Sally Field has long been among my favorite actresses. I developed a crush on her when I was just a kid, and I still find her attractive more than a half century later. I once dated a woman who was Field’s spitting image, so likely that also factors into the equation.
I got to thinking of Field this morning reading this article about her political views, which I couldn’t care less about. But I was heartened that Field is still generating media attention and that at 75 she’s still considered newsworthy without having died.
Field has had an impressive career spanning more than a half century, and she starred in some great films, including Norma Rae, for which she won an Oscar, and Absence of Malice, which I view as one of the most truly representative films about journalism. Some of my other favorite Field films include “Punchline” and “Forrest Gump,” which also featured Tom Hanks, another one of my favorite actors. I still haven’t gotten around to watching “Places in the Heart” for which Field also won an Oscar.
Yet, despite her stellar career and accomplishments, Sally Field to me will always be Gidget and Sister Bertrille.
“Gidget” was the name of the 60s sitcom that got Field’s career rolling. Although the show aired only for one season, I still remember it with great fondness. Field played an eternally optimistic Southern California boy-crazed teenager named Frances “Gidget” Lawrence who loved frolicking with friends at the beach when she wasn’t getting schooled about life from her father, who was a professor at UCLA. Lawrence’s boyfriend in the show coined the name “Gidget” because she was petite, and he likened her to a girl midget. That obviously would never fly today.
Gidget narrated the show, a flourish copied decades later by Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex in the City.” She’d sign off with “Toodles!” her signature line, short for “toodaloo,” a popular 60s expression.
“Gidget” had a profound influence on me, as it was when I first dreamed about living in California. Watching the show, particularly during a Canadian winter, I was fascinated that people could live in a city and have easy access to gorgeous beaches all year round. Another influence that beckoned California was the annual Rose Bowl Parade, which is held in Pasadena, where Field was born. Seeing people standing in shorts on New Year’s day while I was wearing three layers of clothing made me disappointed that my father chose to remain in his native Toronto, while his brother heeded the call to, “Go west, young man” and made his way to Los Angeles and became one of California’s top architects.
(I once asked my father if he ever regretted not moving to L.A. to be with his brother, with whom he was very close. His response: “Are you kidding? Living in that smog filled city without four seasons? Never!”)
Field played Sister Bertrille on a sitcom called “The Flying Nun,” a show that surprisingly lasted for three seasons. It was about a nun who could fly when the wind caught her cornette. Even as a kid the show struck me as rather dumb, but I watched it regardless because in those days there were only three networks to choose from.
Reading up on the show I was reminded it was politically correct long before that term was coined. Bertrille’s convent was in Puerto Rico and she taught economically disadvantaged Hispanic children. (They were called poor in those days.)
I can’t remember even one Flying Nun episode, but the memory of Field in her hobbit and flying will forever live on. Unfortunately for Field, lots of people long remembered her from that role and it took quite some time before Hollywood accepted her as a serious actress.
The Flying Nun was hardly the only dumb show from the 60s and 70s. One of the most maligned shows ever was “My Mother the Car,” which invariably ranks high on every “Dumbest Shows of all Time” list. It starred Jerry Van Dyke, who played a lawyer who bought a used 1928 Porter only to discover the car was a reincarnation of his mother, who would talk to him through the radio.
“My Mother the Car” aired for only one season, from September 1965 through April 1966. What’s frightening is that I still remember the lyrics to the show’s theme song. I also clearly recall the voice of Ann Sothern, who played Gladys, Van Dyke’s mother. Funny how things stay with you over the years.
In the mid-80s I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry Van Dyke on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. I was attending the annual convention of the Michigan Bankers Association and Van Dyke was the entertainer hired to close out the event. I ran into Van Dyke in town later that evening and he was quite gracious when I approached him. I imagine he thought me a tad odd when I belted out the theme song to “My Mother the Car.” Van Dyke told me the show was the low point of his career and that doing scenes talking to a car was humiliating.
Van Dyke went on to star in the hit series “Coach,” for which he won four Emmys. Cult fans of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” like me also fondly remember him as younger brother Stacey. I’ve seen every episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” at least a dozen times and still laughed hysterically every time. Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, Jerry, Millie – it’s as if they were real life characters.
Thinking back of all the zany 60s and 70s shows I watched I’ve come to appreciate how uplifting they were. Even the dislikeable characters were likeable. Mr. Haney from Green Acres was a con man, but there was something endearing about him. Mel Cooley was the consummate corporate suit but seeing him enter the writer’s room and get zinged by Buddy was always a welcome delight. Milburn Drysdale was the consummate greedy banker, but to his credit he never ripped off the Clampetts and he still serves as a model for great customer service. One felt a certain compassion for the cantankerous Mr. Wilson, who had the misfortune of living next door to Dennis the Menace.
The only dislikable character I can recall from the 60s era was Eddie Haskell, the two-faced friend of Wally Cleaver on “Leave It to Beaver.” Ken Osmond, who played Haskell, reportedly was so closely associated with his duplicitous character that he couldn’t land other acting roles and ultimately joined the Los Angeles Police Department.
Times have changed, and so has television. Artistically, television shows have dramatically improved, but it’s not often I watch something that leaves me feeling good. With so many of my favorite television actors and actresses of my youth having passed, it gives me great pleasure knowing that Sally Field is still going strong.