In Special Guest Star, Gwen Ihnat takes a look at a standout turn by a performer in a TV series, noting what effect the appearance had on the actor, the series, and the TV landscape overall.
Sally Field’s career has been all about subverting expectations—a tall order when you start out on TV as the world’s cutest surfer, on Gidget, and the eponymous sister on The Flying Nun. Determined to transcend the saccharine material she was initially known for, Field studied with acclaimed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, but still found that Gidget image tough to shake. So in 1976, she took on a part designed to win over her doubters: She played the title character in the two-night TV-movie event Sybil, winning her first Emmy for playing a woman with dissociative personality disorder. Field’s critical acclaim quickly accelerated when she won an Oscar just a few years later for playing a labor organizer in 1979’s Norma Rae, followed by another one for Places In The Heart in 1984.
After that second Oscar, though, many of Field’s roles fell into a familiar category: the supportive mother. Her characters in films like Steel Magnolias, Not Without My Daughter, and Forrest Gump all took a back seat to their offspring, fighting fiercely for their survival. Field writes in her engrossing 2018 memoir In Pieces that she felt like she was always trying to prove herself even after some of her biggest films, still falling prey to longstanding insecurities that she was “trivial, uninteresting, a lightweight.”
In 2000, Field would take her public perception and flip it upside down once more with a guest arc on ER, returning to the medium where she not only got her start, but which also won her her first real critical acclaim. The hit medical drama was a juggernaut at that point, having been the cornerstone of NBC’s Thursday night programming since 1994. From the beginning, the series was also known for its stand-out guest stars. The chaotic tapestry the series wove due to its multitude of emergency room physicians and the strange cases they encountered made it ideal for a big-name guest looking for a meaty short-term role. In season one, Rosemary Clooney, aunt to then-cast member George Clooney, helped kick things off when she showed up in the role of a woman with Alzheimer’s who couldn’t stop singing. Soon, other big-screen stars entered the fictitious County General Hospital, like Ewan McGregor, playing a thief that Julianna Margulies’ Nurse Hathaway encounters at a corner store, or Don Cheadle as a medical student with Parkinson’s disease.
Maggie Wyczenski was the kind of role that gave a seasoned pro like Field a ton to work with; stoking storylines over the course of several episodes was an ER specialty. Field’s portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder displayed the myriad facets that come with dealing with a mental illness, including complicated relationships with one’s family members. Maggie is mother to nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney), though the role of caretaker alternates between the two. When we first meet Maggie in the sixth episode of season seven, “The Visit,” she’s in a manic state, exuberantly bursting into the ER (“in a dress that would look ridiculous on a woman half [her] age,” Abby later points out) and handing out bagels to the immediately charmed staff. Field bore a convincing resemblance to Tierney, who went toe-to-toe with the established vet. Abby refuses to acknowledge Maggie at first because she is not only embarrassed; she also knows what’s inevitable when her mother is off her meds, and she lacks the strength to go through it all again.
But Abby comes around once Maggie agrees to get back on her medication, and her mother stays with her for a while. In “The Dance We Do,” Maggie works happily on her sewing machine at Abby’s apartment, excitedly talking about a job interview. She’s cheerful, but there’s a tinge of excessive energy that could indicate another mood swing just under the surface—a sign of the deep layers of performance Field was cultivating in the part. Soon, Abby’s worst fears are realized when Maggie erupts into a full-on manic episode and is admitted to the ER, where it takes both Luka (Goran Visnjic) and Carter (Noah Wyle) to restrain her. Lashing out, she attacks Abby physically and calls her a bitch, and it becomes clear why Maggie’s arrival filled her daughter with so much dread. For Field, it’s a chance to once again show a different aspect of her range, the kind of unbridled rage one couldn’t imagine erupting from her steadfast Steel Magnolias character.
Field’s next appearance is probably the most memorable from her run on ER. Early in the season-seven episode “Sailing Away,” she’s holed up in an Oklahoma motel enduring a depressive episode. Abby and Carter head out to go get her, breaking from the series’ usual all-hospital setting for a dusty, low-rent road trip. The first glimpse we get of Maggie, sprawled out alone on a disgusting motel bed, is shocking. When Abby bathes her mother, in such a resigned fashion, we know that she’s had to take care of her this way innumerable times.
The most poignant moment of “Sailing Away” is when Maggie and Abby are talking on a terrace at a motel on the way back home, where Maggie has been watching a family by the pool. “I watch people like that for hours,” she tells Abby, with an abject longing. Field’s face is ravaged, destroyed, indicating the hopelessness she feels in the vast disconnect between her existence and what she thinks “normal” would feel like. It’s a foreshadowing of Maggie’s near-fatal overdose on sleeping pills at the end of the episode.
Scared straight, with a new commitment to taking her medication, Maggie eventually works out a plan to move home to Minneapolis. Abby, who’s been burned too many times before by Maggie’s optimistic plans, is caustically dubious. In episode 21, “Where The Heart Is,” Abby admits to Maggie that she had an abortion years ago, afraid to pass on the bipolar gene in her family to another generation. This tragic scene nearly becomes triumphant thanks to Field’s portrayal of her character, who has finally turned a corner. She becomes the mother that Abby has always longed for, encouraging her to embrace life and not to avoid things because of the risks that may come with them: “Risk? That’s all there is!” Maggie ends this run by emphatically telling Abby, “I’m gonna handle my life. And I want you to get on with yours.” Because we’re so invested in Maggie—and Field—we are rooting for her to get that happy ending, to mend these long-damaged fences with her daughter, and for the often-dark ER to finally offer a hopeful ending for the character.
Sally Field won her second Emmy, for ER, in 2001. As in Sybil, she had helped to make still-stigmatized mental disorders relatable. Maggie showed up a few other times before ER came to a close (with Field nabbing another Emmy nomination in 2003), primarily to help Abby care for her brother, Eric (Tom Everett Scott), who starts displaying bipolar tendencies of his own.
When Field received Kennedy Center Honors in 2019, Tierney was there to celebrate her former co-star, saying that working with Field was “the greatest gift that has been given to me as an artist.” Field’s ER performance was a gift to viewers as well—showing the value of pushing yourself, of doing the unexpected, and of subverting expectations whenever possible.