And that is to identify where it is you had this deep flaw. And if he were able to tell you what that deep personal flaw was, it would destroy you because you wouldn’t be able to handle that truth. And I remember sitting there, hearing that at 15, going, "Bullshit." Part of me when — first of all, I’m not going to believe that. Second of all, could it possibly be true?
00:20:04 Could there be something about me that I don’t see; that’s so horrifying that I don’t want to know; that if he told me, it would destroy me. And I think what it did is it made it so that every flaw that I had, every weakness I had, every part of me that I didn’t want to see, it was going to be what I rode in with first. No one was going to be able to say anything to me that I didn’t already know and accept about myself.
00:20:32 So I think a lot of the things that were damaging to, maybe, my brother, ultimately turned out, for me, to be the fight, a part of me that just simply wouldn’t sit still. And even to this day I have to watch myself. If someone says something that triggers me, I’ll come flaring up in this way that I don’t want to be that person. That’s not what I want to be, but it triggers this old language that I had, and I have used it in my acting.
00:21:05 It is my anger, my fury, my deep resentment at being manipulated like that. I have learned to own it, to use it to propel me.
00:21:18 ALICE WINKLER: Back as a child, though, still living under her stepfather’s roof, she was purely in survival mode, doing her best to protect herself and her older brother, whom she worshipped. Luckily, at 17, she got the chance to try out for a really big role on television, and with it would come the financial independence she’d need to leave home, but at the time, it didn’t seem likely she’d get the part.
00:21:45 SALLY FIELD: I went on the audition. I’d never been — I didn’t know what to do. Completely naive. All these other girls had eight-by-ten glossies and agents. I had a wallet full of pictures of my friends —
00:21:58 I came back. I came back. I came back. I came back. I came back. I came back, which seemed like forever, and at the end of the summer, I was doing a television series called Gidget. Yeah, and I was 17.
00:22:12 MUSIC: GIDGET
00:22:13 SALLY FIELD: So, bam, just into it, just flop into the world.
00:22:19 MUSIC: GIDGET
00:22:40 ALICE WINKLER: She was able to move out on her own and was having fun playing this super cute character, and somehow, naively, not thinking about the fact that millions of people were watching her.
00:22:53 SALLY FIELD: I didn’t ever think of that. I’m sure she was an icon to me, but I think the most important thing in Gidget is that she had a father. And I think it was this really turning point for me because it — I got to play a girl who had a father, and I didn’t have one. And it was Don Porter, who was the most lovely, lovely, lovely, loving man, and he was so terribly supportive to me in my awkwardness, in my newness. And I didn’t read very well because, I realize now, I am, like, slightly dyslexic, in a way, when I — especially when I get nervous.
00:23:32 And we would do readings once a week for a while, when we had time, of the script. We’d sit down and do a reading, and I didn’t know a lot of the words, and I was so unsophisticated. I did — and I remember, to this day, some of the words I stumbled on, like “mundane” — I didn’t know what that word was — and “symbiotic.” I didn’t know what it was, and everybody got such a big kick out of me because I was 17 and sort of out there, and when they laughed, it deeply affected me because I was so used to humiliation.
00:24:06 It was what I lived with, the threat that humiliation would come toward me in the form of my stepfather. So when we’d sit at the table and they’d laugh, I would — it would be my trigger. I’d be like, "Oh, my God," and he somehow — he couldn’t have known, but he would sit next to me, and he would whisper the word to me before a word would come up. It could be something simple. It could be, like, he would whisper to me. It was truly one of the most loving things from a man that had happened to me.
00:24:38 RUSSELL: Gidge, I'll answer that question with another. You know what a paradox is?
00:24:44 GIDGET: Um, isn't it a statement that kind of contradicts itself?
00:24:48 RUSSELL: Mm-hmm. That's right. So maybe you'll understand when I tell you that I love you so much, I'd do anything in the world for you, but because I do love you that much, I will not intercede between you and Hardy.
00:25:02 ALICE WINKLER: Sally Field’s next role — one that would come to haunt her and threaten to cage in her career for years — was The Flying Nun. But it, too, came with lessons that she carries with her to this day.
00:25:15 SALLY FIELD: Well, that’s an interesting journey. I didn’t want to do it. Gidget had stopped, sort of prematurely, oddly, and I didn’t have enough connection with my own voice to know that I needed to go and study and become what I wanted to become. I didn’t know how to do that yet. I was 19, not quite — yeah, almost 19, somewhere in there, 19. And I kept turning it down. I didn’t want to be a nun. I was a burgeoning young woman.
00:25:48 It was the '60s. Everyone was running around naked and eating granola, and I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t want to be a nun, at all. I didn’t want to be this silly thing, and again, it’s such an interesting thing. I turned it down. It took great strength. I was already living on my own in an apartment by myself down the road, not that far away, and I said, "No, no. I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that."
00:26:12 You know, how very brave of me. I’m going to find something else I want to do. And my stepfather came over to my apartment one time and told me — and I subsequently realized it was because the producer, Harry Ackerman, had called him to do it, so I felt betrayed, ultimately. He’d said that I should do it because I may never work again. And I mean those were like — I didn’t know it then. I should’ve burst out laughing because that’s, like, the cliché in the town, you know.
00:26:40 Like “Shall we lunch?” you know. It’s, like, a cliché, you know. "You’ll never work again." But I was too young to know that I should’ve laughed. Instead, I got scared, and I thought, "God, really?" And I called them up and said, "I guess I should do this," and they were already filming a pilot with somebody else, and they fired her, and they put me in the next day, and there it was, and I was really unhappy for all three years that I did it because a part of me knew I had listened to a voice of fear that I — it changed my life.
00:27:19 It changed my life. That I knew then that that voice of fear was something that I must never listen to — fear of that. I must go to what desperately frightens me — what desperately frightens me is the chance of failure, is the chance of not knowing. But not going to what is safe, and that’s what my stepfather had urged me to do, and I tried to learn that. You know, ultimately you look at these things. You look at these paths and these journeys you go on, and I think it’s up to you to find value in them because there is value in all of them, even those that you would call, “God, I shouldn’t have done that.”
00:28:02 I should’ve done that. I needed to do that. I did that, and I was there for three years, and it was an invaluable education. It was not a very glamorous one. It was a successful one in that the show was successful for three years. It would’ve gone on had I not begun to drag my feet so terribly and, you know, every night wish it ill, but what it did for me is that I met Madeleine Sherwood, who was the actress who played Mother Superior, and I was so desperately unhappy.
00:28:30 She said, "Come with me," and at the end of the first year of The Flying Nun, she took me to the Actors Studio to meet Lee Strasberg, and that was a monumental change in my life. And from then on, I would work in the daytime, doing The Flying Nun; and at night, I would be at the Actors Studio in L.A. because Lee Strasberg would be — six months out of the year, in L.A. — and I would be doing just outrageous material that I still didn’t quite understand.
00:28:57 I was doing, you know, Sartre's Respectful Prostitute or whatever I could do that I thought was completely outside of what The Flying Nun was. But ultimately, I worked with Lee for — on and off for about ten years, and ultimately, I learned a craft. I learned to hear my voice of what I really wanted to do, and finally, when I was given the opportunity to do the work, I really knew how to do it.
00:29:27 ALICE WINKLER: Lee Strasberg, just to fill in here, was the man who revolutionized acting in America. He trained generations at the Actors Studio in what was simply called the Method, but even though Sally Field was working double-time to study with Strasberg, she was stuck in what then was a huge chasm between television actors and film actors.
00:29:51 SALLY FIELD: I mean television was thought of — you know, the poor relation to film, and there is still a little of that. There’s still a little of that. It’s a little snobbery, a class system that existed, but in 1960, you know — late '60s, early '70s — it was impossible, especially if you came from something called The Flying Nun. It was impossible to make that transition. It just couldn’t be done. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get the part — I couldn’t get in the door. I couldn’t get on the list, most especially because I was the Flying Nun.
00:30:26 And it was an important journey to change that, and it took — it made me learn some really valuable lessons, and that is that if I wasn’t where I wanted to be, it was because I wasn’t good enough, period. Period. It wasn’t because they weren’t letting me in the door. It wasn’t because they were against me, or they thought I was something else, or they-they—they. It was simply because I wasn’t good enough.
00:31:02 That the minute I gave my power away to them, I was lost, and I didn’t try to get in the door. I didn’t try. You know, I barely had an agent who cared whether I lived or died, and what was bizarre is that that’s how it happened. That I worked so hard at the Actors Studio that I started to get this kind of little underground reputation. It was also during this incredible time in American film, in the '70s, when American film was changing, and at the Actors Studio were Ellen Burstyn and Jack Nicholson, and things were changing.
00:31:36 And I got in on an audition, not because of my agent, but because of someone who had worked with me at the Actors Studio and told someone that people thought they knew who I was, but I wasn’t that. And I came in on the audition, and by then I knew how to audition. I knew that I couldn’t come in as Sally Field, this still rather unsophisticated person. I had to come in as the character, and it was for a film called Stay Hungry.
00:32:09 Bob Rafelson, a wonderful director — certainly a really important time in American film — and I had to come and convince him that I was this absolute floozy, this tart, this sleep-around kind of girl — uneducated, Southern, sleep-around little floozy girl. And I was uneducated, but I wasn’t any of the other things, but I knew how to be that. I knew how to play the role, and I also knew that an audition starts from the moment I started to get dressed and leave the house, and that the acting had to be that he had to then believe that everything else I’d done to that point, Gidget and The Flying Nun, was an incredible acting job when, really, I was just this absolute tart.
00:32:54 And that’s what I did, and he tried to not give me — he did everything he could do to not hire me. I heard him yelling at the casting person — I heard him yelling at her and saying, "Why would you waste my time? This is Sally Field. What are you thinking?" And, of course, by then I had had Lee Strasburg in my life, who was one of my important mentors, a phenomenal teacher, a really important and phenomenal teacher who taught me how to use that in a way that wasn’t going to get in my way, that it actually — it was fuel.
00:33:38 And it was like, “Open the door and watch out,” and I knew how to do it, and I did.
00:33:48 ALICE WINKLER: Bob Rafelson, who had directed the iconic Jack Nicholson film Five Easy Pieces, hired her, after all. It was 1976, and it was her first substantial role since The Flying Nun had gone off the air six years earlier.
00:34:04 SALLY FIELD: He did. He did. I mean it wasn’t easy. I had to test and test and test and test and test and test, and he called everyone he knew, saying, "Could this be..." And he would say just outrageous things to me. He would call me and say, "You can’t possibly be the best one. You read best, but it must be because you’ve auditioned more than anyone else." I said, "This is the second audition I’ve ever been on in my life; first one was for Gidget." And bless his heart, Bob Rafelson, he had the guts to do it.
00:34:35 ALICE WINKLER: After the filming was done, the casting director for Stay Hungry called to say she had another interesting project, and she wanted Sally Field to audition for it. It was Sybil, about a girl with multiple personality disorder or what we now call Dissociative Identity Disorder. Sally Field happened to be reading the book at the time that the TV miniseries would be based on.
00:35:01 SALLY FIELD: I knew in my heart that it was mine. I knew that I was the girl to play it. For so many reasons, I linked with her, even just physically, because I have a childlike quality that I have fought against all my life, but there it is, and because of some troubled things in my life. I knew that this had to be mine, and again, it was this amazing battle to get the role.
00:35:28 ALICE WINKLER: Stay Hungry hadn’t come out yet, so she was still plagued by the curse of The Flying Nun.
00:35:34 SALLY FIELD: And all these wonderful actresses wanted to do this role. I mean Vanessa Redgrave wanted to do this. I mean this was like — and here was little me! But again, I just, you know, knew this was mine. I came in as Sybil, which was difficult because I wasn’t sure which one of the Sybils I was going to be, but I came in on the audition as the Sybil herself — the core Sybil that is without people, that is just vapid, you know, a vacant soul that’s frightened of people, that can barely look up, that’s dour and dirty and cannot deal with mankind because all of her gifts and all of her colors are somewhere else with other voices that will be revealed.
00:36:24 I decided to come in as her, and people were like, "Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness, this is very — I mean we had no idea that Sally Field was so terribly drab and depressed. I mean, what is the deal?" And they kept saying, "This can’t be true. She can’t be the one. It can’t be her," but some — a magical thing happened and that was that I had the opportunity to do a test with Joanne Woodward.
00:36:49 And I love — again, it was this — one of these moments in my life where I instantly fell in love with someone. Like Don Porter, she opened her heart and her arms, and I hadn’t met her, and I did one of the scenes with her that one of the characters was emotional and carrying on and crying. And I remember kneeling on the ground, and I laid my head in her lap and sobbed, and she picked my face up, and I took her sweater and wiped my nose on her sweater, the snot off the thing, and it wasn't a pause of, "What are you doing?" It was this enveloping — she enveloped me.
00:37:34 I remember this sort of magic at the heat of that moment, and, you know, they cut the audition, and I remember the quietness of the room, and Joanne and I looked at each other. And when I left the room, Joanne said, "Don’t even dare think of someone else. That is Sybil."
00:37:53 MUSIC: IT GOES LIKE IT GOES (NORMA RAE)
00:38:00 SALLY FIELD: It was a huge turning point in my career, but most especially because it was the first time I really got to do my work. It was the first time I got to do what I had studied so long to do and what I was so sure I could do. And it is the time that I learned how you throw yourself so deeply in your work that it doesn’t matter if you ever come back and that it’s more important that you be gone.
00:38:28 And I was gone. And many times I would have to call my mother to come pick me up and take me home, that people would — you know, they would be worried about me — and how would I get out of there, the day’s work? It was Joanne Woodward, and it was Dan Petrie, the director.
00:38:45 ALICE WINKLER: And it was work that would win her her first award, the Emmy for Best Actress. Next would come a series of films with megastar and sex symbol Burt Reynolds. Their on-camera romance became an off-camera romance for a number of years, and Sally Field had her moment in the tabloids, but next came an extraordinary role in an extraordinary movie, and again, the course of her life changed direction.
00:39:13 NORMA RAE: Now, I'll do it, but I don't need your boot on my backside, Mr. Warshawsky.
00:39:16 REUBEN: Goddamn sludge has been sitting around here for three days!
00:39:18 NORMA RAE: Reuben, I'm going to tell you something!
00:39:20 REUBEN: What are you going to tell me, Norma?
00:39:21 NORMA RAE: You've been away from home a long time. You've been all business, and you're getting crabby. Reuben, you need yourself a woman.
00:39:28 ALICE WINKLER: Here's how her role in Norma Rae came about. Sally Field was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, working on one of the Burt Reynolds movies, when she got a call from Marty Ritt, who she considered to be one of the world's greatest directors. He’d done The Long, Hot Summer, Hud, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Great White Hope, and Sounder, among others, and he was calling to offer her the role of Norma Rae.
00:39:54 SALLY FIELD: I mean they were offering me a role. Offering me a role? And it wasn’t an ordinary event. I hadn’t read the script. I said, "Okay, I’ll come home." I got to go home for two days. I hadn’t read the script, and my mother — I got home, and my mother was there with my two sons while I was, you know, three weeks in Alabama, or wherever the heck it was I was. And so I’m dashing about, trying to get ready, not knowing what character to play as I go in.
00:40:24 I know I have to be the character, but I don’t know what the character is, so I just decided to go in in beige. I remember: "I’ll just be beige. I won’t be anything. I’ll just be nothing." And my mother, sort of screaming to me that she read the script, and it’s about this, like, Southern girl, works in a mill. Huh? What kind of mill? So I went to meet Marty Ritt, and I hadn’t even read the script. I was just trying to fake it, but Marty Ritt was Marty Ritt, and he was maybe more influential even than Lee Strasberg.
00:40:58 He was a very, very important person in my life. As a person, he taught me who I wanted to be, and as an actor, he took me on a journey. He complicated my work in ways that I hadn’t done, and more than anything else, I think he applauded me, and I don’t know that I heard that kind of respect that I had worked for so hard from anyone as I did from him.
00:41:36 He would watch me do my work as I created a character, and he directed me in the most subtle of ways to complicate things. He would add things. In acting terms, he kept throwing balls at me to see how many I could keep in the air, how many things I could do at the same time, and it was this love affair of the father I didn’t have, really, the real father. I mean what you want a father to be is someone to be a taskmaster, in a way, but to teach you in the most loving — but he was a terrible curmudgeon.
00:42:18 If anybody knows Marty, he was known for being this, like, curmudgeon. So it wasn’t, like, ooey-gooey loving. It wasn’t at all. It was, you know, if you complained about anything, he'd say, "Hey, Sal, I'll run you a benefit." You know, it was about: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep on moving.” You just did your work.
00:42:38 And I became Norma. I lived there. I learned how to work in the mill. I lived with the people, and one day, Marty came into my little old motor home, and I was scared that he was coming in, like, what had I done? Had I done something bad? And still terribly afraid and intimidated that somehow I wouldn’t be good enough. Somehow I would be found out. I wouldn’t be good enough. And he came in and sat down for a minute, and he said, "Sal, I want to tell you." I said, "Yeah?" "You’re first-rate."
00:43:16 And I was so utterly stunned. It was all he said. "You’re first-rate." And he got up and left, and I was shattered. It was the most important thing anyone had ever said to me.
00:43:33 ALICE WINKLER: When Sally Field won the Academy Award that year for Best Actress, he was sitting right there with her. She earned that Oscar for playing Norma Rae, but she says Martin Ritt really was Norma Rae, in that he was a person who took huge personal risks, who only wanted to make films about people who struggled, people who mattered. He had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and had survived. Sally Field had never before been around people who were political, who cared about their fellow man, and it changed her. Being Norma Rae changed her.
00:44:11 But it was her next Oscar, for the film Places in the Heart, that made her an Academy Award legend, and not entirely in a good way. If you’re old enough to remember the 1984 Oscars, you almost certainly already know what I’m talking about, but your memory of her acceptance speech that year is probably a little off. I discovered mine was. The speech has been misquoted so often that it's become — I can't think of any other way to say this — an alternative fact.
00:44:43 SALLY FIELD: I know. They’ve made it to be what they want it to be. What it really is, is about performing. It is about the struggle of performing and how hard it is to hear the applause, really, when you spend all of your time with your head down. My problem with this is that I wasn’t terribly eloquent about it, but then I’m not really terribly eloquent. The lights were flashing, and I think I said exactly what I really meant, that at the first time it happened to me, I was so scared, and it was so overwhelming that all of this was really happening to me after I had come from what I had come from, which was an impossible place to be, you know...
00:45:29 ...when people wouldn’t let me in the door — and I was winning my second Oscar. I said to myself, "If I go up there, I must own this. It must be for me," and that’s what came out.
00:45:41 ALICE WINKLER: Here is what came out. Not the gushing of an insecure girlish actress, but rather the spontaneous, authentic expression of gratitude by an actress who had worked so hard to do important work, serious work, who had transformed herself and was finally being acknowledged for what she had achieved. So with all you've heard so far in this episode, listen to it again.
00:46:08 SALLY FIELD: But I want to say “thank you” to you. I haven't had an orthodox career, and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time, I didn't feel it; but this time, I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me — right now, you like me!
00:46:27 ALICE WINKLER: Now 70, Sally Field is playing Amanda Wingfield in a revival of the classic Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie. It is her first time on Broadway in 15 years, and it’s just where she hoped she’d be at this stage in her life. I know there are lots of other fantastic Sally Field performances we haven’t covered. A quick list of highlights would have to include Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Forrest Gump, Mrs. Doubtfire, Not Without My Daughter, and Steel Magnolias, as well as the TV shows ER and Brothers & Sisters. So there you go. It's a 50-year-long career, and we can't cover it all.
00:47:10 But I wanna this episode the way Sally Field ended her talk to students at the Academy of Achievement summit in 2008 because it’s a pretty great takeaway. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes, from the Academy of Achievement.
00:47:27 SALLY FIELD: Joseph Campbell said, "You must enter the forest in the darkest part where there is no path because where there is a path, it’s someone else’s," and it’s absolutely true, but I say you must enter the forest again and again and again and again where there is no path because not only is the fear that it will be somebody else’s, but even worse, it may be your own, and you’re retreading over your own path.
00:47:55 Enter the forest holding your own hand in the very darkest place. Thanks.
00:48:08 ALICE WINKLER: What It Takes is made possible with funding from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. Thanks for to them, and thanks to you for listening.
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