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television: Field Test

Betcha can't catch Sally Field acting in her new TV show, "The Court."


Audiences first became aware of Sally Field in 1965, when she showed up on prime-time TV as "Gidget." Field wore the part of the boy-crazy, pert and impossibly perky California girl perfectly. Then she starred in "The Flying Nun" from 1967 to 1970, playing Sister Bertrille so effortlessly that we all thought she was simply playing herself.

Trouble was, the Gidget and Sister Bertrille roles typecast Field as a lightweight in many Hollywood minds, and for a while she had a hard time finding anybody who would take her seriously as an actress.

Then came "Sybil," a compelling 1976 TV movie in which Field began to make her bones as an actress, playing — count 'em — 17 distinct personalities. She walked away with an Emmy for that role. It was becoming clear that Field wasn't just playing herself: She knew how to act. She proved it not once and for all but twice and for all, when she won best-actress Oscars in 1979 ("Norma Rae") and 1984 ("Places in the Heart").

Field has proven over and over again that she has that chameleonlike ability to be whatever she needs to be to fit a role. (Did you see her guest-starring as Abby Lockhart's manic-depressive mother on "ER"? It was a bravura performance.) Field gets inside the skin of a character much like Meryl Streep does, and audiences forget she's acting because she doesn't seem to be.

Thus it's no surprise that Field already seems to be her latest character, Justice Kate Nolan of the United States Supreme Court. In ABC-TV's new series "The Court," Field is the most recently confirmed justice, a pragmatic but unknown quantity appointed to an evenly divided bench.

Field has excellent support from, among others, crusty old character actor Pat Hingle as the chief justice and from coolly talented Diahann Carroll as the court's first female African-American justice.

But "The Court" doesn't limit its focus to the nine justices. The clerks, who are the real powers behind the high-backed leather executive chairs, share the spotlight, as does a reporter/videographer news team, which allows the series to put a human face on the lives of the court and those who appear before it.

"The Court" has started slowly, spending perhaps too much time establishing characters and confronting hot-button issues such as abortion rights, but it has nonetheless shown evidence of a level of plot complexity and layered character development that bodes well.

Slow or not, it's always a treat to watch Field make us believe she's whoever she's playing — doubly so because you can never catch her at it. S"The Court" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC-TV.

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