By Ken Tucker
Updated June 25, 2009 at 09:35 PM EDT

She had the nicest giggle and the most chaste jiggle of any of our modern sex symbols. Nowadays, in an era of enhanced body parts and minimized personalities, Farrah Fawcett, who has died at age 62, seems vivid all over again. We can always remember her as the Texas-born charmer she was when millions of people discovered her via Charlie’s Angels and her red-bathing-suit wall poster, the one with her tousled “Farrah cut” and the peek-a-boo nipple that inspired a nation.

Farrah rarely played the dumb-blonde cliche. Her Angel character, Jill, was naive, yes, and Farrah in her first blush of fame laughed a lot on talk shows, seeming perennially, happily suprised that people wanted to gawp at and get flustered over her. For a while, as Mrs. Farrah Fawcett-Majors, she was a pop-culture queen, wedded to the Six Million Dollar Man-king.

But she always had an independent streak, a willfulness — she was a colt who’d bolt: from her hit TV show after only one season; from her marriage after nine years. If she proved her acting chops in a TV-movie about an abused woman (1984’s The Burning Bed, for which she was nominated for an Emmy), she was just as effective as a luminous presence in the even-better TV-movie Murder In Texas (1981), playing Robert Duvall’s wife in the excellent The Apostle (1998) and in a small but vibrant role in the underrated Robert Altman film Dr. T & the Women (2000). She was also damn funny and beguiling in the short-lived 1991 CBS sitcom everyone seems to forget, Good Sports, co-starring her long-time love, Ryan O’Neal:

In later years, Farrah’s aging sex-symbol status hit a few rough patches. There was the I’m-an-artiste phase, during which she stripped nude for a 1997 Playboy, slathered herself in bright-colored hues, and made “erotic” body paintings. There was the weird, slurry, worrying David Letterman appearance the same year. In our current culture, she was thereafter pegged as a train-wreck, a has-been, a joke. She does not deserve any kneejerk derisiveness. Our hearts went out to her during her recent Farrah’s Story documentary about her own final days, told on her own terms.

But Farrah deserves to be remembered in her glowing prime, as the warm, smiling woman who combined girl-next-door sexiness with an implied can-do feminism, radiating positive energy and resourcefulness. Ultimately, Farrah Fawcett defied easy categorizing, which made her all the more interesting as a personality, and as a brave, vibrant person.