LOS ANGELES — Farrah Fawcett, whose luxurious tresses and blinding smile helped redefine sex appeal in the 1970s as one of TV’s “Charlie’s Angels,” died Thursday after battling cancer. She was 62.
The pop icon, who in the 1980s set aside the fantasy girl image to tackle serious roles, died Thursday shortly before 9:30 a.m. PDT in a Santa Monica hospital, spokesman Paul Bloch said.
She burst on the scene in 1976 as one-third of the crime-fighting trio in TV’s “Charlie’s Angels.” A poster of her in a clingy swimsuit sold in the millions.
She left the show after one season but had a flop on the big screen with “Somebody Killed Her Husband.” She turned to more serious roles in the 1980s and 1990s, winning praise playing an abused wife in “The Burning Bed.”
She had been diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. As she underwent treatment, she enlisted the help of actor Ryan O’Neal, who had been her longtime companion and was the father of her son, Redmond, born in 1985.
This month, O’Neal said he asked Fawcett to marry him and she agreed. They would wed “as soon as she can say yes,” he said. They never married.
Her struggle with painful treatments and dispiriting setbacks was recorded in the television documentary “Farrah’s Story.” Fawcett sought cures in Germany as well as the United States, battling the disease with iron determination even as her body weakened.
“Her big message to people is don’t give up, no matter what they say to you, keep fighting,” her friend Alana Stewart said. NBC estimated the May 15, 2009, broadcast drew nearly 9 million viewers.
In the documentary, Fawcett was seen shaving off most of her trademark locks before chemotherapy could claim them. Toward the end, she’s seen huddled in bed, barely responding to a visit from her son.
Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith comprised the original “Angels,” the sexy, police-trained trio of martial arts experts who took their assignments from a rich, mysterious boss named Charlie (John Forsythe, who was never seen on camera but whose distinctive voice was heard on speaker phone.)
The program debuted in September 1976, the height of what some critics derisively referred to as television’s “jiggle show” era, and it gave each of the actresses ample opportunity to show off their figures as they disguised themselves in bathing suits and as hookers and strippers to solve crimes.
Backed by a clever publicity campaign, Fawcett — then billed as Farrah Fawcett-Majors because of her marriage to “Six Million Dollar Man” star Lee Majors — quickly became the most popular Angel of all.
Her face helped sell T-shirts, lunch boxes, shampoo, wigs and even a novelty plumbing device called Farrah’s faucet. Her flowing blond hair, pearly white smile and trim, shapely body made her a favorite with male viewers in particular.
A poster of her in a dampened red swimsuit sold millions of copies and became a ubiquitous wall decoration in teenagers’ rooms.
Thus the public and the show’s producer, Spelling-Goldberg, were shocked when she announced after the series’ first season that she was leaving television’s No. 5-rated series to star in feature films. (Cheryl Ladd became the new “Angel” on the series.)
But the movies turned out to be a platform where Fawcett was never able to duplicate her TV success. Her first star vehicle, the comedy-mystery “Somebody Killed Her Husband,” flopped and Hollywood cynics cracked that it should have been titled “Somebody Killed Her Career.”
The actress had also been in line to star in “Foul Play” for Columbia Pictures. But the studio opted for Goldie Hawn instead. “Spelling-Goldberg warned all the studios that that they would be sued for damages if they employed me,” Fawcett told The Associated Press in 1979. “The studios wouldn’t touch me.”
She finally reached an agreement to appear in three episodes of “Charlie’s Angels” a season, an experience she called “painful.”
She returned to making movies, including the futuristic thriller “Logan’s Run,” the comedy-thriller “Sunburn” and the strange sci-fi tale “Saturn 3,” but none clicked with the public.
Fawcett fared better with television movies such as “Murder in Texas,” ”Poor Little Rich Girl” and especially as an abused wife in 1984′s “The Burning Bed.” The last earned her an Emmy nomination and the long-denied admission from critics that she really could act.
As further proof of her acting credentials, Fawcett appeared off-Broadway in “Extremities” as a woman who is raped in her own home. She repeated the role in the 1986 film version.
Not content to continue playing victims, she switched type. She played a murderous mother in the 1989 true-crime story “Small Sacrifices” and a tough lawyer on the trail of a thief in 1992′s “Criminal Behavior.”
She also starred in biographies of Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld and photographer Margaret Bourke-White.
“I felt that I was doing a disservice to ourselves by portraying only women as victims,” she commented in a 1992 interview.
Bob Thomas/The Associated Press