Question: I was going through your cover gallery, a very good thing, and came upon a Flying Nun cover. Did they ever explain how she flew on that show? Was it superpowers or what? Thanks. Vivian M., Springfield, Pa.
Televisionary: Why, thank you for the kind words, Vivian. We're pretty darned proud of our Gallery, but always appreciate it when someone else recognizes how genuinely great it is.
On The Flying Nun, which ran on ABC from September 1967 to September 1970, the 90-pound Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) attributed her aerial adventures to aerodynamics. "It all has to do with my coronet," she explained in one episode. "It's when the lift plus thrust is greater than the load plus drag." Basically, when the wind kicked up her head gear served as a wing, lifting her off without necessarily giving her any say in her destination and invariably giving her conservative Mother Superior (Madeleine Sherwood) fits.
If the concept of the show seems more than a little odd, it is, though not nearly as strange as, say, a talking Porter inhabited by a dead mom (My Mother the Car) or a wacky comedy revolving around a Nazi prison camp (Hogan's Heroes). But The Flying Nun was a tough sell just the same.
Writer and TV executive Max Wylie met with a barrage of doubt and laughter when he made the rounds at various studios and production houses, trying to convince them to make the book The Fifteenth Pelican into a show. It wasn't until he brought in Bewitched executive producer and pal Harry Ackerman, who sold it to ABC, that things really (pardon the expression) took off. And even then, industry naysayers derisively referred to the show as "Sister Terrific." Nevertheless, Wylie and Ackerman looked at the success of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun and thought they had a winner in a series that boiled down to, as Wylie wrote in a pitch, "a nun with sex appeal."
All of which made for smooth sailing, especially since Wylie and Ackerman had the perfect girl in mind for the part the perky and likable Field was perfect for the role. Until, that is, she turned it down.
It seems Field felt she'd been burned the first time she worked for Ackerman after Gidget, on which she'd played the titular surfer girl, was cancelled after only a year. Ackerman, the executive producer of that series, had dealt only with her agent and stepfather instead of talking directly to her and she was left feeling the show's failure was her fault. "Besides, I didn't want to play a nun," the actress said of her initial snub. "You're not allowed to kiss or show your bellybutton."
Field had her sights set on a movie career and so Ackerman and company started shooting their pilot with Bobby Troup's daughter Ronne. But after Field lost parts in The Graduate and Valley of the Dolls to Katharine Ross and Patty Duke, respectively, she had a change of heart. "[I]t was presumptuous to think I could step into movies," she said of the flip-flop. "Idiot, I told myself, you're not Liz Taylor! The Flying Nun would give me time to learn and still keep me in the public eye. So I changed my mind." (Obviously, she had no way of knowing then that she'd later go on to win two Academy Awards for her work in 1979's Norma Rae and 1984's Places in the Heart.)
All well and good (except for poor Ronne, of course), but another problem was that the Catholic Church wasn't exactly known for wanting to promote its nuns as sexy and no one was really sure how crazy it would be about a convent comedy. So the producers signed up a former Los Angeles councilwoman to screen the pilot for Church officials and found that the Church was far less worried about offending the faithful than the producers were. Matter of fact, they saw it as a recruiting tool. "The show is positioning nuns as human beings," National Catholic Office for Radio and Television Executive Director Charles Reilly told TV Guide in 1968. "Only the studio, the agencies and the sponsors were worried. I guess they thought Catholics might stop buying toothpaste."
They didn't and the show proved popular enough to shut up the skeptics. Batman producer William Dozier, who called Wylie's sanity into question when pitched the show early on, was gracious enough after the series caught on to write a note saying he was "plucking the egg off my face and eating large portions of humble pie." And Field was rewarded with a far better mode of transport than an aerodymanic coronet. Screen Gems bought her a midnight-blue Ferrari 330 two-plus-two convertible.
So, to answer your question again, how did the Flying Nun really fly? In style.