Boy, did the 1970s ever need Farrah Fawcett. Watergate and the Nixon resignation, soaring crime rates and gas prices bad news everywhere had the nation in need of a tonic, or a diversion, which is almost as therapeutic. Who could have guessed it would come in the trim form of a Texas blonde with a no-quit smile? That would be Farrah Fawcett, or Farrah Fawcett-Majors, as she called herself in her prime.
And in her last months, before her death today at 62, Fawcett served as another important emblem: the gaunt, glamorous battler against anal cancer. She could have left her fans with memories of a white-hot celebrity as Charlie’s blondest angel, a solid career playing besieged TV-movie heroines and a volatile private life that was almost always public. Instead, she waged a fight for cancer awareness in the best and bravest way she knew how: with a two-hour ABC TV special, widely seen in May, that showed her at home, in a California hospital and in a German clinic, often supported by family members her longtime beau Ryan O’Neal, their son Redmond who had shared tabloid headlines with her. Ferrah Leni Fawcett was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. Voted Best Looking at her high school, she studied microbiology, then art, at the University of Texas, Austin. In Hollywood she got her first big role in the calamitous 1970 satire Myra Breckinridge, escaping unscathed and, for the most part, unnoticed. Until she was signed in 1976 for the ABC series Charlie’s Angels, Fawcett was most visible as an icon of TV commercials: she made the Mercury Cougar pant and gave extra body to Wella Balsam shampoo. For Ultra-Brite Toothpaste, her smiling mouth was the ideal 24-hour product placement. In 1973 she married future Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors and became Farrah Fawcett-Majors one of those celebrity name changes that virtually guarantee the couple will split. She and Majors separated in 1979 and divorced three years later. Blond AngelCharlie’s Angels a fantasy fashion show masquerading as a cop drama was supposed to be an ensemble, with Fawcett supplementing the soft, russet beauty of Jaclyn Smith and the spikier, higher-IQ’d brunettishness of Kate Jackson. It didn’t turn out that way. It’s a toss-up whether Charlie’s made her a star or she made it a hit, but within two months of the premiere episode, the show was on the cover of TIME, with Fawcett poised at the apex of the Angels triangle. She was the trio’s breakout babe and an instant antidote to the decade’s glums. The gurus of pop culture, and real people too, instantly leeched onto her outstanding but not intimidating good looks. Media madness for a new personality was rarely so sudden or endemic. Publishers, and especially photographers, had a lot to work with. Fawcett’s thin, animated lips and row upon row of immaculate Chiclet teeth conspired into a sunny, uncomplicated smile. Her body was athletic, her arms honey-glazed. And that wild mane of hair gave rise to the rumor that a lion at the San Diego Zoo had been secretly scalped. The whole package was alluring but not shamelessly sexy; a throwback to pinup queens of an earlier era, it signaled the freewheeling fun of the ultimate Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. If the big, bulky computers of the day could have programmed America’s ideal of itself shiny, confident, radiating pleasure, promising not so very much Fawcett would have been the printout.
Cue Farrahmania. She was the decade’s premier poster girl, with 8 million sold in a year. The number of baby girls named Farrah quickly spiked. A myriad of hairdos went Fawcett-feral. She signed a lucrative deal to front a line of Faberge perfume and accessories. She also furnished the press with aphorisms that might have been recycled from the Marilyn Monroe quote book . Some women might shrink from this fame tsunami; Fawcett expertly surfed it as if it were a Great Barrier Reef wave. Her talent, after all, was her ease in being watched, something she’d had much practice at. Her self-regard, which was well earned, found its perfect match in America’s voyeurism.
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