Look homeward, Angel
KCBS just Twittered confirmation of the death of Farrah Fawcett, at age 62.
I figured this was coming, given the news last evening that Farrah had been given last rites. Indeed, I fully expected to awaken this morning to reports of her passing.
Like any heterosexual American male who reached the full flower of adolescence during the 1970s, I remember Farrah Fawcett and the television series that made her famous, Charlie’s Angels, with fond regard. Being a more of a brunette fancier than a blonde connoisseur, and having a preference even at that early age for intelligent, slightly sardonic, husky-voiced women, I favored Kate Jackson‘s Sabrina over Farrah’s Jill and Jaclyn Smith’s Kelly among the three original Angels. Still, no one could deny Farrah’s presence.
Or those teeth.
Or that hair.
That hair was everywhere.
Not just on that ubiquitous poster of Farrah in the red swimsuit — how many millions of that bad boy were sold? — but atop the head of every female under 30 (and, sad to tell, on far too many over 30) who wanted to attract masculine attention, there was the Farrah-Do. That tousled and feathered mop that every girl wanted to emulate, but that precious few could truly pull off.
And that was the magic of Farrah. She was just close enough to reality to be accessible, and just far enough from reality to be untouchable.
In her Angel days, she was a dreadful actress — not unlike Marilyn Monroe, with whom she was frequently (albeit inappropriately) compared. To her credit, Farrah got better. By the time she’d left Charlie and the chicks in her rear-view mirror, and her famous looks had begun to fade — the blondes never age well, do they — Farrah had developed a genuine talent for drama.
Farrah starred on the New York stage in Extremities, a harrowing play about a woman fighting back against a home invader who attempted to rape her. (She later earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in the film version.) But the role that finally convinced the Angels-watching public that she had moved on to greater things came in the reality-based teleflick The Burning Bed, in which Farrah played a battered wife who immolates her abusive husband in his sleep.
A skein of equally impressive performances — many as real-life personalities — followed, ranging from Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld to socialite Barbara Hutton to photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. Over the course of her career, Farrah racked up a stunning six Golden Globe nominations (okay, so one of those was for the first season of Charlie’s Angels — the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is often bedazzled more by image than by actual talent) and three Emmy nods.
Perhaps my favorite of Farrah’s dramatic performances was one that gained relatively little notice. In The Apostle, she played the wife of Robert Duvall’s tormented evangelist, and the catalyst for the film’s pivotal event. It’s a subtle, finely etched (and highly unsympathetic) role in a powerful motion picture that more people should have seen.
Over the years, Farrah became as well-known for her long-running relationship with fellow actor Ryan O’Neal. The often-photographed couple were together for 15 years following Farrah’s much-publicized divorce from Six Million Dollar Man and Fall Guy star Lee Majors. (You remember the joke, right? “What do you call students of ancient Egyptian plumbing? Pharaoh Faucet Majors.”) Farrah and O’Neal separated in the late ’90s, then reconciled eight years ago after a four-year hiatus. Although they never married, their relationship ran for a veritable eternity in Hollywood years. Ironically, the legal and drug-related foibles of the couple’s son Redmond earlier this year briefly outstripped reports of his mother’s worsening illness.
Farrah was diagnosed with a rare form of anal cancer in 2006. With the aid of friends, she kept a filmed journal recording her battle with the disease. The effort culminated in Farrah’s Story, a two-hour documentary that aired widely on NBC and its cable affiliates last month.
Most of us who first encountered Farrah Fawcett as Jill Munroe, brassiere-disdaining private detective, would never have imagined that we would still be talking about her in a serious vein more than 30 years later. Perhaps her greatest monument is the fact that she grew beyond the pinup poster, where plenty of starlets would have been content to remain.
She really was more than just the teeth and hair.