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Actress Farrah Fawcett -- a TV presence to the end

Actress Farrah Fawcett, who was launched into instant pop culture stardom in 1976 with a best-selling wall poster and a featured role in a new ABC series Charlie's Angels, is dead at 62. She was a TV presence in our lives right to the end.

Fawcett, who battled anal cancer for several years, was seen last month in an NBC documentary that she herself produced and helped tape with a digital camera. The film, Farrah's Story, which chronicled her struggle with the disease, was a ratings success for the network, and she vowed to continue with a second TV documentary.

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More than any other actress I knew -- and I first interviewed her in 1976 for a story on that poster -- Fawcett was a creature of the medium. It made her famous, and I was not surprised to see her final days depicted in a self-produced TV special. Nor was it surprising to hear from her longtime companion, Ryan O'Neal, that as sick as she was, the first thing Fawcett asked on the morning after her special aired was how it did in the ratings.

(Pictured: Farrah Fawcett as she appeared in 1977 ABC publicity photo)

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Fawcett's battle with cancer was to be the featured topic Thursday night in a Barbara Walters special on ABC's 20/20. In the report O'Neal tells Walters that Fawcett had finally agreed to marry him after years of declining his proposals and that a wedding was in the works. The two have a grown son. The Barbara Walters special, which had been scheduled for more than a week, will air Thursday at 10 p.m.

The famous poster of Fawcett, showing her in a swimsuit and highlighting her incredibly long blonde hair, set sales records in the fall of 1976, and helped launch an industry of such celebrity posters that the TV networks used to promote their sexiest stars and series.

At the time, the poster, which made Fawcett an instant pop icon of the decade, was credited with helping Charlie's Angels, a frothy ABC production about three gorgeous women who worked for a mysterious older man, become a ratings hit for ABC. Fawcett dolls and T-shirts followed the posters.

But Fawcett, whose career is defined by a constant strugggle to prove she was as talented as beautiful, walked off the hit series after just one season to make what she described as serious feature films. Lawsuits ensued, and she eventually settled with ABC and producer Aaron Spelling by agreeing to appear on a limited basis in the series over the next two seasons.

Fawcett never did become a major film star. Typical of her feature film career is the first production she did after leaving Charlie's Angels, titled Somebody Killed Her Husband. It was a mildly amusing, but mostly bland comic mystery starring Fawcett and Jeff Bridges.

But she did succeed in the 1983 off-Broadway production of Extremities, and earned a Golden Globe for her performance in the film version.

She also appeared in two high-concept made-for-TV docu-dramas playing Barbara Hutton in Poor, Little Rich Girl, and Beatte Klarfeld in Nazi Hunter, both for NBC. her work in the 1989 mini-series, Small Sacrifices, was rewarded with an Emmy.

The dramatic performance of her life, though, came in the 1984 NBC made-for-TV movie, The Burning Bed, in which she portrayed a victim of domestic abuse. The role was exactly the kind of serious and non-glamorous opportunity she had long sought, and she won an Emmy for her work.

The Burning Bed is still one of the highest-rated and most acclaimed made-for-TV movies in the history of the medium, and it was her presence as star and determination as executive producer that got this socially-conscious film made.

In the end, Fawcett was a person out of her times -- or at least the times Hollywood wanted her to be in.

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1947, she was a teen beauty queen invited to try her luck in Hollywood. In 1973, she married Lee Majors, then a TV action-adventure star, and was known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors when her career took off in 1976.

The men running Hollywood in those days were of the World War II generation, and despite the women's movement starting to transform American homes and workplaces, they still thought of bathing suits and pin-up girls when they saw a woman of Fawcett's beauty. And she rebelled against it, which led to a career of ups and downs, with many in the industry perfectly willing to write her off as she aged.

But Fawcett fought against normal concepts of aging as well. In her late 40s, she posed for Playboy magazine, and set sales record for that publication -- well past the age of its other models. But it was bittersweet for her to have to use her body instead her talent to capture the popular imagination for another fleeting moment.

The truth is that she was not a great actress -- let's be honest even at this time of death when truth is usually cast aside for inflated praise. But she was better than Hollywood wanted to let her be -- and she achieved the kind of success she did in The Burning Bed because of her refusal to be pigeon-holed and totally defined only by her good looks. There is integrity in that.

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