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Farrah Fawcett, iconic 'Charlie's Angels' actress, 62

By Laurence Arnold
Bloomberg News / June 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Farrah Fawcett, whose cascading blond mane, provocative pinup poster, and starring role in the television detective program “Charlie’s Angels’’ made her one of the biggest stars of the 1970s, has died. She was 62.

Ms. Fawcett died yesterday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. A resident of Beverly Hills, she had recently returned to St. John’s for treatment of complications of anal cancer.

Actor Ryan O’Neal - her longtime partner, who was at her side during her final days - said in a statement that her family and friends “take comfort in the beautiful times that we shared with Farrah over the years and the knowledge that her life brought joy to so many people around the world.’’

Ms. Fawcett was diagnosed with the rare form of cancer in September 2006. She joyfully declared herself cancer-free in February 2007, only to experience a recurrence three months later. In January 2008, she started alternative treatments in Germany and began filming her cancer battle for a television special, “Farrah’s Story.’’

By the time the special aired, on NBC on May 15, the cancer had spread to Ms. Fawcett’s liver.

“I do not want to die of this disease,’’ she said on the show, “so I say to God, ‘It is seriously time for a miracle.’ ’’

For countless Americans, Ms. Fawcett is frozen in time as the tanned, smiling 29-year-old beauty with feathered blond hair, clad in a revealing red bathing suit, in a 1976 poster that became a fixture in dorm rooms and gym lockers. Among those who had the poster in their bedroom: Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character in the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever.’’

The poster’s maker, Pro-Arts Inc. of Medina, Ohio, said it sold several hundred thousand copies each month at its peak popularity. Estimates of total copies sold range from 5 million to 12 million.

Ms. Fawcett was on the cusp of celebrity when she posed for the poster, known mostly for appearing in commercials for products including Wella Balsam shampoo and for marrying Lee Majors, star of the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man.’’

Ms. Fawcett consented to the photo shoot at their Bel Air, Calif., home, but she set some limits. “They wanted me in a bikini,’’ Ms. Fawcett recalled in a 1977 interview with The Washington Post. “I said no. Then they wanted me looking out from behind a tree, you know, acting seductive. I said, ‘No, that’s not me.’ I wanted to be smiling, happy.’’

The photographer, Bruce McBroom, recalled in a 2006 interview with The Baltimore Sun: “She was just this sweet, innocent, beautiful young girl. This was before Hollywood took her.’’

Hollywood was already knocking, however. The famed television producer Aaron Spelling had given Ms. Fawcett a part in a 1975 television movie, “Murder on Flight 502,’’ as a favor to Majors. Impressed, Spelling decided to add her to a planned series starring Kate Jackson about three lovely, deadly female detectives.

“We were looking for the California beach-girl type, and Farrah was perfect for that,’’ Spelling wrote in “A Prime-Time Life,’’ his 1996 memoir. “She was drop-dead gorgeous and the living image of the beautiful L.A. blonde in tennis shorts or a bathing suit.’’

“Charlie’s Angels’’ premiered on ABC in September 1976, starring Ms. Fawcett, Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith, and ran through 1981.

Though critics panned the show, it quickly became a ratings hit. Spelling said much of the credit went to Ms. Fawcett, who played agent Jill Munroe, especially her flowing, flipped-back blond tresses.

“We thought about changing it for a moment in the beginning, and had we been doing a traditional cop show, we would have,’’ Spelling wrote. “But her hair helped make the show. It became one of our signatures.’’

Ms. Fawcett’s hairdo was imitated in salons worldwide, making it as much an emblem of 1970s grooming as long sideburns on men.

Ms. Fawcett, unhappy with the production’s long hours and the scripts’ light fare, shocked the industry by declaring her contract invalid and leaving “Charlie’s Angels’’ after one season. Spelling and coproducer Leonard Goldberg took her to court, alleging breach of contract, and replaced her with Cheryl Ladd.

In a settlement, Ms. Fawcett agreed to return for six more episodes over the show’s remaining run. All told, she appeared in 29 of the 115 episodes.

In leaving “Charlie’s Angels,’’ Ms. Fawcett hoped to begin making movies with Majors. She starred in “Somebody Killed Her Husband’’ (1978), the first offering by Fawcett-Majors Productions. But the partnership ended a few years later when the couple divorced, and Ms. Fawcett’s movie career never really took off.

She later said her contentious departure from “Charlie’s Angels’’ had left her “blackballed in Hollywood.’’ Eventually, performances on stage and in television movies established her as an actress with more than looks to offer.

Farrah Leni Fawcett was born on Feb. 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas, the second of two daughters of James Fawcett, an oil field contractor, and Pauline Evans.

She attended the University of Texas in Austin and studied microbiology before becoming an arts major.

Ms. Fawcett moved to Hollywood in 1969 at the behest of agent David Mirisch, who had noticed her in a photo spread of University of Texas coeds.

She appeared in television commercials and small roles in series including “I Dream of Jeannie’’ and “The Partridge Family.’’ Majors, whom she met in 1968 and married in 1973, helped her work up to bigger roles in “Myra Breckinridge’’ (1970), based on the Gore Vidal novel, and the science-fiction film “Logan’s Run’’ (1976).

After “Charlie’s Angels’’ and the end of her marriage and partnership with Majors, Ms. Fawcett found occasional success in movies.

She played a battered wife who strikes back in the television movie “The Burning Bed’’ (1984), earning nominations for Golden Globe and Emmy awards.

Her portrayal of the victim of a rape attack in “Extremities’’ (1986), the film version of a William Mastrosimone play, brought another Golden Globe nomination.

Moving from victim to victimizer, Ms. Fawcett starred in the television movie “Small Sacrifices’’ (1989) as Diane Downs, the true story of an Oregon woman convicted of shooting her children in a bid to win a man uninterested in becoming a father. Ms. Fawcett was nominated again for an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

She played the neglected wife of a preacher (Robert Duvall) in “The Apostle’’ (1997). She earned her third Emmy nomination in 2003 for a guest role in the television series “The Guardian.’’

Almost 20 years after her famous poster, Ms. Fawcett posed as the cover girl for Playboy magazine in December 1995, then did so again in July 1997.

Also in 1997, she earned unwanted headlines with a rambling, spaced-out appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman’’ that raised questions about whether she was under the influence of drugs. Ms. Fawcett said she was just trying to be playful and denied ever using drugs.

After splitting from Majors, Ms. Fawcett entered a long relationship with actor O’Neal, and they had a son, Redmond, in 1985. The couple never married and broke up in 1997. They resumed a close friendship by 2003, and O’Neal was her caretaker and confidant during her battle with cancer.

“I fell in love with her all over again because of how she handled this,’’ O’Neal told People magazine. O’Neal told People yesterday that he and Ms. Fawcett did not marry in her final days, as they had discussed doing.

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