Hollywood's ultimate golden girl dies
By DONNA FREYDKIN
Her swimsuit poster launched a thousand male fantasies.
Her feathered locks made curling irons de rigueur for women and kick started the most pervasive hair trend of the ’80s.
She was Hollywood’s penultimate golden girl. And, now, Farrah Fawcett, who epitomized the all-American ideal of beauty, has died after a three-year battle with anal cancer. She was 62. Her spokesman, Paul Bloch, says Fawcett died Thursday morning in a Santa Monica, Calif., hospital.
In September 2006, Fawcett learned she had anal cancer. The devastating news led to a reconciliation with her on-and-off boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal, 68, the father of their troubled son Redmond, 24. O’Neal was by her side as Fawcett went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments and the actress was declared cancer-free in February 2007. But later that spring, she learned the cancer had returned. After growing weary of ineffective treatments in the United States, Fawcett fled to Germany in September 2007 for alternative cancer therapies.
Her friend, Craig Nevius, told People that Fawcett was “discouraged by the treatments she got here. The fact that it recurred after all that she went through was heartbreaking.”
At her side throughout her final difficult years: O’Neal — who himself had battled leukemia — and their son Redmond.
Fawcett’s tumultuous personal life belied her scrubbed, wholesome good looks. Perhaps most heartbreaking for her? Redmond’s ongoing battle with drug addiction, which led to two arrests. In September, the youngest O’Neal was arrested and charged with drug possession after methamphetamine was found in his father’s Malibu residence. And on April 5, Redmond was arrested again for allegedly trying to sneak drugs into prison, where he’d been visiting an inmate. He was sentenced to drug court, an intensive rehab program, during which he was allowed to visit his ailing mother under police supervision.
Fawcett will long be remembered as the pistol-packing blond Jill Munroe on the ’70s classic “Charlie’s Angels.” But her legacy may be that she was never completely victorious in the decades-long battle she waged to overcome that enduring, indelible sex-symbol image.
It is fitting that Fawcett — who launched to superstardom on the small screen — also said goodbye the same way. In May, NBC aired the documentary “Farrah’s Story,” chronicling Fawcett’s battle with cancer, attracting nearly 9 million viewers.
“I’m holding on to the hope that there is some reason I got cancer and that there is something, that may not be very clear to me right now, that I will do,” Fawcett said in an interview filmed for the documentary, according to Access Hollywood.
It’s hard to believe that it took just one season — and 12 million copies of an unforgettable poster — to launch a deep-seated phenomenon that would carry on for more than two decades. After only 22 episodes, Fawcett walked away from her hit show, saying it was preventing her from growing as an actress. Producer Aaron Spelling threatened to sue her for breach of contract, she agreed to guest appearances on the series and was ultimately replaced by model Cheryl Ladd.
Fawcett had no regrets about leaving. When she hit it big on “Angels,” Fawcett’s life was “in great turmoil,” she told LIFE magazine in 1987. “I was locked into a character who was never changing. The producers did not really want to change. They had a successful format. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t had that show, I don’t know if I’d be where I am today, even though I couldn’t really appreciate that fact at the time. You’re just never in sync.”
It took years before Fawcett was able to gain the critical notices she yearned for as a serious actress. Yet, they still stung with an awe-inspiring tone of surprise that TV’s air-headed sex symbol, indeed, had some genuine acting chops.
Critics offered praise for her first post-Angels return to television in the 1981 film “Murder in Texas.” Fawcett gained more critical raves and professional cachet with her 1983 leading role as rape victim in the off-Broadway play “Extremities.”
With the strongest role of her career — as an abused wife in the 1984 TV movie “The Burning Bed” — Fawcett earned an Emmy nomination and, at last, professional respect. But it would be more than a decade before she found a taste of critical acclaim in film. Fawcett seemed poised for a movie career after earning praise as Robert Duvall’s spouse in 1997’s “The Apostle.” But that never materialized. By the early 2000’s, Fawcett was back on TV, and she earned another Emmy nomination with her work on CBS’ “The Guardian.”
Behind that glossy grin, all-American good looks and acting stamina was a life both turbulent and troubled as Fawcett struggled to find personal happiness.
The daughter of James, a refinery pipe fitter, and Pauline, a homemaker, Fawcett — yes, it’s her real name — was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she was voted one of the campus hotties. After switching her major from biology to art, Fawcett left school in her junior year and headed to Los Angeles.
The knockout with the flawless teeth and blinding smile landed an agent in her second week in Hollywood, and was soon starring in Ultra Brite toothpaste and Wella Balsam shampoo commercials. She found love, too, with the future “Six Million Dollar Man,” Lee Majors. The two married in 1973, and three years later, she was cast as one of Aaron Spelling’s “Angels.” In 1979, Fawcett and Majors split up and that fall, she began living with O’Neal, marking the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most memorable love stories.
O’Neal had been married twice and had three children. His reputation as a ladies’ man preceded him, but Fawcett wasn’t deterred.
“I didn’t think about that. I just took it day by day. I was so overwhelmed by this mental and physical attraction for him that I didn’t think about anything except what was happening right there,” she told LIFE. “We just eased into it. To find someone who keeps you stimulated almost all day long — if you do happen to be with him all day long — is very rare.”
The relationship was tumultuous, however, and was chronicled in his daughter Tatum O’Neal’s tell-all A Paper Life. The two never married, but seemed unable to stay apart, and on June 22, O’Neal announced they planned to marry as soon as Fawcett felt strong enough.
Fawcett herself sometimes thwarted her attempts to maintain her momentum as a serious Hollywood actress. In the face of her lifelong quest for critical respect, Fawcett was 50 when she agreed to pose for Playboy magazine. She also released a Playboy video, “All of Me,” in which she paints using her much-admired body as a paintbrush. She made headlines for the wrong reasons with a dazed and confused June 6, 1997, appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” and her January 1998 brawl with then-boyfriend, producer James Orr, which left her bruised. A 2005 TV Land reality show, “Chasing Farrah,” was short-lived and quickly forgotten.
Not even Fawcett could explain her own appeal. “But it’s something I can’t escape,” she told Texas Monthly in its January 1997 issue. “I was in Houston recently visiting my parents, and we went to one of those chicken-fried-steak restaurants. Redmond and I had just been Rollerblading. I was wearing no makeup, and I hadn’t done anything to my hair, and this 175-pound woman came up to me and shouted, ‘Farrah, how can you let yourself go like this? You are Farrah Fawcett!’ Then she asked me to sign an autograph because “Charlie’s Angels” had been her favorite show. I thought, ‘Sometimes it isn’t worth it. The fame is just not worth it.’ ”
She got sick of her own photos, telling LIFE that “there have been way too many” of them out there of her. Her looks became the curse that she could never escape, she told Entertainment Weekly in 1996.
“I see T-shirts everywhere, with my face, my poster,” she said. “In Saudi Arabia they’re using photographs of me — not only from ‘Charlie’s Angels’ but from when I did ads for Faberge shampoo — to advertise everything: clothes, food, vitamins. It’s almost like I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to.”
After years of friction and fighting her “Angels” notoriety, Fawcett finally embraced it in recent years and reunited with her fellow “Angels” at the 2006 Emmys, walking out on stage with Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith.
But Fawcett’s longing to be taken seriously and escape her larger-than-life persona stayed with her to the end.