The Flying Nun

views updated

The Flying Nun

Julie Andrews, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mary Tyler Moore have all played nuns, but the most notorious TV nun was played by Academy Award-winner Sally Field, much to her chagrin. The Flying Nun television series soared on ABC from 1967 to 1970, bringing viewers a concept that still seems ridiculous years later. Sister Bertrille (Field) was a bubbly young ninety-pound novice at the ancient Convent San Tanco, which sat on a hilltop in Puerto Rico. Whenever a stiff wind caught the starched cornette worn by her order, Bertrille was lifted into the air, becoming the "flying nun." The convent's conservative Mother Superior, Reverend Mother Plaseato (Madeleine Sherwood), wasn't too impressed, but Sister Bertrille did get along well with wise and humorous Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond) and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison), a Puerto Rican nun who had trouble with English. And, because even a show about nuns needed to have a little sex appeal, Bertrille was admired from a distance by Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey), a wealthy, handsome playboy, owner of a discotheque in town, and patron of the convent.

Bertrille's avian ability got her into some hot water, sometimes literally: she was occasionally dunked into the ocean. Once she was almost shot down because she was mistaken for an enemy aircraft; another time a pelican fell in love with her. The novice took it all in sunny stride, but Sally Field was anything but sunny about this role, as she explained in Playboy in 1986: "In Gidget, I had things to play, scenes with fathers and people; here I had nothing. Just complete silliness—someone got into the convent who shouldn't have and we'd have to hide him… There were no life problems going on, nothing I could relate to. It made no sense to me. I started refusing press interviews and getting a bad reputation. But I couldn't go and hype the show, saying, 'I'm having such a good time' when I wanted to say, 'Let me out of here!' Flying Nun was a one-joke show, and I don't know why it was successful."

Field took the role because she was a teenager and believed she'd never work again after Gidget made her, or at least her character, the butt of jokes. Comics like Bob Hope had a "field day" making cracks about the series and turning all of the standard nun jokes into flying nun jokes. Besides feeling hurt by the jibes and feeling the ennui of an actor with no challenge, Field had another problem during her holy tenure—she was pregnant with her first child. During filming she had to carry books in front of herself to hide her growing belly.

For Field, there was one good thing that came of the role. Castmate Madeleine Sherwood took her to the Actors Studio, where Field could hone her craft with the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Bruce Dern, and Lee Strasberg. "It changed my life," she said in Playboy. "I found a place where I could go and create." But before Field left the world of light, gimmicky sitcom fare to begin her career as one of America's finest actresses, she would complete her wacky TV trilogy with The Girl with Something Extra, in which her character has ESP.

Not everyone hated The Flying Nun as much as Field; after all, it lasted three years. In a 1996 article in Psychology Today, Will Miller wrote, "This show is actually a provocative lesson about personal power … this show says, if you'll stop resisting the environment, if you'll only attune yourself to nature, to the direction and flow of the world's winds, you too can fly!" The Flying Nun was also commended by religious orders for "humanizing" nuns and their work. The series was based on the book The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios.

—Karen Lurie

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-present. New York, Ballantine, 1995.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York, Penguin, 1996.

Miller, Will. "Mental TV." Psychology Today. November-December 1996, 56.

Nelson, Craig. Bad TV. New York, Dell, 1995.

"Playboy Interview: Sally Field." Playboy. March 1986.