Born in Pasadena, Calif., on Nov. 6, 1946, Sally Field was the daughter of Richard Dryden Field, a United States Army officer and later salesman, and Margaret Field, an actress who found intermittent work in theater, film and television. Field’s parents divorced when she was 4, and shortly afterwards her mother married stuntman and actor Jock Mahoney, a man Field has described as emotionally abusive and physically intimidating. Although Mahoney found some success in television Westerns and playing Tarzan in a series of films in the early 1960s, both he and his wife were often unemployed during Field’s childhood.
Field followed in her mother’s footsteps after graduating from Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley. While attending a summer acting workshop at Columbia Studios, a casting agent spotted her and invited her to audition for “Gidget,” a new television series set in Southern California surf culture based on a popular book and movie. After many call backs, the 17-year-old beat out over more than 75 other actresses for the part. The show’s timing proved unfortunate: “Gidget” became a hit in summer reruns – after ABC had decided to not renew it for a second season. Wanting her back, network executives offered Field the chance to playing a flying 90-pound nun stationed in Puerto Rico.
“I hated the whole idea,” Field told Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen in a 2000 profile. She turned the role down, a decision her stepfather disapproved of. His advice (“He said, ‘If you don’t do this, you may never work again.’”) convinced her to take the part. The decision would soon cause her to suffer from self-loathing that she attempted to self-medicate with junk food. Diet pills helped her lose the resulting weight, but they also caused shaky hands and dry mouth that left her unable to work. Field ran away to Las Vegas and married her high school boyfriend, Steven Craig, in 1968 and was soon pregnant. After the birth of her first son, Peter, ABC cancelled “The Flying Nun.”
One positive aspect of Field’s “Nun” experience was meeting Madeleine Sherwood, who played her character’s mother superior. Sherwood introduced Field to famed acting guru Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, which would later prove vital to Field’s career. First, however, she had to endure another sitcom. Her second son, Eli, was born in 1972, and according to Field the movies were only interested in hiring models. With her family needing money, Field took the role of a psychic newlywed in the sitcom “The Girl with Something Extra.” The show premiered in 1973 and was cancelled a year later, a development Field called “the kicker in my rear end.” She fired her manager and agent and began studying at the Actors Studio. She also made a change in her personal life by leaving her husband.
“With the exception of “Something Extra,” she had been working only a TV guest spot here and there,” Jensen wrote. “She just wanted to learn. Eventually, people began buzzing about a transformation that was taking place at the Actors Studio.” One of those people was Dianne Crittenden, who was casting the movie “Stay Hungry” for director Bob Rafelson in 1975. Crittenden encouraged Rafelson to consider Field for the role of amorous gymnast Mary Tate Farnsworth, but Rafelson, uninterested in seeing a sitcom star, declined. His reluctance didn’t faze Field, who on the day of auditions burst into Rafelson’s office wearing a skimpy leotard. He refused to see her, so she asked an intermediary to give the director a message: “He doesn't know who the f--- I am, and he ought to see me, because I'm the best f--- in town.” That convinced Rafelson to see her.
Field was prepared for the audition. As she recalled for Jensen, “I came in to read with the author of the screenplay, and I sat on him. I straddled him and sat on him. I sat on the man because I wanted them to F---ING LISTEN TO ME. There wasn't going to BE anybody else that came into that room that was going to be any BETTER than me, so SHUT THE F--- UP! I didn't say that, but that's what I said with every move of my body. The writer was going to give this really cold, silly reading, and I grabbed the script and threw it down, like I was saying 'Work with me. Play with me. I dare you to come up. Come up, baby, come on, you can do it.’ And after that, I said, ‘Bye. ‘They should have filmed it.” The part was hers.
Prior to the release of “Stay Hungry,” Field starred in the television movie “Sybil” as a woman with multiple personality disorder and won an Emmy for her performance. The success of “Stay Hungry” further established Field as a serious actress. Any lingering doubt disappeared when Field won the Best Actress Oscar for 1979’s “Norma Rae.” She won a second Best Actress Oscar for 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” in which she played a Texas widow struggling to keep her family’s during the Great Depression. Contrary to popular belief, her legendary acceptance speech for that award never included the phrase “You really like me.” It actually ended with Field saying, “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!” The speech became so popular to parody that even Field eventually did so in a Charles Schwab commercial.
Having already worked with famed leading men Paul Newman in “Absence of Malice” and James Garner in “Murphy’s Romance,” Field co-starred with then-rising star Tom Hanks in 1988’s “Punchline.” She played Julia Roberts’ mother in “Steel Magnolias” the following year and then starred in “Not without My Daughter” as an American woman married to an Iranian man forced to flee Iran with her daughter after the Islamic revolution. After playing Robin Williams’ ex-wife in the successful comedy “Mrs. Doubtfire,”Field reunited with Hanks in 1994 for the smash hit “Forrest Gump.” Field played Hanks’ mother, despite being only 10 years older than him.
In 2000, Field appeared on the long-running television series “ER” as the bi-polar mother of one of the drama’s main characters. Her performance earned her a second Emmy, and Field returned in the show’s later seasons. Field made her Broadway debut in “The Goat” by Edward Albee in 2004. The following year her performance as domineering mother Amanda Wingfield in the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie” was critically acclaimed.
Field won her third Emmy in 2007 for playing the matriarch of a large and troubled family in the series “Brothers and Sisters.” Her character’s youngest son was an Iraq War veteran traumatized by his experiences, and Field declared in her acceptance speech, “If mothers ruled the world we wouldn't have any more g-------d wars.” Fox Television cut her off in mid-speech, but that didn’t prevent it from being widely publicized. Although some fans may have found the speech offensive, Field refused to apologize. In 2012, Field played First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”