February 2, 1947– Farrah Fawcett:
“I’m holding onto the hope that there is some reason that I got cancer, and there is something that may not be very clear to me right now, that I will do.”
It was the face that launched a million push pins. An iconic Bruce McBroom poster from 1976 of her in a red swimsuit, at once wholesome and lascivious, was tacked on the walls of boys’ bedrooms across the country, except mine; I had Burt Reynolds.
Her image was inescapable in the mid-1970s, along with her simultaneous debut in the hit television series Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981). That overwhelming early fascination continued to follow and, at times, haunt the fiercely private Fawcett until her early death four decades later.
Few had recognized Fawcett’s acting potential when she arrived in Los Angeles when she was 21 years old, fresh from graduating from the University of Texas. For years, she was known as a sun-kissed sex kitten from her many television commercials and print ads.
In her iconic pose, Fawcett was all legs, dazzling teeth and blonde hair. Her layered and frosted hairstyle became known simply as “The Farrah”. The poster sold an unbelievable 14 million copies and became the most celebrated pinup poster since Betty Grable‘s.
In Charlie’s Angels, Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith played sexy undercover private investigators, working for the never-seen on camera Charlie, voiced by John Forsythe, who directed the Angels crime-fighting operations via something called a speaker-phone. An unproven talent, Fawcett was the final Angel cast by super-producer Aaron Spelling, primarily to fill the blond slot in the trio.
Critics derided the series as “Jiggle TV”, yet the show finished its first season in fifth place in the ratings, better than The Six Million Dollar Man, the series starring Fawcett’s then-husband, hunky Lee Majors. During her nine-year marriage to Majors, she worked as Farrah Fawcett-Majors.
Fawcett left the show abruptly after season one, dissatisfied with her $10,000-an-episode salary and determined to find more challenging roles. In order to break her contract with Spelling, she was obligated for the next two years to make occasional guest appearances on Charlie’s Angels.
For the next decade, she studied hard and worked on her acting skills in made-for-television films and miniseries, for some reason, specializing in true crime stories.
In 1983, Fawcett won critical acclaim for her role in the Off-Broadway production of William Mastrosimone‘s controversial Extremities. Replacing Susan Sarandon, she played an attempted rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker. She later described the role as “the most grueling, the most intense, the most physically demanding and emotionally exhausting” of her career. In 1986, Fawcett appeared in the film version of Extremities, which was also well-received by critics and was a box-office hit. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
Fawcett received the best reviews of her career for her harrowing performance in The Burning Bed (1984) as Francine Hughes, a mother of three, who, after years of physical abuse at the hands of her husband, set him on fire as he slept. The fact-based television movie earned her the first of her four Emmy Award nominations. The project is noteworthy for being the first television film to provide a nationwide 800 number that offered help for others, in this case victims of domestic abuse. It was the highest-rated television movie of the season.
She seemed to have a thing for playing real life females. She was nominated for Golden Globe Awards for roles as Beate Klarsfeld in Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story (1986) and troubled Woolworth heiress title character in Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987), and won a Cable ACE Award for her portrayal of groundbreaking LIFE Magazine photojournalist in Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White.(1989). Her perforce as convicted child murderer Diane Downs in the miniseries Small Sacrifices (1989) brought her another Emmy nomination and her sixth Golden Globe Award nomination. The miniseries won a Peabody Award, with Fawcett’s performance singled out by the organization, which stated: “Fawcett brings a sense of realism rarely seen in television miniseries to a drama of unusual power”.
After she divorced Majors in 1982, she began a tempestuous 17-year relationship with actor Ryan O’Neal, the father of her only child, Redmond.
Fawcett had refused to appear nude in magazines throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even though she had briefly appeared topless in the film Saturn 3 (1980). It was a big deal when she was shown semi-nude in the December 1995 issue of Playboy. She also appeared on the cover of the July 1997 issue. She was 50 years old, and the issue became one of Playboy‘s top sellers. The issue and its accompanying video featured Fawcett using her body to paint on a canvas; for years, this had been one of her ambitions.
In 1997, she played Robert Duvall‘s wife in The Apostle, receiving an Independent Spirit Award nomination. She’s especially lovely in this one.
The three original Angels reunited for the first time at the 2006 Emmy Awards. A month later, Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer. After a round of chemotherapy, she was told the cancer was in remission. In early 2007, she took a camcorder to her next oncologist appointment, learning that the cancer had returned. She began videotaping her grim, debilitating treatment for cancer, which was now Stage-4, having spread to her liver. The footage chronicled her ordeal, including the news that if she lived, it would be a life lived with a colostomy bag. Not wanting to proceed with the colostomy, she traveled to Germany for holistic, alternative treatments.
It resulted in her friend Alana Stewart‘s wrenching documentary Farrah’s Story, which aired on NBC in 2009.
At the suggestion of Fawcett’s doctor, her son Redmond was granted a furlough from jail for a three-hour visit with her. Redmond was struggling with heroin addiction, and was being held on drug charges.
A few days later, Fawcett wrote her own epitaph:
‘”I’ve loved and I’ve been loved. I’m happy. I’m ready.”
Fawcett left this world in June, 2009. She was 62. News of her passing was overshadowed by the death another Pop Icon, Michael Jackson, that same afternoon. It was such a weird day; I will never forget it. People at my work were crying about Jackson, and I was so just so sad about Fawcett. She seemed forgotten.
I thought it was wonderful how O’Neal, who we’ve heard so much negative stuff about over the years, really stepped up. The way he was by her side until the end, it was heartbreaking.
In 2010, at the 82nd Academy Awards, Fawcett was excluded from the “In Memoriam” montage. The inclusion of Michael Jackson in the montage, a performer not really noted known for his film work, only added to the controversy. Friends and colleagues of Fawcett publicly expressed their disappointment at the snub, including Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Jane Fonda and film critic Roger Ebert. The Academy later apologized.
In 1980, O’Neal had put together a meeting between Fawcett and Andy Warhol. Warhol created two portraits of Fawcett during their time together. Fawcett later loaned the portraits to The Andy Warhol Museum. O’Neal claimed that the reason there were two portraits was that Warhol had painted one for each of them, and the second of them belonged to him, even though it had been in Fawcett’s possession since she stormed out of his house with it in 1997 after discovering O’Neal in bed with another woman.
After her passing, O’Neal took it from her house and hung it in his own. It was caught on-camera in an episode of O’Neal’s reality show on OWN, Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals. Fawcett’s college boyfriend notified the University Of Texas, which had been named by Fawcett as the recipient of her artwork, of the existence of the painting in an apparent bid to establish himself as Fawcett’s greatest love.
Following a 2013 court battle between O’Neal and the University of Texas, one of the portraits was deemed the property of O’Neal. The portrait is valued today at $13 million.
On her birthday in 2011, O’Neal donated objects from her estate to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, including the red swimsuit from the iconic poster, an original copy of the poster, her Charlie’s Angels scripts, the Farrah Phenomenon 1976 edition of TV Guide, and an original 1977 Farrah Fawcett doll.
“She was a selfless person who loved her family and friends with all her heart, and what a big heart it was. Farrah showed immense courage and grace throughout her illness and was an inspiration to those around her… I will remember her kindness, her cutting dry wit and, of course, her beautiful smile…when you think of Farrah, remember her smiling because that is exactly how she wanted to be remembered: smiling.”