Most of the obituaries and tributes to the late Shelley Morrison on her passing in early December of 2019 (at age 83) referenced her long-running role as Rosario Salazar, the tart-tongued domestic to flaky Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) on Will & Grace. MeTV was a noticeable exception (and only fitting, seeing as they’re in the classic TV bidness and all) in that they mentioned the boob tube gig that people of my vintage remember when they think of Shelley: that of Sister Sixto, the nun who struggled with the English language during the three-year run of The Flying Nun (“She’s as sharp as a tick!”). Morrison was a delight on that series, and I was recently afforded the opportunity to revisit her work thanks to a DVD dubbing project on which I’ve been working of late.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the first season of what TV Guide ranked #42 on its 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time list in 2002 to DVD in March of 2006, and followed quickly with the show’s sophomore season in August of that same year. But like so many companies tend to do when they’re unable to “move units” (don’t even get me started on The Defenders or St. Elsewhere), the third and final year went MIA where DVD releases were concerned, a practice that infuriates the hell out of me. (Mill Creek Entertainment subsequently released The Flying Nun’s first two seasons in a combo pack in 2014 but I guess Numero Tres wasn’t in the cards.) When I saw that FETV had added Nun to its schedule some time back I made it a point to DVR those shows so that I could complete the show’s run. Not an optimal situation, I’ll grant you: they’ve chain-sawed these installments to what averages as a 21:40 running time…all the better to squeeze in another walk-in tub commercial with Eric Roberts, I suppose.
About that “50 Worst TV Shows of All Time” appearance. Look, you’ll get no argument from me that the premise of The Flying Nun is one of the silliest in the history of the medium. If TV Guide had titled their list “The 50 Silliest TV Shows of All Time” I’d be all in. I’ve seen worse shows than Nun, believe you me. It’s the type of sitcom that’s bland and inoffensive (unless the concept of levitating nuns runs counter to your religious beliefs), much in the vein of the mayonnaise-and-white-bread sandwich that is Mayberry R.F.D. (Run over to the old site of the blog site to read up about that classic.)
For those of you who were trapped in a bomb shelter during The Flying Nun’s original run on ABC-TV, a young girl named Elsie Ethrington (Sally Field), impressed by her aunt’s missionary work, decides to enter a convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico and as a novice adopts the name Sister Bertrille. Sister Bertrille, who tops the scales at 90 lbs. soaking wet, soon learns that because of the odd-shaped cornette she wears as part of her habit—and the high winds around the Convento San Tanco—she is literally able to fly. (As Sister Bertrille often explained: “When lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag.”) The credits on each episode of Nun always credited Tere Rios’ novel The Fifteenth Pelican as the inspiration for the series…but I suspect that some brain trust decided to meld the fantasy wackiness of 60s sitcoms (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, etc.) with The Sound of Music to get this on TV screens. (“Hey…people love nuns, right? What if a nun…could fly?”)
In addition to Sister Bertille and the aforementioned Sister Sixto, the supporting cast of The Flying Nun included Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), who acted as Sr. Bertrille’s sounding board; Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood), the stern but forgiving “head nun”; Sister Ana (Linda Dangcil), Sr. Bertrille’s fellow novice; and Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey), the playboy owner of the local casino who helplessly found himself caught up in Sister Bertrille’s zany schemes.
Sally Field had just finished her role on the one-season sitcom Gidget when the masterminds at ABC proposed The Flying Nun to her. Field thought the premise silly, silly, silly and said “no thanks” to the gig…until her stepdad, Jock “Yancy Derringer” Mahoney, advised her that turning down the role might jeopardize any future jobs in the business. So Field steeled herself for adventures in the wild blue yonder, and while in later years the two-time Oscar winner had much fondness for her young Gidget persona there wasn’t a great deal of love for Nun. (Sally…you made four movies with Burt Reynolds, including Smokey and the Bandit II . There are no clean hands in a dirty world.)
Here’s the thing about The Flying Nun: if they had simply gotten rid of the whole “flying” angle it would have made for a pleasant (again, if bland) series—many of the better Nun episodes are the ones where Sister Bertrille stays firmly planted on the ground. The first season concentrated on hokey, saccharine storylines that sought to humanize nuns (which won them commendations from various Catholic organizations), went full-blown slapstick gonzo is Season 2, and then went back to the sweetness-and-light of the inaugural season for the wrap-up year. Season 3 has a good many unintentional laughs because star Field was pregnant with her first child at the time and it’s pretty doggone obvious—despite trying to block her body with props and scenery—that a nun great with child wasn’t going to get off the ground no matter how stiff the San Tanco winds were. (Some have attributed Field’s pregnancy to the show’s cancellation but the ratings for Nun weren’t all that spectacular at that time, truth be told.)
Of the third season episodes I’ve been dubbing to disc, there are some standouts. “Guess Who’s Coming to Picket” has some true laugh-out moments: Sister Bertrille unwittingly gets involved in a strike between labor and management at Carlos’ casino (a newspaper reporter takes a picture of her with a picket sign she’s holding for one of the strikers). “Bertrille and the Silent Flicks” will be right up the alley of classic movie fans, with Savannah native Miriam Hopkins as a Mother General who reveals that she was once a silent movie siren back in the early days of the flickers. “The New Habit” takes the sisters out of their habits and into new, flattering duds…which rob Sr. Bertrille of her flying abilities. There are plenty of familiar faces in these shows, too: Paul Winchell, Bob Cummings (as a priest in ”Speak the Speech, I Pray You”), Chelsea Brown, Larry Storch (“The Not-So-Great Impostor”), Nehemiah Persoff, Elinor Donahue (as Sr. Bertrille’s sister), and Farrah Fawcett (in two episodes!), just to name a few.
“Back then the church was happy to have any positive portrayal of religion in prime time, even if it involved flying nuns,” writes David Hofstede in What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. The Flying Nun is just a solid example of why 60s TV was so wonderfully demented…and why I’ll take any of those classic shows over the inanity of “reality” television any day of the week.