Her career should have been over in 1981. She was a poster, then an Angel and then just another piece of beautiful scenery in “Cannonball Run.” The next step should have been a failed TV pilot, a “Love Boat” cameo and then maybe an infomercial for some kind of skin care line.
But Farrah Fawcett always had the moxie to take her career seriously, even when others didn’t. Her next mainstream role was in the harrowing and controversial television movie “The Burning Bed,” which established the pinup girl as a serious actress – and someone whose next 25 years would be unpredictable and interesting.
Fawcett died Thursday morning at a Santa Monica hospital with longtime companion Ryan O’Neal and actress Alana Stewart at her side.
Her long illness was reflective of her career, which was filled with false tabloid rumors. There were also a few dubious achievements. Even in death, no story about Fawcett should go beyond the fourth paragraph without mentioning her rambling 1997 interview on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” which – with apologies to Paula Abdul – set the standard for spaced-out live appearances on network television.
Fawcett was a lot of things during her career, starting with goddess. She reached her peak of mainstream popularity in 1976, when a poster of the then-unknown actress, smiling almost blindingly in her red one-piece swimsuit, was released. It sold 12 million copies. Later the same year, she debuted on the Aaron Spelling series “Charlie’s Angels” as Jill Munroe, a character whose lines were instantly forgotten but whose hairstyle was endlessly copied.
But after one season of “Angels” and an appearance in “Cannonball Run,” Fawcett made the first of several brazen career decisions. Still in her prime, she appeared in the 1982 off-Broadway play “Extremities,” playing a rape victim who seeks revenge. She returned to television in 1984, looking haggard as Francine Hughes in “The Burning Bed.” The movie dealt with abuse, vigilante justice and garnered Fawcett her first of three Emmy Award nominations.
Fawcett’s role in “The Burning Bed” may have not have been particularly subtle, but it still proved to mainstream audiences that Fawcett had unexpected range. She settled into a second career as a TV movie tough girl, reprising her role in the 1986 “Extremities” TV movie, and in 1989 as a deranged mother who shoots her own children in “Small Sacrifices.” In more recent years, she was a frequent guest star on network TV shows, usually playing serious roles.
Arguably her career highlights came in her early 50s, when she returned to feature films. Fawcett was the only former Angel to co-star with Robert Duvall and appear in a Robert Altman film – garnering praise as Duvall’s movie wife in “The Apostle” in 1997 and playing a small role in Altman’s “Dr. T and the Women” in 2000. It was arguably Altman’s worst film, but it still made the point: who in 1976 would have believed that Farrah Fawcett would be making movies 15 years later with the guy who directed “Nashville”?
Unfortunately for Fawcett’s legacy, almost nobody saw “The Apostle” and “Dr. T and the Women.” And pretty much everyone either owned or had a boyfriend or brother who owned The Poster.
The 1970s version of a viral video, the Farrah Fawcett poster was the kind of sensation that could only happen spontaneously, and without premeditation. Here are a few pieces of trivia about this iconic wall-hanging, which was first released in 1976:
1. Fawcett did her own hair;
2. For the backdrop, photographer Bruce McBroom used an old Indian blanket that had been covering the front seat of his ’37 Chevy;
3. The photo was shot in the back of then-husband Lee Majors’ Bel Air home; and
4. No ice was used during the making of this poster.
Some actors are typecast by a TV show. Others by a movie. Fawcett was typecast by a giant glossy photo that was taken before she had landed her first major acting role. But even if the rest of her life never completely eclipsed that image, she deserves respect for doing everything possible to make her career more than that moment in time.
Very few masters of their craft ever get to be a pop culture phenomenon. And very few pop culture phenomena ever have the patience and skill to pursue their craft with passion and hard work. Farrah Fawcett did both. She journeyed beyond the two-dimensional limits of her dizzying first few years in Hollywood, and left behind an admirable career.
She never did get the chance to marry Ryan O’Neal… Sad. 😦