All achievers

Sally Field

Two Oscars for Best Actress

It changed my life. I knew that the voice of fear was something that I must never listen to. I must go to what desperately frightens me — the chance of failure — not going to what is safe. I tried to learn from that.

Sally Field was born in Pasadena, California. Her mother, known by her married name, Margaret Field, was an actress who worked intermittently in theater, film and television. Sally’s father, Richard Dryden Field, was an officer in the United States Army, and later a salesman. Sally’s parents divorced when she was only four; not long after, her mother married stuntman and actor Jock Mahoney.

1952: Sally Field, her stepfather Jock Mahoney, her mother Margaret Field, and her brother Rick Field. (Photofest)

Mahoney enjoyed a measure of success in television Westerns, as well as playing Tarzan in a series of films in the early 1960s, but while Sally was growing up, her parents were often unemployed. At that time, actors received no residual payments when their work was repeated on television. By her own account, Sally’s stepfather was emotionally manipulative and physically abusive. For many years, she did not reveal the extent of the abuse she suffered, even to her mother.  Despite this toxic situation, Sally and her brother both found the strength to achieve. Richard excelled in school and became a theoretical physicist and university professor. Sally found an outlet for self-expression in acting, starting in junior high school. Losing herself in another character allowed her to escape the fears and uncertainties of her home life.

1965: 19-year-old Sally Field in her role as a boy-crazy surfer girl in the television sitcom Gidget. (PhotoFest)

After graduation from Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley, she enrolled in a summer acting workshop at Columbia Studios. There, a casting agent invited her to audition for a new television series. Gidget, based on a popular book and movie, was set among teenage surfers in Southern California. Field was called back to read for the role numerous times before being chosen over 75 other actresses to play the title role. At 17, she was signed to star in a prime-time network television series.

1960s: Sally Field began her career in TV sitcoms and went on to receive two Academy Awards for Best Actress.

Gidget immediately established Sally Field as a popular performer with television audiences, but it also created an image of her as a fun-loving, essentially frivolous teenager that made it difficult for casting agents and directors to imagine her in more serious roles. Gidget was abruptly cancelled after its first season, but performed unexpectedly well in summer repeats, and the producers offered Field the lead in a new show, The Flying Nun, a comedy-fantasy with religious overtones. Field balked at taking on such an unreal role but lacking other offers, under pressure from the producers and her stepfather, she accepted the role. She made her feature film debut in 1967 in The Way West, but the role did not establish a lasting presence for her on the big screen. The Flying Nun ran for three seasons and enjoyed healthy ratings, but Field was growing impatient with the situation comedy format. Roles in made-for-TV movies and a recurring part on the Western series Alias Smith and Jones did little to expand her range.

Sally Field and future husband Steven Craig at a Hollywood premiere in 1965. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1965: Sally Field and future husband Steven Craig at a Hollywood premiere. They were married from 1968 to 1975.

Sally Field found an artistic outlet studying at the Actors Studio, the legendary workshop founded by “method acting” proponent Lee Strasberg. Many of the most admired young actors of the ’50s and ’60s had studied with Strasberg. A demanding teacher, he enjoyed finding the hidden depths in performers whose public careers had been more limited. Under Strasberg’s tutelage, Field acquired a serious reputation among her peers. She was certain she could undertake more demanding material, but there were few opportunities in Hollywood. In 1973 she found herself starring in a short-lived sitcom with another fantasy premise, The Girl With Something Extra. The show was cancelled and Field’s marriage to her high school sweetheart ended in divorce, leaving her with two young sons to care for.

Sally Field played the airborne Sister Bertrille in three seasons of the popular television show The Flying Nun, from 1967 to 1970. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
1967: Sally Field played the airborne Sister Bertrille in three seasons of the popular television show The Flying Nun.

Sally Field feared, with reason, that she would be forever typecast as the cute and spunky heroine of absurd fantasies, but she had made an impression on casting director Diane Crittenden, who recommended her for a role in a more realistic film. Stay Hungry, directed by Bob Rafelson, was set in the bodybuilding subculture. The role of Mary Tate, the receptionist in a seedy gym, was far removed from Field’s relentlessly wholesome television image, and Rafelson was reluctant to consider her for the part, but she eventually won him over. Before the film was released, Field won a role that was to have an even more decisive impact on her career. She was cast in the television film Sybil, about a woman with multiple personality disorder. Field’s ability to capture the many facets of this character, and the raw emotional honesty she brought to the role, won her an Emmy Award. The award, followed by the success of Stay Hungry, finally established Field as a serious actress.

Legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio. He mentored scores of young actors, including Sally Field. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
Legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio. He mentored young actors, including Sally Field.

The following year brought exposure of a different kind, as she played the romantic lead in the action comedy Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds. The film was one of the year’s biggest successes, and Field soon appeared in a string of pictures opposite Reynolds, including The End, Hooper and a Smokey and the Bandit sequel.

Field received the most important role of her career up to that time in 1978, when she was cast as a Southern textile mill worker turned union organizer in the drama Norma Rae. Shooting the film on location in the mill town where the story was set had a powerful impact on Field. She credits the film’s director, Martin Ritt, with challenging her as an actress, as well as awakening her social conscience. Norma Rae was a critical and popular success, with Field’s performance winning widespread acclaim, capped with the year’s Oscar for Best Actress.

Danny Glover and Sally Field as Moze and Edna in the 1994 film Places in the Heart. (PhotoFest)
Danny Glover and Sally Field as Moze and Edna in the 1994 motion picture Places in the Heart. (PhotoFest)

With her sitcom image far behind her, Sally Field became one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood, playing opposite the film world’s leading men. In Absence of Malice, Field memorably played an unscrupulous reporter hounding a businessman, played by Paul Newman. Another career highlight was her performance in 1984’s Places in the Heart. Written and directed by Robert Benton, the film was set in Texas during the Great Depression. Field played a widow, struggling to keep the family farm with the help of one black farmhand and a blind man. The role solidified the image, introduced in Norma Rae, of Field as an iron-willed Southern girl, triumphing over adversity. Places in the Heart won Field a second Oscar for Best Actress. Her ebullient victory speech, much parodied by comedians in the years that followed, was a sincere expression of gratitude for the acceptance she had finally won from the motion picture community.

Apart from her more dramatic parts, Field enjoyed continued success in romantic comedies, co-starring with James Garner in Murphy’s Romance. In 1988’s Punchline, she played a single mother turned stand-up comedian, appearing opposite Tom Hanks, then at the beginning of his career. The following year she was cast as the mother of Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias, and essayed one of her most intense roles in Not Without My Daughter, in which she played an American woman, married to an Iranian man, who must flee Iran with her daughter after the Islamic revolution. Field enjoyed another large success with her role as Robin Williams’s ex-wife in the popular comedy Mrs. Doubtfire.

In 1994, Field reunited with Tom Hanks in the blockbuster success Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Only ten years older than Hanks, Field played his mother throughout the film, as a young woman in the early scenes and as an older woman at the picture’s end, a performance that once again showed her great range and versatility.

After a nearly 20-year absence from the small screen, Sally Field returned to television with the well-received mini-series A Woman of Independent Means, based on the bestselling novel by Elizabeth Forsythe. Having established herself as a leading actress in motion pictures, Field made her directing debut with the feature film The Christmas Tree. She later directed an episode of the television mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, in which she also appeared as an actress.

Sally Field receives a second Emmy Award in 2001 for her performance in the series ER. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Sally Field receives a second Emmy Award in 2001 for her performance in the series ER. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

The 2000 television season brought Field another role that tested her ability to embody characters in extreme situations. On the long-running television drama ER, she played a woman who suffers from bipolar disorder, and is the mother of one of the show’s doctor characters. As in Sybil, Field found the means of experiencing and expressing a psychiatric disorder in a way that made it comprehensible to millions of viewers who might have had no previous understanding of mental illness. She was honored with a second Emmy Award for this performance, and the character returned in subsequent seasons of the program.

Although Field had appeared onstage occasionally over the course of her career, in maturity she undertook more serious forays into live theater. In 2004, she made her Broadway debut in The Goat by Edward Albee. The following year, she enjoyed an acclaimed run as Amanda Wingfield, the domineering mother in the Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie.

Sally Field describes the struggles of her early career at the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Hawaii.

In 2005, Field was diagnosed with osteoporosis, the loss of bone density experienced by many women as they grow older. She resolved to learn as much as possible about the condition, and signed on as a spokesperson for the prescription medication Boniva. She regards her work for Boniva as just one part of a multifaceted effort to raise awareness of the condition and promote its early treatment. She has been particularly critical of the American health care system and its neglect of ailments such as osteoporosis in their early stages.

Awards Council member and Oscar-winning actress Sally Field presents the Golden Plate Award to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys at the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Kona-Kailua, Hawaii. (Academy of Achievement)

Field has not shrunk from expressing herself on other matters. Her performance as the mother of a large troubled family in the series Brothers and Sisters brought her a third Emmy Award in 2007. In the series, the character of her youngest son is a military veteran, traumatized by the war in Iraq. In her Emmy acceptance speech, she noted that “if mothers ruled the world we wouldn’t have any more goddamned wars.” Fox Television, the network broadcasting the ceremony, cut her off in mid-speech, but her words were widely quoted and the uncensored speech circulated on the Internet. Some old fans may have been disturbed by her blunt speech, but Sally Field refused to retract a word.  Sally Field capped a memorable series of roles in 2012 with a heartbreaking performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, the troubled wife of the 16th president, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

In Sally Field’s 2018 memoir, In Pieces, she tells her story about a challenging and lonely childhood, the craft that helped her find her voice, and a powerful emotional legacy that shaped her journey as a daughter and a mother.

In life, as in her gallery of unforgettable performances, Sally Field insists on absolute honesty.  In 2018, she published an autobiography, In Pieces. In her book, she disclosed many painful experiences, including the fact that her stepfather Jock Mahoney had molested her repeatedly prior to her 14th birthday.  Mahoney and Margaret Field divorced in 1968, but Sally Field kept the truth from her mother for 50 years.  Near the end of Margaret’s life in 2011, Sally finally shared her secret, and mother and daughter achieved a long-sought resolution.  Sally Field hopes that sharing the sorrows of her youth will empower others to overcome the challenges of their own lives.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2005

In her greatest roles, Sally Field has personified the strong-willed, independent woman of the American heartland, earning Oscars for her performances as a courageous union organizer in Norma Rae, and as a Depression-era widow struggling to keep the family farm in Places in the Heart.

Although she has earned lasting fame as a serious actress, she first won the hearts of the American public in the 1960s as the teenage star of situation comedies. At the time, many dismissed her as a cute kid whose career would not extend to serious roles, but Sally Field was committed to perfecting her craft, and established herself as a dramatic actress overnight with her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of a woman with multiple-personality disorder in the 1976 television movie Sybil.

Highlights of her feature film career include memorable performances in Smokey and the Bandit, Absence of Malice, Steel Magnolias and Forrest Gump. She has enjoyed continued success on television, winning Emmy Awards for her regular roles on ER and Brothers and Sisters. She won further critical acclaim for her 2012 performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. As she continues to dedicate her time and her talent to film, television and live theater, the breadth and depth of her artistry grow with every role she undertakes.

Watch full interview
Sally Field and her brother Richard, with their stepfather, stuntman and actor Jock Mahoney, costumed for a role on one of his television westerns in the 1950s. (PhotoFest)
1950s: Sally Field and brother, Richard, with stepfather, stuntman and actor Jock Mahoney, costumed for a role.

Long before your Oscar-winning roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, you were a teenage star in sitcoms like Gidget and The Flying Nun. We understand that your mom was also an actress. You kind of grew up in show business. What was that like?

Sally Field: I come from a real working-class acting family. It’s not a glamorous life. My stepfather, who I grew up with, was a stuntman-slash-actor, but basically a stuntman. My mother, interesting, she was a working-class actor that 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.

Most actors live that way, don’t they?

Sally Field: They do. It’s very difficult.

Life is so incredibly insecure.  And when I grew up, part of the really important ingredients to my becoming in the industry is that 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, and have to move to a littler sort of tract house thing, understanding that kind of real insecure existence.

Actress Margaret Field, mother of Sally Field. (PhotoFest)
Actress Margaret Field, mother of Sally Field, divorced Jack Mahoney in 1968 when Sally turned 22. (PhotoFest)

Did your mother try to dissuade you from acting?

Sally Field: No. My mother certainly didn’t.

Keys to success — Passion

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. 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. He was a phenomenal actor. 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 story-telling. So we had this kind of secret language between the two of us — from the time I was little — of acting. And when I finally found an acting class — and thank God they had them. I underline that. They don’t have them now. But I went to public school in the San Fernando Valley in California and they had acting classes. And in junior high even, I found the stage for the first time, and she and I would work on things together. I would work on scenes, with my little Romeo and Juliet soliloquies and the improvisations I was supposed to bring in. So it was a real communication that she and I had together, and she always supported that love that I had of it.

You said you were on stage in junior high. What was your first performance on stage?

Keys to success — Passion

Sally Field: My first performance on stage was some scenes from Romeo and Juliet when I was 13. 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 wanted to speak about it today but I left it out. 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. 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, I remembered that moment. And my whole life has been trying to understand how to get back there, trying to own that gift, that ability that human beings have to float away to some creative place that is simply God-like.

Actors get to be more than one person.

Sally Field: Well, yes and no. It is a very interesting profession, or craft, or art, or whatever you call it.

Keys to success — Vision

When you learn to do it, 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, if they existed or not, might have been. You use the text of the writer who has written it. You use the text itself, and all of the information that the writer has given you. But you really instill it with your own life. You find parts of yourself that actually link with that human being, even though there may be so… on the page… you could… I mean, 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. 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.

That’s an incredible description of the art of acting. You said you also found drama in high school. What kinds of things did you do in high school?

Keys to success — Passion

Sally Field: I kind of lived in the drama department, very much lived in the drama department. And I was so lucky, again, that I had the drama department, but that I had these wonderful teachers. Mr. Culp was one of them, a remarkable fellow who was dedicated to the arts and theater arts, and taught us all about theater in high school. We performed scenes, and we also performed a term play. But I got so hungry and aggressive with it that sometimes he would call me to his office and tell me I had to be nicer to the other students because I just was hungry to do the roles. I just was hungry to work. And I would pick for my scenes the people who I thought, “Hmm, who will take this most seriously?” It was a terribly important time to me, because I went right from that “Who knew?”– right from that into the big bad world. I really clung to this image of myself that I had created in high school of being strong enough to pull it off, when really I was just a little kid.

Did you like to read?

Sally Field: No.

I was a bad reader.  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.  And it really is, in a lot of ways, indicative of what our society was then. I survived and I taught myself, but deeply, as a 61-year-old woman — and my sons would be here in the room going, “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.

Did you get cast in Gidget during high school?

Sally Field: I had just graduated.  It was that summer of 1964.  I had just graduated from high school and had no idea what I was going to do. And no, my parents didn’t say, “Sal, maybe you ought to be taking SATs and going to college”?  It was like what… I sometimes think if I hadn’t said, “Hmm,” that I would’ve just drifted off and they wouldn’t have basically noticed. “What happened to that girl that used to live here?”  I had never been out of the state. I had never been on an airplane.  I was so incredibly naïve and unsophisticated. I didn’t know that what I really wanted was to go to New York and study acting, didn’t know that it really existed.  I knew New York was there, but I didn’t know about the Actor’s Studio.  Even though my mother loved acting — that’s a whole ‘nother story.  She sort of so focused on being married to who she was married to.  She lost a lot of her own voice, I think, is the truth.

That happens sometimes with stepfathers.

Sally Field: A lot. So I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t own the information of the kind of actor I wanted to be.

I said I needed to go and act somewhere in the summertime, because that was what I did all day long. My stepfather had heard of some workshop that was located at Columbia Pictures, and it was just using the facilities at night. And so I went and auditioned. You had to audition. I auditioned with my mother, with a scene from Toys in the Attic, which must’ve been beyond dreadful. But I got into the workshop, and then I realized that the people who auditioned you were actually casting people from television. And the first night I went to the workshop, the casting man from Screen Gems came out, introduced himself, and asked me if I’d come on an interview the next day. And that interview that I went on — completely naïve. All the other girls had eight by ten glossies and agents. I had a wallet full of pictures of my friends.

Did he see you act?

Sally Field: He’d seen me in an audition with my mother, right out of high school. He asked me to come on the audition.

Keys to success — Perseverance

I went on the audition — auditioned. I’d never been… I mean I didn’t know what to do. 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. So bam! You know, just into it, just flop into the world!