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The perky California teen Gidget. The emotionally battered Sybil. The heroic Norma Rae. The frail but indomitable Edna of "Places in the Heart." Forrest Gump's devoted, loving Mama.

These diverse, memorable women were all brought to life by Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning actress Sally Field. Now the 48-year-old actress has added another indelible portrait to her gallery of characters: Bess Steed Garner, the feisty heroine of "A Woman of Independent Means."

The six-hour miniseries, based on Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's acclaimed bestseller, premieres Sunday on NBC. Tony Goldwyn, Ron Silver, Jack Thompson and Brenda Fricker also star in the lavish saga that was filmed in Houston and Galveston, Tex., last summer.

"We had heat and locusts," Field recalls with a smile. "Later on we had a flood. A big flood. A huge flood."

Field, who doesn't look much older than she did in her "Gidget" days, is dressed in leggings and a flannel shirt, having recently returned from jogging this sunny morning. Bounding into the cozy sitting room of her Brentwood home, Field settles into an overstuffed chair to discuss "Woman," which she also executive produced.

The miniseries, which marks Field's first major TV role since her Emmy-winning turn in "Sybil" in 1976, chronicles 70 years in Bess' life, as she grows from a young married woman of 19 to a woman of independent means. Strong-willed and manipulative, Bess has her share of triumphs and tragedies. She witnesses the death of her first husband and young son, embarks on a passionate second marriage and endures financial ruin and a painful separation from her only daughter.

Field had read the book, which is based on the life of Hailey's grandmother, when it was first published in 1978. "Of course, then I was in no position to do anything with it except enjoy it," she says.

At that time the actress had successfully broken away from her wholesome girl-next-door sitcom image, thanks to "Sybil," and her feature career was beginning to heat up with substantial roles in "Stay Hungry," "Smokey & the Bandit" and "Heroes."

In the ensuing 17 years, Field has become one of the most powerful actress-producers in Hollywood. Winning best actress Oscars for 1979's "Norma Rae" and 1984's "Places in the Heart," Field is one of just a handful of women--including Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Luise Rainer, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Bette Davis and Jodie Foster--who have collected at least two of the coveted statuettes.

Field previously had been approached about doing "Woman" as a feature film, but never thought it would work in that form. "I didn't think it could be done and I still think I'm right about it," she says. "You would have to cut so much out of it to contain it."

It was miniseries executive-producer director Robert Greenwald who approached Field about doing "Woman" as a long-form TV project. "I've had a production company for an extremely long time and Robert Greenwald brought it to Fogwood, my company. This was the first time I went, 'Hmmm. This might be a good idea.' But I still didn't think it could be done," especially since "Woman" is an epistolary novel.

"I thought, 'How can anyone maintain the kind of delicate nature of what it is?' (Screenwriter) Cindy Myers did. We worked on it a long time. Everybody had a lot of notes. I was doing 'Forrest Gump' in South Carolina and Robert worked with Cindy. I hadn't read it because they wanted me to remain with sort of fresh eyes until I got back. I was really pleasantly surprised when I saw the script, because I thought they had pulled it off."

The book's power, Field says, "is that it's just a look at someone's life essentially--all the joys and the tragedies. Certainly we don't see every day of her life. We see pieces of it. People are heroic who just live their lives--all of us."

Field also believed "Woman" would mark the only time in her career she would be given the opportunity to "examine how an incident in your life when you are young changes the rest of your life and how that change manifests itself when you are old."

Over the decades, Field says, Bess maintains her appetite for life. But her desire to manipulate people grows. "At the beginning of her life she tries to hide her manipulation and tries to cloak it under more acceptable feminine wiles," Field says. "At the end, she doesn't hide it at all. I liked that about her."

Field firmly believes Bess has nothing in common with Norma Rae or Edna.

"Bess has money, Bess has an education," Field says. "Bess is a bigot, a snob and is selfish and self-possessed. Bess doesn't fight for what she believes in. She fights to get what she wants. Norma Rae was a person who was a hero in that she stepped outside of her own element and became somebody else. Bess would never do that."

Edna, Field continues, "was this frail little creature who was dependent upon men and when that was taken away she was forced to make friends with two people she would never be friends with: a gorgeous large black man and a blind man. It forced her out of her element. Bess wasn't like that. Bess never had to make those choices. Bess changes because life makes you change and life is never what you plan for it to be. To quote Joseph Campbell: 'You have to give up the life you planned to find the life that is waiting for you.' "

"A Woman of Independent Means" airs Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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