Her iconic status sprang from the most ephemeral of qualities: tumbling blond waves that beguiled boys and inspired a generation of girls to risk curling-iron burns. A molar-wide smile built to sell toothpaste, Noxzema, and a specific brand of innocent sexuality. A body that jiggled in just the right places while fighting onscreen crime — and gave unforgettable life to an otherwise plain swimsuit.
What’s even more remarkable is that Farrah Fawcett — who died of complications from anal cancer on June 25 in Santa Monica at the age of 62 — spent the rest of her life struggling to persuade audiences to see her as more than that sunny sex symbol. She wouldn’t truly succeed, however, until her profound and public final act: sharing her own slow death from cancer via a brutally revealing, vanity-stripping documentary about her treatment.
Once, Fawcett was the definitive pinup who parlayed a delicate-flower demeanor and all-American beauty into a 30-plus-year career playing cops and vengeful victims. The former University of Texas sorority girl came to L.A. at age 20, appearing in ads for Ultra Brite toothpaste and Wella Balsam shampoo. ”She was the first of her type,” says Sheila Manning, the casting agent who booked those early spots. ”The sexiness was there, but it was not overt. There was almost a shyness to it.”
After a string of bit TV parts, the aspiring actress hit the world with a one-two punch in 1976: the release of her celebrated poster and the premiere of Charlie’s Angels. Billed as Farrah Fawcett-Majors (having married Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors in 1973), she became an instant star when she sashayed onto the sexy-girls-with-guns detective drama as the sporty Jill Munroe. ”There was so much laughter,” fellow Angel and longtime friend Kate Jackson tells EW exclusively. ”I don’t know what the connection that the three of us have is, but it is there. I think that is the reason the show worked.” As her popularity soared, though, Fawcett made a controversial decision to leave her hit series after just one season to start a film career; unfortunately, her immediate post-Angels career consisted mainly of bombs like 1978’s Somebody Killed Her Husband (widely dubbed ”Somebody Killed Her Career”), 1979’s Sunburn, and 1980’s Saturn 3. In a 1992 interview with The Orange County Register, Fawcett admitted, ”I wish I had majored in drama at college so I could have had some focus to my career, instead of stumbling into it and then having to learn on the job while the world was watching.”
By 1983, Fawcett had finally figured out how to take control. She had cut her hair and divorced her husband (they separated in 1979, around the time she took up with actor Ryan O’Neal, a friend of Majors’); now the queen of ”jiggle TV” was ready to shed her glamorous image for issues-oriented fare. She starred in the Off Broadway play Extremities (made into a movie in 1986), about a woman who captures her would-be rapist and must decide what to do with him. And she toned down her golden-girl looks to play an abused wife in the 1984 NBC movie The Burning Bed, which earned Fawcett the first of three Emmy nominations. ”She was a gutsy and strong collaborative partner,” Bed director Robert Greenwald remembers. ”I said, ‘Are you sure you’re not going to have an army of hair and makeup and hangers-on and the full entourage?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely not.’ She had a total commitment to taking risks.”
While Fawcett turned out mostly forgettable work in the ’90s, she did receive critical praise for two key roles: Robert Duvall’s unfaithful wife in 1997’s The Apostle and Richard Gere’s unhinged wife in 2000’s Dr. T and the Women. Still, she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) allow herself to abandon her sex-bomb image completely. She posed for a top-selling Playboy spread in 1995, and another in 1997 featuring a naked-body-painting layout — complete with a pay-per-view special. Making matters worse, her promotional tour for the latter included an infamously addled appearance on Late Show With David Letterman. In 2005, she tried to tell her own story with the TV Land reality show Chasing Farrah, but it was dismissed by critics as slight, a vanity project.
It seemed that all that was left for Fawcett was nostalgia, and in 2006, she gave fans what they really wanted by reuniting on stage at the Emmys with her Charlie’s Angels costars to honor the passing of show creator Aaron Spelling. Just one month later, she was diagnosed with anal cancer. Rather than retreat into obscurity, the star — who had lived so much of her life in front of the camera — bravely chose to play herself. On May 15, nearly 9 million viewers tuned in to watch Farrah’s Story on NBC, as the beauty laid bare the ugly truths of her illness, from the recurrence of her cancer in 2007, to chemo’s effect on her trademark locks, to son Redmond O’Neal’s temporary release from prison (where he’s currently serving a sentence on drug-related charges) to visit her. That raw, inspirational, and tragic journey is her real legacy; the poster, the smile, the hair — those constitute the Farrah that was. ”It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen a person do,” says Jackson. ”She came into the public eye as the most beautiful, sexy creature alive, and [she] allowed that same public to see what the ravages of cancer did to a human being. Her courage is the most extraordinary sort I have ever witnessed — in real life, in a movie, in my wildest imagination.”