FAREWELL, BRAVE FARRAH
ABOVE: Farrah Fawcett betrween
her two original "Charlie's Angels"
co-stars, Jaclyn Smith, left, and Kate Jackson, right.
LEFT: The famous Farrah calendar
that made her a national rage.
Her final battle with cancer showed her true character
By JIM BAWDEN
O Death where is thy sting?
In the case of Farrah Fawcett, the TV goddess passed away on the same day as Michael Jackson died and got eclipsed in most press coverage.
It reminded me of Queen Elizabeth IIs address to the Commonwealth on the death of Princess Diana and her footnote at the end also noting the passing of Mother Teresa.
One Internet site noted Ray Charles died on the day of Ronald Reagans funeral and Groucho Marx passed away the same week as Elvis.
In Farrahs case we were prepared to bid farewell to her because we knew about her long struggle with cancer and how she had cheated death several times.
And Farrah was a far more accessible icon than Michael Jackson. Recent stories about him dwelt on his weirdness while profiles on Farrah praised her courage and bravery and the happiness of her long time relationship with Ryan Neal.
News reports said Farrah was 62, which really floored me. And thats because nobody whos ever been a TV star really ages. Id just been watching the DVD of the first season of "Charlies Angels" where Farrah burst forth as a healthy TV sex symbol. And the more I watched the more I remembered about that peculiar phenomenon.
It was in late June, 1976, that ABC showed the first episode of "Charlies Angels" to visiting TV critics at the Century Plaza hotel. In those days individual videocassettes for critics were virtually unknown, so we dutifully assembled in the hotels Grand Ballroom to view the pilots of all three networks. There was no Fox network yet and none of the other mini-networks either. No cable networks were taking part back then.
The pilot, which aired in March as a TV movie, was manufactured by ABCs chief source of programming, producer Aaron Spelling, and it was hopelessly dopey but a feast for girl watchers. Three long-stemmed lovelies ran up and down California beaches in swim suits, improbably cast as detectives while the voice of John Forsythe told them via the intercom what case to tackle next.
Kate Jackson, who played Sabrina, was the best known, having appeared in a few movies and starring in "The Rookies" TV series. I thought Jaclyn Smith, who played Kelly, was the most gorgeous with her manners and air of slight superiority. And the third was a lithe, tousseled blonde from the short-lived series "Harry-O"--Farrah Fawcett-Majors.
ABC held a lavish party across the street at its still unfinished Entertainment Complex and a breathless PR type told me the network had imported 5,000 shrimp for the occasion. Photographers jostled to get revealing shots of the pert three some and then there was a mass press conference.
The questions and the answers were inane but Farrah seemed particularly flustered by the whole thing and flubbed lines, looked startled and didnt seem to realize what was going on. I do remember she said she was the last to be cast because ABC had demanded at least one blonde and then she giggled.
This was the beginning of Farrah fever and by the time the series debuted in September her famous poster, showing Farrah in a swimsuit with her flowing hair and great big smile, swept the nation. Over 12 million copies were sold.
She owed everything to manager Jay Bernstein, who carefully orchestrated the campaign to emphasize her athleticism, her niceness (she was then married to Lee Majors), her all-American charm. Farrah dolls, T-shirts with her likeness, towels, you name it, soon spurted forth from the amazing Bernstein campaign.
The series benefited from all the notoriety and the surging ratings blew away the competition (CBSs new series "Blue Knight" and NBCs "The Quest"). But Jackson and Smith were more than a little miffed all the attention went Farrahs way.
.Farrah was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1947, youngest of two sisters. Shed been kicking around L.A. since 1968 in a succession of small parts. For nine years (1973-82) she was married to actor Lee Majorsduring these years she insisted on the credit Farrah Fawcett-Majors. In 1982 she hooked up with Ryan ONeal and son Redmond was born in 1985.
If a poster had made Farrah a superstar, she quickly blew her chance at film stardom. First, she took Bernsteins advice and walked away from "Charlie Angels," triggering a huge lawsuit from Spelling and ABC that temporarily blocked her from working anywhere else. A compromise was released: She returned to the show for yearly guest appearances.
But the movies she chose for her new found fame were box office bummers: "Somebody Killed Her Husband" (1978), "Sunburn" (1979) and "Saturn 3" (1979) and she quickly became something of an industry joke.
But Farrah demonstrated perseverance and fought back with an off Broadway stint in the play "Extremities," playing a rape victim. In 1984 she shone in the TV film "The Burning Bed" as a battered wife and garnered the first of three Emmy nominations. She took a Golden Globe nomination when a filmed version of "Extremities" appeared in 1996.
She excelled in difficult material in TV movies: as Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld, as Barbara Hutton in "Poor Little Rich Girl" and as photographer Margaret Bourke White, who faced Parkinsons Disease. She convinced as convicted killer Diane Downs in the TV miniseries "Small Sacrifices."
I remember chatting with her on a Toronto TV set (1995s "Jewel") and she was determined to seek out challenging material. That poster! she said in mock outrage. Still a handsome woman, shed undergone a number of cosmetic procedures that made her look surprised and wide eyed. She was no longer naive about the business, but surprisingly well informed.
Yet a return to TV series work alongside Ryan ONeal (1991s "Good Sports") was short-lived. She continued with guest stints on "Ally McBeal" and "Spin City" and was opposite Richard Gere in the film "dr. T and the Women." And she displayed a sense of humorwitness her strange appearance on David Letterman (Was she stoned?) that she swore was a put on.
Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006 and underwent painful chemotherapy and radiation but the cancer returned in 2007. She traveled to Germany for treatments listed as holistic but in April was back in hospital doctors said the cancer had spread to her liver. Son Redmond was allowed to visit her, shackled he was serving time for drug addiction.
The documentary "Farrahs Story," filmed by Fawcett and pal Alana Stewart, ran on NBC May 15 and reached nine million U.S. viewers.
Farrah died at 9:26 a. m. in a Santa Monica hospital, ONeal at her side.
For me, watching on DVD the dewey Farrah of 1976, incredibly beautiful and so very naive, was a heart-wrenching experience. Because this Texas beauty proved herself so much more than just another sweet, young thing. She evolved over the long run as an actress of substance and a woman of true courage.
©2009 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted June 29, 2009.
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