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WHEN SALLY FIELD DECIDED TO BE SWEATY, NOT SWEET

I had attended an advance screening of "Norma Rae," so I already knew that Sally Field's high-voltage performance as a union actvist would establish her as a major movie actress. But I was not quite prepared for the humor, candor, and sexiness she projected when I interviewed her for Newsday one afternoon in 1979. I guess you could say I liked her, I really liked her. --GUY FLATLEY

"Cute was out – it went out with Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day," said Sally Field, recalling her spirit-deflating reign as TV’s coy, flutteringly sweet princess of the sitcoms.

"The kids loved me, but my contemporaries hated me; I was cornflakes and they were into granola. I couldn’t shake the stigma of ‘The Flying Nun,’ the sugary image of ‘Gidget’; it was impossible to make the jump from TV into the movies. That was a no-no in those days."

The silly, stereotype-prone ‘60s are mercifully dead, and after today the ghosts of giggly teenyboppers and nutty nuns will no longer haunt Sally Field. Today is the opening day of "Norma Rae," Martin Ritt’s tough, impassioned film in which the 32-year-old actress triumphs as a skimpily educated, sturdy-spirited and bluntly sexual widow who angrily struggles to unionize a drowsy Southern cotton mill. She’s earthy, eloquent, funky and heartbreaking, and it would be perverse to visualize next year’s Oscar race without her.

"When I first read the script, I thought there was very little of me in Norma Rae," she said, looking strangely fragile, nearly prim – a saucer-eyed, pert-nosed waif in a high-collared blouse and a lavender skirt, prettily poised amid the splendor of her suite at the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A decidedly distant cousin to the sweaty, slang-snapping mill worker.

"As we got into the filming down there in Opelika, Ala., I started to be Norma Rae, talking like her and holding my head up high. ‘They can do whatever they like to me,’ I began telling myself. ‘They can treat me with disrespect, haul me away in a police car and throw me in jail, but I’m going to survive, I’m going to win, because they can’t take away my dignity.’ What I’d done was find a parallel in my own life, and dignity was the key word. I wasn’t fighting for my children to be fed, the way Norma Rae was, but I’ve fought to protect my two sons, and all my professional life I’ve been fighting for my dignity."

It was a battle similar to the one waged by her mother, Margaret Field, a Paramount starlet of the ‘50s who shone briefly, almost subliminally, in potboilers spotlighting the likes of Alan Ladd and Martin and Lewis.

"Maybe I wanted to escape from reality, maybe that’s why I wanted to become an actress from the time I was two years old," Sally said. "But I don’t think so…there was really no great unhappiness when my parents divorced. Probably the reason for my obsession is that my mother, who has always been the primary person in my life, used to carry me on her hip as she recited speeches from Chekhov and Shakespeare in her classes at Paramount. I remember thinking she was doing something lovely and loving. Even at home we’d go off into fantasy-land together. I’d do little pantomimes and she’d laugh and applaud. It was a communication of love, and that’s what acting has always been for me. There never was a time when I didn’t want to be an actress, and I just knew that the only difference between Katharine Hepburn and me was my education, and once I was educated I was sure my cheeks would sink in and I’d get tall and I’d be ever so sophisticated."

Picture the letdown when Sally turned out to be a pint-sized, chubby-cheeked ingenue scampering through slyly virginal episodes of a wind-up gadget called "Gidget." Nor was her off-tube scenario untouched by disillusion. "I married my high school sweetheart," she said. "He was more my brother than my lover, my dearest friend in all the world. Nobody thought to tell me that you don’t marry your best friend. Finally, after seven years, we said, ‘We’re still kids together; adults need to have adult relationships.’ "

Just as adult actresses need to have adult roles to play. "My first big step was in realizing that I was stuck and that I had to do something about it. There were plenty of offers to do ‘The Sally Field Show’ and lots of other junk, but I said no thanks. The truth was that nobody around me had any respect for me; to them, I was a joke. So I took the plunge and changed everything at once – I got rid of my agent, my business manager, my house and my husband. For three years I dropped out and studied and did summer stock. When I’m ready, I told myself, it will happen – even if I’m 82."

It began to happen when she was picked by Bob Rafelson to play the scrappy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who shapes up rich boy Jeff Bridges in "Stay Hungry." "That movie made about 12 cents," she said, "because it was too individual and ahead of its time, but the people who did see it sat up in their seats and said. ‘Hey, that’s not the girl we remember…that’s not Gidget.’ Then came a real change – on TV, of all places. I did ‘Sybil,’ and people really sat up and noticed."

Especially Burt Reynolds, who was so entranced by her Emmy-winning performance as the schizy Sybil that he cast her as his leading lady in "Smokey and the Bandit," "The End" and "Hooper" – not to mention the prominent role she continues to play in his off-screen escapades.

And, come summer, Sally will undoubtedly make a big splash in the long-awaited "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure." Would she care to describe her role in that storm-tossed epic?

"Awful!"

Is she cast as Michael Caine’s sweetheart?

"You’ve got me! I guess he falls for me and I fall for him, and I think we both fall into the ocean. Too bad we didn’t all drown at the beginning of the movie. Oh, well, at least I got to work with some good people, some good actors…I want to make it very clear that I’m talking only about the actors."

Was there a director aboard the ship?

"Yes, and I regret to say his name was Mr. Irwin Allen."

What? The dean of the disaster-producers had the courage to direct another movie all by himself, despite the critical sting suffered by "The Swarm"?

"I wish not," she said, discreetly crossing her eyes. "I tried to help him out, but he didn’t seem to think that was a good idea."

Not that she harbors directorial aspirations. "Most TV actors have already had to do too much of that. Actually, I’m one of the world’s great puppets, and all I have to do is find great puppeteers. I found one in Marty Ritt, and another in Burt Reynolds. Burt just directed me in ‘Vanities’ at his dinner theater in Jupiter, Fla., and we’ll be doing ‘The Rainmaker’ there as soon as I finish touring for ‘Norma Rae.’ "

There are still some cynics among us, stubborn folks who cling to the notion that Reynolds is merely a macho rogue, an appealing prankish grown-up boy. "He is definitely grown up," Sally said, reflectively, "and he is definitely a boy. But he’s also a lot of wonderful things most people have not yet been privileged to see."

He sounds good enough to marry; do they plan to become the Lunt and Fontanne of the ‘80s?

"I don’t know if we plan to marry or not…we’re happy as we are now," she said with a sunburst smile that would put Gidget to shame. "We’re having a great time!"

CLICK HERE TO READ GUY FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS WITH JACK NICHOLSON, DIANE KEATON, JACK BLACK, AMANDA PEET, PETER O'TOOLE, BARBRA STREISAND, WOODY ALLEN, SUSAN SARANDON, AL PACINO, GLENDA JACKSON, JOHN WAYNE, TUESDAY WELD AND OTHER MAJOR MOVIE PERSONALITIES.