Fawcett, Farrah (1947—)

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Fawcett, Farrah (1947—)

Best known for her role in the television series Charlie's Angels, which ran on ABC from 1976-1981, Farrah Fawcett became one of the biggest influences on American style during the late 1970s. With a plot that revolved around a trio of female private investigators—Fawcett and costars Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith—the campy TV show relied heavily on the physical attributes of its leading actresses. As the standout on the series during its first season, the blonde, attractive Fawcett set the trend for millions of women, who copied her trademark feathered hair and bought hair care products marketed under her name. But it wasn't only women who liked Farrah. The most popular poster of the decade, featuring Fawcett's toothy smile, flipped-back, bushy mane, and slim, athletic physique shown off in a wet swimsuit, became a staple on untold numbers of boys' bedroom walls during the era. After becoming a superstar on the top-rated show during the 1976-77 season, Fawcett left to pursue more serious acting roles, but met with little success. She never reclaimed the status that she once held, although she continued to appear regularly on television and in films into the 1990s and retained a cult following by those enamored with 1970s nostalgia.

Mary Farrah Leni Fawcett was born on February 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas. She attended Catholic school until the sixth grade, after which she went to public school at W. B. Ray High School. She then enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she planned to study microbiology, but later changed her major to art. In college, she began modeling for newspaper advertisements and art classes. When she was voted one of the ten most beautiful women on campus, a publicist contacted her and suggested that she pursue a career in entertainment. At the end of her junior year, Fawcett went to Hollywood, landed an agent, and met actor Lee Majors, who helped jumpstart her acting career. They married in 1973 but divorced in 1982.

During the 1960s, Fawcett guest starred on a number of popular television shows, while maintaining a lucrative career on the side as a model. She appeared in top magazines and on commercials for Noxzema shaving cream, Ultra-Brite toothpaste, and Wella Balsam shampoo. In 1969 she saw her screen debut in the French film Love Is a Funny Thing, and in the early 1970s she began to find work in television movies. Her big break came in 1976, when she was cast as one of three attractive female private eyes, who work for a mysterious, wealthy man, in Charlie's Angels. Playing the athletic Jill Munroe, Fawcett's character was known for her sense of humor and card skills. Kate Jackson was cast as the intelligent Sabrina Duncan, while Jaclyn Smith provided street smarts as Kelly Garrett.

Charlie's Angels became the top-rated show of the 1976-77 season, thanks to its appeal to both men and women. Men enjoyed watching the women clad in scanty costumes as they went undercover as prostitutes or go-go dancers, and they relished the melodramatic situations that found the trio tied up by ne'er-do-wells. However, women also enjoyed the program, finding a feminist slant amid the eroticism because the program broke ground as a prime-time action-adventure program that featured the women in a variety of daring situations. Women viewers appreciated the Angels' courage, quick thinking, and resourcefulness—they were quick draws and could hold their own in a fight—in addition to their stylish sensuality.

Fawcett quickly emerged as the most popular of the three stars. Her wholesome likeness spawned a cottage industry of merchandise, including one of the defining pieces of 1970s popular culture: the famous Farrah Fawcett poster. An estimated six million of these pictures were eventually sold, and Farrah's image also landed on T-shirts, lunch boxes, and more. Salons nationwide turned out scores of women with the curled-back, mussed-up coiffure, and teenage boys everywhere tacked the picture to their bedroom walls. With her career at its peak, Fawcett left Charlie's Angels after the first season to pursue more serious drama.

Farrah initially found it hard to break away from her Charlie's Angels image and at first her foray into serious acting met with little luck. Finally, in 1981, Fawcett landed a role in the comedy Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds, and also that year starred in the made-for-television movie, Murder in Texas. Fawcett subsequently found her niche in made-for-TV movies, particularly those based on true stories, and was highly acclaimed for her role in the 1984 television movie, The Burning Bed, an emotional tale of domestic abuse. Her acting in Extremities, a dramatic film about a woman who is attacked by a rapist in her own house, was also highly praised. Fawcett made news again in 1995 after posing for nude pictures in Playboy magazine and a video. Two years later, the media focused positive attention on her acting again for her role in The Apostle (1977).

Fawcett began a long-term relationship with actor Ryan O'Neal in the early 1980s and has a son, Redmond O'Neal, with him, but the couple broke up in 1997. Fawcett later began dating producer James Orr, who was convicted of assaulting her in 1998 in a highly publicized scandal, that was played up in the tabloids. Though Fawcett has never been one of Hollywood's top leading actresses, and has enjoyed only a sporadic television career, she made a lasting imprint on the style of the 1970s during her heyday and is still regaled on a number of fan web sites by nostalgia buffs and longstanding fans.

—Geri Speace

Further Reading:

Mortiz, Charles, editor. Current Biography Yearbook. New York, H.W. Wilson, 1978.