So a surfer girl, a flying nun and a woman with multiple personalities walk into a bar… No, wait a minute, that’s not really the start of a joke—it’s the versatile actress Sally Field.
This icon of the Baby Boomer generation turns 60 this year, but her wide-ranging performances will always be ageless. Americans have grown up with Sally, and her classic characters resonate anew with each generation. One of the few actors to have garnered two Academy Awards (for her roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart), Field not only thrilled us with her acting, but also touched our hearts at the award ceremony with her vulnerable acceptance remark, “You like me—right now you like me.”
Of course, it’s no wonder that both professionals and fans like her. Perennially fresh and always surprising, Field excels in a new way at every turn, giving us star performances in every venue, from the small screen to the stage to the large screen. She charmed us as TV’s surf-gal in Gidget and as Robin Williams’ ex-wife in the film Mrs. Doubtfire. She illuminated the puzzling world of a young woman with mental illness in the television movie Sybil (for which she won an Emmy). She had us rolling in the aisles as the housewife-turned-standupcomic in the sharp-witted film Punchline, and she brought us to tears as mother to Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias and to Tom Hanks in the Academy Awardwinning Forrest Gump. Most recently, she’s reprised her Emmy Award-winning role as bipolar patient Maggie Wycenzki on the NBC television drama ER, and this season has launched the fresh, new ABC series Brothers and Sisters.
Belying her feisty appearance, Field has announced that she was recently diagnosed with osteoporosis. Using the same vitality she has brought to her many acting roles, she is boning up on her bone health knowledge and helping others along the way. Joining with Roche Therapeutics and GlaxoSmithKline (makers of the once-a-month osteoporosis medication Boniva), Field is spearheading the Rally With Sally For Bone Health campaign, helping make women aware of prevention, detection and treatment for this common and sometimes devastating degenerative bone disease.
Recently, ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper sat down with Field at New York’s elegant Four Seasons Hotel to talk about both her remarkable career and the cause she’s become so passionate about.
Chet Cooper: We’ll start with an easy one. How old were you when you were born?
Sally Field: (laughs)
CC: Okay, let’s start again. What got you into acting?
SF: I was just always interested in it as a child.
CC: So as a kid growing up in Southern California, you did as children do, playing around?
SF: Well, I also performed in junior high and high school. I was lucky—in those days the schools actually had really thriving drama departments. I’m very sorry they don’t have them right now in this country. I think it’s really important for children to have artistic outlets. I was always in the drama department.
CC: What was your big break?
SF: Believe it or not, I was discovered on a street corner and asked to go on an interview. And out of that I got my first television series, Gidget, in 1964.
CC: I remember you surfing as Gidget. But yesterday, I quizzed the younger people in my office, and they knew you for your movie roles. They weren’t aware of Gidget or The Flying Nun. But most of your early roles were TV sitcoms, right?
SF: Yes, Gidget and The Flying Nun were weekly sitcoms that ran through the ’60s and part of the ’70s. In the late ’70s I did a mini-series called Sybil, which was not a sitcom, very much not a sitcom. I’ve worked more in film, but I’ve done some other television in subsequent years—a miniseries called A Woman of Independent Means, about a widow coping with life’s hardships in the early 1900s, and a six-or eight-episode slot as a very colorful character on ER, for which I won an Emmy.
CC: Let’s talk about your portrayal of Sybil. The character was based on a best-selling book about a real woman who had multiple personality disorder. When you took that role, how much research did you do into mental health issues?
SF: I did as much research as I could. Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist who diagnosed Sybil, spoke to me about her, and I spoke with other doctors as well, who showed me videotapes of multiple-personality patients they’d treated. It was interesting, but in the end I didn’t really use much of that information because I didn’t think it was dramatically viable.
CC: Did you find that your views about mental health changed at all after viewing those materials and actually performing as Sybil?
SF: Yes, in some ways. I didn’t really know much about multiple personality disorder, so obviously I learned a lot through researching that role. And again for ER, there was much learning to do about bipolar disorder.
I find that’s one of the great things about acting—you have the opportunity to stand in somebody else’s shoes, whether it’s someone with mental health problems or someone who lives and works in a small town. Each character faces a dilemma in her life, and as an actor you’re able to step into that character’s skin, look through her eyes. You leave transformed, a different person, because once you live a little bit of someone’s life, it changes you.
CC: Do you find it easier to relate to some roles than to others? For instance, is it harder when the character has a problem you’ve never experienced in your own life, like multiple personality disorder?
SF: Well, for almost every character I’ve played in the 43 years I’ve been working as a professional actor, I’ve found parts of myself. We are all bipolar in the tiniest essence of what it is. We are all multiple personalities, in a sense, and to be healthy mentally, I think, learning what those multiple personalities are and inviting them in your life is really important. I mean, Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow—the dark side that each of us carries around, the monstrosities we’re all capable of—is really a sort of multiple personality. It becomes a mental health issue when it occurs to such a degree that people are dramatically cut off from their own consciousness and can’t integrate the information in their minds.
CC: So what feelings about health and mental health have you taken away from playing those roles?
SF: I have felt and still feel that there have not been enough long-term studies for women’s health issues, both in mental health and in other areas. For example, researchers are finding that many mental health issues in women—and in men too, for that matter—are chemical and can be treated effectively with therapy and medications. But most people remain shut off from this information, this research. Addressing that divide is why I’m part of my own health campaign.
CC: You’re referring to your work with osteoporosis.
SF: Yes. I’m the spokesperson for osteoporosis. It’s a huge epidemic, primarily because of this very large group of women who are now turning 60. Fortunately, osteoporosis has a very effective treatment if women are informed early. They need to be made aware of their risk and what to do to protect themselves—for instance, that they should be getting bone density scans at a certain age. In fact, this even extends to men. Twenty percent of men are diagnosed with osteoporosis.
CC: Really? Twenty percent?
SF: That’s right. With osteoporosis, most people have this mental image of a little old lady who is all hunched over. But in reality, lots of people can have it and not suspect it.
Also, people often don’t take osteoporosis seriously because they think it’s just what you naturally get from being older. But that’s not the case. The disease can be devastating. One out of two women over the age of 50 will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture some time in her life, and in many cases that fracture will greatly impact her health. Furthermore, you can experience that fracture of a spine, a hip or an ankle from something as mundane as picking up a bag of groceries. So it’s not like a fracture happens because you were skiing down a mountain, caught that edge and…
CC: Ran smack into a bag of groceries?
SF: (laughs). What I mean is, you don’t have to tumble head over heels down a hill. A fracture can occur from some everyday activity that you’d never even think twice about—like you bend down to sit on a bench and watch your grandchildren play on the swings, and you break your spine.
So people need to be aware that osteoporosis is a threat. If you’re at risk, you can choose a treatment that’s right for you. There are very effective medications, whether you choose something you take once a day, once a week or once a month. I take Boniva once a month, because I’m not good with pills. It helps build my bones back to a healthy state and keeps them there.
CC: Is there anything else you do for your osteoporosis, beyond the medication?
SF: Yes, it’s also important to exercise, eat right and sleep enough. Everyone should have a physical regimen, not just for bone health but for general health. The best long-term study for women’s health followed a group of nurses for 30 years to see what things led to good health. It really showed the benefit of regular walking and the harm of certain types of diet, like diets high in trans fatty acids. Women need to know these things, that they should be eating right not just for their weight, but to get enough calcium and other nutrients— that means leafy greens and all that. They need to know not to ever smoke, ever, ever, ever—and if they do smoke, they need to stop right now. Because obviously smoking impacts your lungs, but it also impacts your bones—it impacts everything.
Many women can lower their risk of osteoporosis by taking calcium supplements and working out regularly. But some people like me have it in their family history, in their genetic code. No matter how good I was about working out and taking supplements—and I don’t smoke—I was still going to get it. My grandmother had it, and I have other risk factors as well. I am Caucasian, I’m really small and thin—and I’m way over 50!
CC: And you’re a woman, I see.
SF: (laughs) Yes, you’re right—I am that! So I was going to get this one—the diagnosis wasn’t really a surprise.
CC: Knowing your family history, at what point did you realize you might have osteoporosis? Was it just from regular checkups or did you feel any different?
SF: With osteoporosis, just as with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the onset is silent. You have to look for it to find it. I wouldn’t have been aware if I’d not had a fine doctor who was watching for it from my late 40s on. Because I’m so small, I have very little bone to lose before I’m at risk. So he started doing regular bone scans, beginning in my 40s, to get a baseline and watch for changes. At some point I entered a phase called osteopenia, the first stage of bone loss before you progress to osteoporosis. Once you develop osteopenia, you not only have to look at your calcium, but also vitamin D.
I was lucky to have a really good doctor who was on top of things, but if you don’t have that good health care provider, you need to have the information yourself so that you can go in and demand that the right things be looked at. You have to know to ask for a bone scan.
Ultimately, despite everything I did, I developed osteoporosis—a point where the bone loss is severe enough that you’re at risk of fractures. When my doctor did last year’s bone scan, he said, “Well, now we have to treat you, because it’s dangerous. Now you’re at risk.”
CC: So what happens now? You’ve been diagnosed. You’ve got your regimen. You’ve got your medication—which is Boniva, correct?
SF: Yes, and it’s great. Boniva stops a tremendous amount of bone loss, helps to maintain what I have and also rebuilds stronger and healthier bones.
CC: And you take it only once a month?
SF: Right. Only once.
CC: How often do you get bone scans?
SF: I have one bone scan a year, because even though it’s a tiny amount of radiation, it’s still radiation equivalent to about 20 minutes of sun. So my doctor is very conservative. Because of all the work he’s done in the past, combined with what he does now, he’s able to tell how my bones are doing. Before, my body was losing a tremendous amount of bone, and without treatment there would be no way my body could build that back to a healthy level.
People should know that there’s normal bone loss and there’s abnormal bone loss. Our bones are breaking down and rebuilding all the time. That’s how the body maintains bone—it’s a living tissue that constantly regenerates, like skin. It’s the rate of breakdown that’s important. Fortunately, there’s a simple blood and urine test that your doctor can order to gauge how much bone your body is losing. If it’s abnormal, you can treat it. Once you reduce your bone loss to the normal rate, then you know your body is rebuilding bone in a healthy way again. That’s where Boniva kicked in for me—it stopped the abnormal loss of bone almost immediately.
CC: Did you start with that regimen right away, or was there trial and error?
SF: At first, when I just had osteopenia, my doctor tried to treat it conservatively with vitamin D and calcium supplements. Maybe that staved off the onset of osteoporosis a little, but not much. When you enter your 60s your genetic code kicks in—in some cases, even earlier. So whether it’s high blood pressure, high cholesterol or osteoporosis, there are health issues that rear their heads no matter what you do, and you have to deal with them aggressively.
CC: You said your grandmother has osteoporosis. What about the other women in your family?
SF: My mother has it, too. She didn’t get it as early as I did—I’m more small-framed than she is, more like my father’s mother. But she’s 84 now and she has it as well.
CC: How is she coping with it—is she also taking Boniva?
SF: (laughs) Yes, she is! For a while she was taking a weekly pill, but when I’d ask her about her medication, she’d say, “Well, I forget sometimes.” Which isn’t unusual. One study showed that half of the women who took weekly osteoporosis medication either quit or were frequently forgetting it by the end of the first year. Sometimes they’d miss weeks.
So once I was diagnosed and found out about a once-amonth pill, I told my mom, “All right, we’re going to get you on this one.” She asked her doctor about it and moved over to taking Boniva. Once a month just fits into her life better.
CC: It sounds as though the most important thing is to get the medication consistently, whatever it takes.
SF: Yes, it’s a regimen. You have to be very committed— if you stop taking it, you’re back at square one. Some women have a hard time digesting the medication, which is another reason that once-a-month pills are easier for them, so they don’t have to deal with that side effect as often. Also, my doctor is very excited that Boniva has now come out with a shot women can get in the doctor’s office if they have trouble taking the medication as a pill.
CC: I suppose that because osteoporosis is one of those silent health problems, it would be easy to let the medication slip your mind. You don’t feel any different when you take it, because the changes are all internal.
SF: Yes, with osteoporosis you don’t lose your energy; you don’t feel frail.
CC: Is there some kind of phone call reminder system that could help people like your mother remember to take their Boniva 12 times a year?
SF: Yes, there is. To begin with, Boniva’s naturally easier because you don’t have to take it as often. There are all sorts of ways to help remember something you do once a month—you can pick the first of every month for your medication, the last of the month, the 15th, the day something else for the month is due.
Additionally, if your doctor prescribes Boniva, you can sign up for the MyBONIVA Program and get contacted by mail, phone or email each month when it’s time to take your Boniva.
The Rally With Sally For Bone Health campaign also has a website so women can become informed about osteoporosis and hopefully take that information in with them when they talk to their health care providers. The material is available in different languages, and everything is covered on the site, from how to take the medication, to suggestions for healthy living, to study results, to a list of organizations that help people with osteoporosis.
CC: What about the people who don’t have access to the Web?
SF: They can call and get the same information and the same assistance, if they need a reminder or help making the commitment to their bone health. And when you make a commitment to bone health, that can lead to a larger commitment to health in general. After talking to the rep, you might say to yourself, “You know what? I have to start working out, start eating right, maybe lose some weight, stop smoking. I need to look into some health issues.” Whether it’s taking control of osteoporosis—which can be a devastating health problem—or looking at your blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes, making that commitment is the first step to improving your health altogether.
CC: I hear you’re also writing a blog for the Rally With Sally website.
SF: Yes, I am. By writing about my life on a monthly basis, I invite women to also examine what’s happening for them and to keep re-investing in themselves by taking care of their own health issues. These women, the Baby Boomers who are entering their 60s, are a really important generation. They’ve done so much for their daughters and their granddaughters, who may not even know how much things have changed for women. So it’s important for women my age to stay engaged, to be involved in changing how women see themselves as they grow older. We need to stay healthy.
CC: Years ago, we ran a picture of you from the movie Norma Rae, holding up that sign that read UNION. By putting herself on the line, your character rallied her coworkers to action—they united behind her, and they all benefited. In a sense, that’s what you’re doing now, using your story to motivate the women around you to help themselves.
SF: Yes. There’s a group of women turning 60, and they need to know that bone loss is one of the things they can take care of and not let advance any further. It’s important because we need them around. Their children need them and their grandchildren need their insight.
foreword by Kanani Fong
To join Sally Field in Rally With Sally For Bone Health,
For further information on osteoporosis or Boniva, or to enroll in the MyBONIVA Program, visit www.myboniva.com