The Flying Nun: Soaring to Success Followed By a Crash Landing

This month we are in the midst of the series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Today we take a look at another sitcom whose cast was primarily female.

From 1965-1966, Gidget starring Sally Field was on the air. When it was cancelled after only 32 episodes, producers were scrambling to find another vehicle for Field.  Harry Ackerman, with co-producers Bernard Slade (who would create The Partridge Family and just passed away last week) and Max Wylie came up with The Flying Nun. They based it on a book published in 1965, The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios. Beginning on ABC in September of 1967, the show continued through the fall of 1970, resulting in 82 episodes.

I did read that Patty Duke was the first choice for the show, so I’m assuming when she turned it down, they asked Sally Field. Apparently, they were trying to find a show for Field, but this show was not created for her. Field also turned it down, thinking it was a silly concept, so the producers went to their third choice, Ronne Troup, who would play Polly on My Three Sons. Troup began filming the pilot. Sally’s stepdad, Jock Mahoney, told her she should reconsider because she might not get another chance in show business if she didn’t accept the role. When Sally informed the producers that she had changed her mind, Troup was let go.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In the hour-long pilot, we meet Elsie Ethrington. Elsie, who grew up in Chicago, is arrested in New York during a protest. We learn that the rest of her family has chosen medicine for their vocation. (In a later episode, we meet one of her birth sisters who is a physican played by Elinor Donohue.) Elsie goes to Puerto Rico. She is impressed with the missionary work her aunt has been doing, so she ends her relationship with her boyfriend, a toy salesman, and becomes a nun at the Convento San Tanco, taking on the name Sister Bertrille. In one episode, Sister Bertrille watches home movies of her life and what we are actually seeing is footage from Gidget.

Photo: pinterest.com

One day Sister Bertrille, who is only 90 pounds, realized that the heavily starched cornette on her head, allowed her to be able to “fly” as the high winds picked her up. As she tried to explain to several people, “when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly.” Of course, a nun flying around town caused quite a stir. Field said she was humiliated by her directors as she was hung from a crane and moved around the set like a prop.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) runs the convent. She is kind, but strict. Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), who sees the humor in most situations, becomes good friends with Sister Bertrille. Sister Ana (Linda Dangcil) and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) are also friends of hers. The other major characters are Captain Gaspar Fomento (Vito Scotti) who is a police officer that the nuns keep from learning about Sister Bertrille’s flying ability and Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey) who owns a casino and is a ladies’ man. Ramirez was raised by the nuns, and they constantly try to reform him. He will not be reformed, but out of appreciation, he always tries to help them, and Sister Bertrille is constantly involving him in zany schemes or asking him to finance some plan of hers.

Photo: flickr.com

This was the first (and perhaps only) sitcom to be set in Puerto Rico. Although the pilot and opening and closing credits were shot in Puerto Rico, the show was shot at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California.

The producers were worried about how Catholics would react to the show. They asked the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television to serve as an advisor. The show actually was popular with Catholic religious leaders who felt the show “humanized” the image of nuns.

The show was also popular with viewers of every other religion. The first two years, it aired Thursday nights, competing with Daniel Boone. The sitcom was sandwiched between Batman and Bewitched. Although it was declared a hit immediately, the ratings eroded during the two years.

Photo: epguides.com

The producers had a hard time deciding on a focus for the show. During the second season it contained more slapstick comedy. The third season it went back to the warm and fuzzy feelings it used in the first season. For the third season, the network moved the show to Wednesdays and put it up against The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour which insured its cancellation. It didn’t help in the third year that Field was pregnant. She mentioned in an interview that “you can only imagine what a pregnant flying nun looked like,” and the crew had to hide her behind props and scenery.

Photo: thenewyorktimes.com

Critics never took to the show, but the public kept it on the air three times longer than Gidget. Many fans remember the series fondly. The plots were often heart-warming. In “With Love from Irving,” a pelican falls in love with Sister Bertrille. When Sister Bertrille is forced to go to the dentist for a toothache, Dr. Paredes puts her under hypnosis. The doctor gives them a suggestion that whenever they hear “red,” she and the Reverend Mother will switch personalities. In another show, Sister Bertrille wants Carlos to finance an expedition to find a bell that sunk long ago that was supposed to go to the convent because their old one is rusted and they can’t afford a new one. Carlos uses the opportunity to woo a young woman, but Sister Bertrille tags along. The girlfriend gets thrown overboard, but the bell is found in the end.

Relying on uplifting morals (pun intended) and Field’s delightful and talented performances, the show continued on the air. Marge Redmond was nominated for an Emmy as supporting actress. Unfortunately, she was up against Marion Lorne, who won it for her role of Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

TV Guide ranked the show number 42 on its worst tv shows of all times list in 2002. However, it continues to do well in syndication and has an international fan club.

Photo: ebay.com

While the show was on the air, it sold a variety of merchandise, including paper dolls, lunch boxes, trading cards, view master reels, a board game, and a doll.

Photo: ebay.com

Sally Field released a soundtrack LP with songs from the series in 1967. Dell Comics came out with four comic books based on the series in 1968.

Photo: ebay.com
Photo: ebay.com

I must admit I was not a big fan of the show. However, I have gone back and watched quite a few episodes for this blog, and it is better than I remembered it. Although the concept does sound as silly as Field thought, the show is charming and can be quite funny at times. Although it might not be in your top 25, it probably deserves a second look if you have not seen it for a while.

Photo: listal.com

From Gidget to Mary Todd Lincoln: The Highly Respected Career of Sally Field

When you mention the name of Sally Field, different generations of women remember her for different roles.  That is because she has continued to find quality movies and television shows to add to her resume. Beginning her career in 1965, 52 years later she is still appearing in respected films.  The woman who started out as Gidget, a typical teenager has become Mary Todd Lincoln. Let’s take a look at her long and admired work.

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Sally Margaret Field was born in 1946 in California.  Her mother was actress Margaret Field. Margaret is a descendent of a passenger on the Mayflower and William Bradford, governor.  Her parents divorced in 1950 and her mother then married stuntman Jock Mahoney. Sally graduated from Birmingham High School in Van Nuys where she was a cheerleader. Her classmates included Michael Milken and Cindy Williams.

Her first acting job was the role of Frances Elizabeth Lawrence, or Gidget, as she was nick-named in the 1965 series. Field was perfectly matched as the all-American girl Gidget; she lived with her widowed father, a college professor (Don Porter). Her older sister Anne was married, and she and her husband John felt compelled to watch over Gidget. Gidget spent most of her time surfing and hanging out with her best friend Larue played by Lynette Winter. The show was based on the book and Sandra Dee movies which were very popular, but the series was cancelled after only 32 episodes due to low ratings.

In 1967, she accepted the role of Sister Bertrille on The Flying Nun. The show featured a nun who was assigned to a convent in Puerto Rico. Her coronets and small size allowed the trade winds there to lift her up, and she was able to fly. This series was also based on novel, The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios.

She also appeared in her first movie in 1967 – opposite of Kirk Douglas in The Way West.

Sally has been married twice, first to Steven Craig from 1968 to 1975.  The couple had two sons, Peter and Eli. Following that marriage, Sally was involved in a long relationship with Burt Reynolds.  In his book which came out in 2015 he said that she was the love of his life and definitely the one that got away.  Sally then married Alan Greisman from 1984-1993 and they had one son, Samuel.

 

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Field appeared in several television series in the 1970s and finally received a role as The Girl with Something Extra in 1973.  For 22 episodes, she starred with John Davidson as her husband who realizes on his wedding night that his wife has ESP. Hopefully she was able to alert him that the show would be cancelled before the end of the season so he could start looking for a new job.

 

After this tv series flopped, Field became a serious movie actress.  She appeared in many critically acclaimed movies during her career, including Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Norma Rae (1979), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), Places in the Heart (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Forest Gump (1994), Legally Blonde 2 (2003), and, most recently, Lincoln (2012).

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In the late 1990s, Field added to her resume, directing several shows including the tv film The Christmas Tree in 1996, one episode of From the Earth to the Moon in 1998, and the feature film Beautiful in 2000.

 

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In 2000, Field returned to television with a recurring role on ER between 2000 and 2006. She played Abby Lockhart’s mother, Maggie, who has bipolar disorder. She won an Emmy for the role in 2001. She starred in The Court in 2002 which only lasted for six episodes.

In 2005, Sally was diagnosed with osteoporosis. She created the Rally with Sally for Bone Health campaign which encouraged early diagnosis of the condition using bone-density scans.

 

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Her last television role was matriarch Nora Walker in Brothers & Sisters which was on the air from 2006 until 2011. Originally the role of Nora was played by Betty Buckley. The producers decided the character would take a different direction and offered the part to Field. She also won an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for this show in 2007.
In 2014 Sally received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located front of the Hollywood Wax Museum.

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2017 found Field in a Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie. She was nominated for a Tony award for best actress in a play for the performance.

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In addition to her Emmys listed above, Sally won an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie for Sybil in 1977. She won Academy Awards for best actress in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart. Her acting performances have been nominated for awards 57 times.

Sally Field is a well-respected and award-winning actress who has continued to find projects as she ages which is not always easy for women in film. At 70, Field appears much younger and energetic than other women her age.  She has continued to fight for causes she is passionate about. Her acting portfolio has definitely been a career to be proud of.