Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Sally Field Day

If I was financially emancipated right now, I'd get to a galleria with a cineplex so I could see Lincoln, the big biopic that co-stars Sally Field as the president's wife.
Another co-star is Tommy Lee Jones.  I've heard Oscar buzz about his performance.
When I had just begun my professional television career, a Sally Field romantic comedy with Tommy Lee Jones was very important to my resumé.  She played a Southern hooker teamed up with a grumpy drifter in Martin Ritt's 1981 movie, Back Roads.
My conversation with Sally Field for PM Magazine became my first celebrity interview to air on national television.  I am still so proud of that six-minute feature I wrote and produced.  The story behind the feature taught me something about the way some members of the media viewed women.  Today's young entertainment reporters may not be aware of the uphill battle Sally Field had before she was taken seriously. Behind the "perky" personality folks knew from sitcoms was a determined, focused performer who'd survived public humiliation.  When I met her, she'd won the first of her two Best Actress Academy Awards.  We older viewers who watched Field as the outspoken, politically liberal mother on ABC's Brothers & Sisters remember that her association with ABC goes way back.  We met her in the 1960s when she took to the surf as TV's Gidget.  I was a fan.  She was the perfect teen to continue the franchise as the wholesome beach bunny.
 Then she joined a convent and ascended like a spirit in the sky as The Flying Nun.
OK, I admit it.  I was a fan of that sitcom too.  I loved seeing her take off from the Convent San Tanco in Puerto Rico.  It was just too silly not to love.  But comedians mentioned her show in their routines on TV and The Flying Nun was the punchline.  Sally Field went on to do some impressive dramatic work in made-for-TV movies.  Twice she worked opposite Hollywood veteran and 3-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker -- first in 1971's Maybe I'll Come Home in the Spring and then in the darkly fun 1972 Christmas murder mystery, Home for the Holidays.  That was written by Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho.  Other renowned movie veterans and  Oscar nominees Jackie Cooper, Julie Harris and Walter Brennan also starred in those features opposite the newcomer.  But that work brought Field little respect.  Going airborne as The Flying Nun made Sally Field an industry joke.  Just about every top actress in town at that time wanted to grab the plum role in NBC's Sybil, the network movie about a young woman struggling to rid herself of multiple personalities and find her own true identity.  The difficult, challenging role of the schizophrenic went to...Sally Field.
She was no longer a joke.  This was one of the most gripping, riveting and memorable performances of the 1970s -- on television and/or film.  Her Sybil was must-see TV.  Critics hailed her performance. Field took home a 1976 Emmy for Best Actress.  But she still wasn't taken seriously.  By her agent.  Make that her ex-agent.  In 1979, Field gave us a moment that's now an iconic one in a 1970s film.  Demanding better treatment in the workplace, fighting for equality and respect, she was Norma Rae.
In theatrical release, I paid to see Norma Rae several times.  Her power, passion and focus in that performance went through me like a sweet jolt of rejuvenating electricity.  Not only have I been a longtime Sally Field fan, she is one of my career role models.  When I was a kid, I responded to her sitcom charisma and charm.  Yes, The Flying Nun was goofy.  But she took the work seriously.  And comedy is hard work.  I often got a little twinge of anger when men on TV made those jokes about her Sister Bertrille character.  Never did I hear any praise for how she stretched herself in the TV dramas and how she held her own opposite acclaimed Hollywood veterans.  She was definitely serious about her craft.  I know what it's like when people -- even people who may represent you -- marginalize you as being "just cute and funny" and think you can't do anything else.  I spiritually connected to Sally Field's struggle for validation and her determination to prove herself.  I recognized her inner fire.  Sitting through Norma Rae was like a pep rally for me.  Black folks and women of all colors shared the American cultural battlefield in the fight for equal opportunities, upward mobility in our careers and for respect.  Sally Field was my champion, my hero.  Norma Rae was a critical and box office hit.
Besides the Oscar,  it seemed like she won every show biz prize including the NAACP Image Award.  Before and after Norma Rae, she starred opposite Burt Reynolds in popular "good ol' boy" movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Smokey and the Bandit 2.
The two were a hot romantic item.  Burt Reynolds was a big star at the time, so entertainment press liked spotlighting their relationship.  When I got invited to interview her while being part of the Back Roads press junket in Miami, I was thrilled.  Press junkets are usually in New York City or Los Angeles.  That junket was in Florida where Field was wrapping production on Absence of Malice with Paul Newman. I worked on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee as part of its PM Magazine team.  The national office in San Francisco was told that I'd be attending the junket.  The men in charge were very interested in airing my Sally Field interview nationally.  Ambitious as I am, I craved national exposure.  But, my executive producer -- and friend -- gave me this news from our San Francisco superiors:  For national airing consideration, I would have to ask Sally Field "something about her relationship with Burt Reynolds."  I told my producer, a woman, that I was uncomfortable with what the national office wanted.  It was like a snicker behind the back of the feminist movement.  Field worked hard to prove and validate herself after she'd become a joke.  In the Hollywood factory, she really was a Norma Rae.  She had two sterling, award winning performances to her credit.  She went from TV sitcom star to Oscar winning dramatic actress.  She believed in herself even when her agent didn't.  Why did I need to ask if she was still dating Burt Reynolds in order to make her achievements seem somehow acceptable?  My executive producer agreed and stood by me in my position.  She politely reported that back to the national office.  The polite response to us was basically "No question about Burt, no national airing." was my question on-camera to Sally Field:  "On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how tired are you of questions about your relationship with Burt Reynolds?"  She replied, "Oh, about a 25.  So, are you going to ask me..." "Nope," I answered.  She said, "Aren't you sweet!"

I had asked "something about her relationship with Burt Reynolds."  I fulfilled my part of the bargain.  My piece aired nationally.  I gave the national office what it wanted and I asked the question on my terms.

I really want to see Sally Field in Lincoln and see her reunited with Tommy Lee Jones.  I hear their scenes together are some of the best in Steven Spielberg's film.
The next time I interviewed her was in New York City.  She was promoting Punchline.  Thanks to Places in the Heart, she owned a second Best Actress Academy Award by then.  Our interview wasn't a junket situation.  She was a wonderful guest on my prime time VH1 talk show.  And I didn't ask her a darn thing about her love life.  That was in 1988.  Just three years after a male vice-president I worked for at that Milwaukee TV station told me I didn't have the quality to get to a gig in New York City.  Sally Field.  She's still a role model to me.  Yep. I like her.  I really, really like her.


  1. Fantastic, entertaining article Bobby. Wow, I had no idea you had that much admiration and respect for Field. Congratulations to you for Sally being you first celebrity interview. Thanks for sharing that story about your battle with the national office over personal interview questions with Field. This is the kind of stuff I find fascinating to read about and can only know through people in the entertainment industry such as yourself. I have been a long admirer of Field myself. When I first started becoming a movie buff back in the early 90's, Sally Field was one of the first actors that I put pictures of on my wall in my bedroom. I "liked her, really really liked her":) that much. Her performance in NORMA RAE struck a chord with me when I first saw the film. She displayed real power, passion, and emotion in that performance. One Sally Field movie which I really liked a lot but was not seen by many people was a comedy she made back in the early 90's called SOAPDISH. It also starred Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg. It was a very funny movie. I plan to see LINCOLN over the holiday weekend. When it comes to Southern roles, Field is almost a lock to be cast.

  2. The last time I interviewed Sally Field, she was promoting FORREST GUMP. I told her I was always amazed that she, a native of Southern California, could play a Southern woman as if she'd been born and raised below the Mason Dixon line vs Pasadena. Thomas, thanks yet again, for taking time to read my blog. By the way, whenever I feel like my career is over and no one remembers me, my closest friends always say "You need to go to the mall." Yep. SOAPDISH.

  3. I would trade anything to have the career you had! If you ever feel like your career is over, just remember that it's better to have been there than to never have been there at all. There will still be plenty of your fans who still love reading your writings and watching all the interviews with the stars you've done in your career.

  4. "You like me! You really, really like me!" Thomas, what a wonderful message to read. Thank you so very much.

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  6. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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