April 25, 1977 12:00 PM

Sex is not what you thought of when somebody mentioned the name Sally Field.” That, in any case, was the lady’s own image of herself after three seasons as ABC’s The Flying Nun. The ensuing years were difficult, she recalls, when “I forced myself not to be a hermit.”

Only now, in a rush at 30, has the ex-TV novitiate come resoundingly to earth. Divorced from her high school honey, she is starring in an upcoming movie and in a present-day fling with Burt Reynolds, 41, and in another film with Henry Winkler, 31. Also, according to reports, she did a little hospital time having her eyes—or something—lifted. And if Sally Field had any other doubts about burying her TV past (which also included Gidget), son Peter, 7, volunteered the other day: “The Flying Nun is crap.”

The good word for Winkler, fretting about his own post-Fonz future, is that Field really could kick the habit and her too-cute-for-comfort TV persona. The bad news is that it took five traumatic years—almost three away from the camera altogether. Her breakout began to happen only last year, when Sally appeared twice dramatically against type, first as a Southern tease in an underrated iron-pumping flick, Stay Hungry. Next came NBC’s four-hour adaptation of a real-life schizoid, Sybil. Joanne Woodward—who had won an Oscar for a similar if less demanding role in Three Faces of Eve and was now cast as Sybil’s psychiatrist—observed simply: “Sally’s amazing—the best under-30 actress I ever worked with.” “What’s happening now,” Field exults, “is something I’ve wanted so much all my life—to be respected as an actress. In the past, I was Bob Hope’s and everyone’s joke. I’ve felt bitter,” she now admits, “because the people who laughed at me were laughing at the deepest part of me, and yet they’d never seen it.

“So when I said goodbye to Sybil,” she found, “I said hello to a whole new Sally Field. Sybil was a kind of catharsis.” Professionally, that is. As for lifting the bell jar of her personal depression, that came with, hello, Burt Reynolds three weeks after Sally had wrapped Sybil and “had had it with intensity. I really wanted to go off and laugh and have a good time.” “Trust me,” said Burt, when she pointed out (and he agreed) that the proposed script (for the still-to-be-released Smokey and the Bandit) was garbage. So they winged it. “Burt’s just incredible, it’s the zaniest thing. All you can see for most of the picture,” she jokes, “are my fillings. He didn’t know what he was doing for me psychologically.”

Old Bless ’em All Reynolds had swung it again. Dinah Shore, almost twice Sally’s age, is possibly now out of the picture. Country music queen Tammy Wynette isn’t. “We have a very beautiful but strange relationship,” she coos. “We don’t worry about who the other dates.” Then there’s Reynolds’ other Gidget-type, tennis ace Chrissie Evert, whose lips, like Sally’s, are sealed—but smiling. “It’s just private and special,” says Field. “That film was the best piece of luck. Hooray for me!”

That was not exactly Sally’s historic attitude about herself. Her mother, Maggie Field, once a contract player at Paramount, remarried sometime Tarzan Jock Mahoney, who adopted Sally when she was 3. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley with an older brother, now a nuclear physicist, and a younger sister, Princess, an apprentice actress who is 10 inches taller than Sally’s 5’2″. When the other kids played with dolls, Sally would “go into her room and act. I was very reclusive and always highly emotional,” she remembers. “I didn’t feel I was allowed to express it, so I would cry and scream in front of the mirror and be very sexy. Acting was the place where I could be me.”

In high school Sally monopolized drama courses and was worshipped by underclassmen like Cindy (Laverne and Shirley) Williams. After graduation, Field was coached at Columbia studios, where Eddie Foy III tapped her to star at 17 in the TV version of Gidget. It lasted only a season, but separated her from the mainstream of her contemporaries. “There was nobody to relate to as an equal,” she recalls. Later, during Flying Nun, she married writer Steve Craig, whom she had met at 14 and “was the first person I went out with, the only person I knew. I was afraid he’d go off and I’d have no one to talk to.” They had two sons and separated after five years. “I decided I totally had to change gears,” explains Sally cryptically. Craig, now a builder, is unmarried, lives nearby and sees the boys often.

Gears was one change—showbiz vehicles was the other. The Flying Nun was followed by an almost equally preposterous NBC property, The Girl with Something Extra, that finally sent her into what she says is permanent self-exile from TV series. She enrolled in the Actors Studio and then studied singing and dancing for three years with David Craig (Nancy Walker’s husband)—whom she credits with “freeing me from the places where I’d gotten stuck.”

For awhile she thought teaching high school drama was her out. “I was like a basket case,” she felt. It is eerie that although they never did meet, the original “Sybil” recognized the distinction—and dimensionality—of actress Field and proposed her for the role. Indeed, Sally dissolves into characters so naturally that crews on location have tried to stop her as an intruder.

“I live a split life,” she concedes. “Every working mother has guilt that lies there and festers. But you have to get over it, and children have to get over it.” She adds: “Being with them 24 hours a day doesn’t give them security in themselves. But if I can enjoy what I do and have self-esteem, that gives them a lead to find confidence in themselves.” Her mother (now divorced again) helps raise the boys. “A father for them?” Sally muses. “Well, that goes with the American dream, though I think that it is changing.”

Working with Winkler in the post-Vietnam love story Heroes has provided a terrifying déjá vu for Field. The teenybop crowds storming and rocking her trailer to paw at the Fonz, she despairs, are “like characters out of a Hitchcock movie” (or like those who used to tear globs of her hair in the old Screen Gems days). “Does it bother me that the one they’re groping for is Henry or Burt?” she wonders out loud. “Yes.” Then she throws her head back and laughs, “No, I’m kidding. I had that time and did not like it a lot,” she says, further convincing herself. “I’d never wanted to be a star—I just wanted to be an actress.”

The one who really has reason to be uptight on the set is Henry, venturing his first film since the Fonzkrieg. “It’s scary, it’s another beginning,” he says. Obviously in admiration of Sally’s adjustment, he philosophizes in his New York-actor fashion: “She pulled back and established herself in a totally new way. And that’s what it’s all about—growth. “Says his California co-star: “Things come to you when you are ready for them.”

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