Farrah Fawcett - a life lived in, on & for TV - dies at 62

1977 handout photo from People magazine showing Douglas Kirkland's photo of Farrah Fawcett taken for the 15th-anniversary issue.
1977 handout photo from People magazine showing Douglas Kirkland's photo of Farrah Fawcett taken for the 15th-anniversary issue.
Posted: June 26, 2009

FARRAH FAWCETT, whose one season on "Charlie's Angels" more than 30 years ago helped define her for millions, spent decades trying to prove that she was more than a hairstyle and an iconic swimsuit poster.

And over and over, from her first Emmy-nominated performance as a battered wife who fought back in "The Burning Bed" to documenting her own nearly three-year fight against the anal cancer that killed her, Fawcett, who died yesterday at St. John's Health Center, in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 62, turned to television to make her point.

Television, though, is like a kaleidoscope: There are multiple reflections and they change as the viewer twists the tube. Fawcett's interest in projecting her own image, not the tabloids' view of her living and dying, led her to record some of the most intimate and difficult moments of her illness in the documentary that NBC aired last month as "Farrah's Story." The show drew about nine million viewers.

But is it destined to be better remembered than, say, that 1997 appearance on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman," in which the actress appeared, to put it kindly, a bit scattered?

And, for all her apparent openness - we're talking about a woman who posed for Playboy at 50, and a year later, appeared nude in a Playboy video, "All of Me," while sculpting and painting - how much did any of us ever see of the "real" Farrah?

Fawcett, in a news conference a few years ago promoting "Chasing Farrah," her 2005 "reality" show for TV Land, may have been playing with reporters - or not - in a session of which I wrote at the time:

Asked who she'd like to see followed around with cameras, Fawcett, who claims not to have watched much "reality" TV, suggested it would probably be a director, and mentioned John Ford.

Ford, who died in 1973, was not available for comment.

As for reports that she and former partner Ryan O'Neal, who appears in the series, had married during the production, Fawcett seemed, well, vague.

Did they marry?

"Uh, I don't think so," she replied.

Looking back, I think: Well, good for her.

(Questions about her relationship with O'Neal, with whom she had a son, Redmond, now 24, were no doubt old hat to Fawcett, who recently was said by O'Neal to have agreed to finally marry her on-again, off-again companion, though she died before the marriage could take place. From 1973 to 1982, she was married to actor Lee Majors, from whom she was divorced.)

When the first of six episodes of "Chasing Farrah" arrived on my desk a few months later, there were hints that for all her vagueness, the actress more than had her wits about her. I wrote:

I'm still not sure what - or who - Farrah Fawcett is trying to escape in "Chasing Farrah," but if the TV Land series isn't quite the train wreck that Anna Nicole Smith's was, then most of the credit goes not to the network but to Farrah herself, who insisted that the cameras not merely record her comings and goings, but the process itself, making this one of the few "reality" shows that actually acknowledges the elephant, or at least the camera crew, in the living room.

Fawcett, born Feb. 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas, went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin. She was voted one of the 10 most beautiful people on the campus, after which she was discovered by a movie publicist, David Mirisch, who suggested a film career.

An actress who'd been in many ways presented as a fantasy - her face, according to the Associated Press, "helped sell T-shirts, lunch boxes, shampoo, wigs and even a novelty plumbing device called Farrah's faucet" - Fawcett seemed, in the post-"Angels" years, to be drawn to the stories of real, not necessarily glamorous, women, starring in a string of TV movies, beginning with 1981's "Murder in Texas," that were based on actual people and events.

It was "The Burning Bed" that, along with her role as a rape victim in the off-Broadway play "Extremities," first made some critics sit up and pay attention. But she also played the title character in 1986's "Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story" and in 1987's "Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story." In 1989, she portrayed photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White in "Double Exposure," as well as homicidal mother Diane Downs in a movie based on Ann Rule's true-crime best-seller "Small Sacrifices."

But, when, a couple of years later, she co-starred with O'Neal in "Good Sports," a sitcom that ran for fifteen episodes on CBS, it was Fawcett who seemed like the real sport, attempting to give a boost to the "Love Story" star, who'd not held up as well, physically or professionally, as she.

And that, too, might be a piece of the picture she left behind. *

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|