Farrah Fawcett, a reigning symbol of American pop culture who never quite managed to escape the one electrifying role that made her that symbol -- as one of "Charlie's Angels" -- has died. She was 62, and had been suffering from anal cancer, which had recently spread to her liver.
A near-mythic figure of '70s TV screen and pinup poster fame, with her radiant grin and bounteous hair, Fawcett became a cultural star -- at one time adored, then mimicked by fans, and mobbed by paparazzi. She was one of those uniquely Hollywood/tabloid creations who was famous simply because ... she was famous.
-Click here to see photos of Farrah Fawcett through the years
"She was a joy to work with," said Robert Greenwald, the veteran producer who cast her in her most respected TV role, "The Burning Bed," based on a true story about an abused woman who kills her husband by setting fire to him while he slept.
"She was smart, passionate and creative and a real fighter on every level. She had tremendous respect for the material and went places that a beautiful star like her had not gone and that will have a lasting mark. She helped change laws [through the movie] and inspired many other actresses. For many years it was literally a line that someone would use -- X or Y wants to do her 'Burning Bed.'"
Fawcett also had a mythic battle with the industry that would make her so indelibly famous too, and that conflict resonates to this day as well. At the instigation of her agent at the time, she walked out on her contract for "Charlie's Angels," precipitating a war with some of the industry's major powers, such as Aaron Spelling and ABC, a network that was riding to success on the back of the show after years in the Dumpster.
Veteran producer Barney Rosenzweig ("Cagney & Lacey") was show-runner the first year of "Angels." "I never held it against Farrah but the industry did. It was really going to teach her a lesson and she was going to be the object lesson that they were going to use -- partly because she was up against someone as powerful as Aaron Spelling and his connections with the ABC network were so strong."
Indeed, Fawcett -- whom Rosenzweig called "lovely and talented and bright and funny" -- didn't work on an ABC series until a couple of decades later.
"It did not ruin her career but she could have been the next Carole Lombard," he says. "It was an amazing opportunity and [the fallout] put a damper on where she could go and what she could do. But she sucked it up and did what she had to do to make amends.
"'Charlie's Angels,'" he adds, "helped everybody connected to it except Farrah. It helped her, sure, but it did a lot of damage to her as well."
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1947, Fawcett moved to Los Angeles after high school, and was cast in small roles in series such as "I Dream of Jeannie" and "The Flying Nun." After marrying TV star Lee Majors in 1973, she guest-starred in four episodes of his hit series "The Six Million Dollar Man" and began doing ads for Wella Balsam hair products. That led to a poster company inquiring about taking her picture.
A deal was struck, and the Fawcett pinup -- featuring the star in a red bathing suit that didn't hide much at all -- became a worldwide best-seller. It remains her iconic image: A picture that for some still recalls an entire decade.
Despite later attempts at serious TV movies and stage work, it was just one role that defined Fawcett for the past 30 years, for better or worse. In 1976, Fawcett -- then credited as Fawcett-Majors -- was cast as Jill Munroe, one of three female detectives in an ABC series that was originally going to be called "The Alley Cats." The trio never actually saw their boss, but were sent off on assignments to health spas or beaches or nightclubs -- where they might model either
snug-fitting bathing suits or Nolan Miller gowns. ABC spent up to $20,000 per episode on the costumes Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith wore -- insanely profligate even in 1970s dollars.
Predictably, the press hated the show, and just as predictably, the public loved it. When it bowed on Sept. 22, 1976, "Charlie's Angels" was seen by nearly 59 percent of the viewing audience; In 2009, only Super Bowls manage that kind of viewership.
Rosenzweig recalls that it was "just this amazing, amazing success. I was there the first half of the first season and first week on the set it was on the cover of Time Magazine Prince Charles was on the set. People on staff were operating in a rarefied atmosphere that I had never experienced before or since. It was stratospheric."
In his 2002 autobiography, creator Aaron Spelling, who died in 2006, noted that "any time we put one of the angels in a bathing suit, and we would have been stupid not to, the press called it 'jiggle.' Why damn us with that silly word? ... The women spent more of their time in the fantastic Nolan Miller gowns."
Spelling sought Fawcett after casting Jaclyn Smith; he needed a pretty blonde, explaining, "We were looking for a California beach girl type and Farrah was perfect for that. She was drop-dead gorgeous and the living image of the beautiful blonde in tennis shorts or a bathing suit."
Fawcett quit after one season to pursue a movie career, which led to a sensational breach-of-contract suit and an ultimate truce in which she agreed to appear in six additional episodes. ABC then cast Cheryl Ladd as Jill's sister, Kris, reasoning that viewers would never hate the sister of the woman who ditched the series.
"Charlie's Angels" lasted until 1981 -- more than enough time to keep ABC the top-rated network in television -- although the damage to Fawcett's career was severe.
She never worked on a series for ABC again, and in the then tight-knit world of network TV, earned a reputation as "troublesome." After her post-"Angels" movie career ("Sunburn," "Saturn 3") faltered, series roles were elusive though Fawcett used that setback to her advantage. She scored roles in a serious off-Broadway drama ("Extremities") and several well-regarded TV movies ("The Burning Bed," " Margaret Bourke-White") that almost made people forget about Jill.
But her career rehab turned out to be hit or miss. Later lowlights included posing nude in Playboy (1995); a memorably incoherent appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman" (1997); and a well-publicized altercation with her then-boyfriend, director James Orr (1998).
After divorcing Majors in 1980, she began a tempestuous, tabloid-friendly relationship with actor Ryan O'Neal, with whom she co-starred in "Good Sports," a short-lived 1991 CBS series. Their son, Redmond, 24, was -- recently was arrested after police said he brought drugs into a California jail.
Her battle with cancer was made public in 2006, and she subsequently signed a deal with a California TV producer to create a show that would follow her on her tireless rounds of treatments for a disease she was certain she would beat. The program aired May 15 on NBC.
"Farrah's Story" will be her final credit.
-Click here to see photos of Farrah Fawcett through the years
Published in Newsday from June 25 to June 30, 2009