- All-American actor best known for her role in the classic 70s TV series Charlie's Angels
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 June 2009 18.22 BST
Although Farrah Fawcett, who has died of cancer aged 62, was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the great tragediennes of the age, there is a common misconception that anyone who looked like she did – an all-American cover-girl beauty, with tousled blonde hair, sparkling eyes, shining teeth and a broad, bright smile – could not possibly act, nor that she needed to.
Fawcett herself recognised this when she commented about Charlie's Angels, the crime-busting TV series that made her a star: "When the show was number three, I figured it was our acting. When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra."
Consequently, Fawcett was mostly given roles where her trend-setting hairstyle was the most dramatic part of the film. However, when she was later offered meatier parts she proved herself up to the task, and was nominated for three Emmy awards and five Golden Globes, though the juries always held back from giving her the actual prize. On the other hand, she was also nominated for two Razzie awards (the Golden Raspberry Award for worst acting), a dishonour she shared with many a greater actor. Perhaps if she had been active during Hollywood's golden era Fawcett would have found her natural level as a B-movie queen.
The daughter of an oil contractor, she was born Ferrah Leni Fawcett (Ferrah being an Arabic word for joy) in Corpus Christi, Texas. While a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, where she studied microbiology and art, she won a campus beauty contest. After graduation she moved to Los Angeles, where she was rapidly snapped up for many television commercials including Ultra-Brite toothpaste and Wella Balsam shampoo, and would appear grinning on dozens of magazine covers before she began to appear, from the mid-1960s, in some TV series such as I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family.
In 1970 she was arrested twice for shoplifting after she took clothes from boutiques, and was convicted both times on the lesser charge of trespassing and fined $125 and $265, respectively. In her defence Fawcett claimed to be returning clothes at both stores, substituting new ones of equivalent value, because they wouldn't exchange the merchandise. "I was just taking justice into my own hands," she explained.
In the same year she was in the notoriously rotten Myra Breckinridge, where she had a sex scene with Raquel Welsh. Meanwhile, in 1968, she had met the actor Lee Majors, star of the popular TV series The Big Valley (1965-69), whom she was to marry five years later, changing her professional name to Farrah Fawcett-Majors. When he became a hit in The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78) she guest-starred in four episodes.
Still relatively unknown, Fawcett was cast by the producer Aaron Spelling in Charlie's Angels, a television series about three women who work for a private investigation agency which became one of the most successful shows of the 1970s. Fawcett was Jill Munroe, the athletic angel, alongside Kate Jackson as the brainiest angel and Jaclyn Smith as the street-smart angel, all working for the mysterious Charlie (who was never seen on screen but voiced by the actor John Forsythe). The far-fetched plots derived ways of getting the trio to reveal their shapely figures as bikini-clad beauty-pageant contestants, maids, nurses, models and roller-derby girls. The show was an instant hit, but Fawcett, who became a nationwide pin-up, receiving $10,000 an episode, decided to break her contract and leave after the first season (1976), when she was replaced by Cheryl Ladd who took the role of Kris Munroe, Jill's younger sister. As settlement to a lawsuit stemming from her early departure, Fawcett agreed to appear three more times as a guest star in each of seasons three and four. The show continued for five seasons, and later inspired two feature films starring Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz as the angels.
Among the reasons for quitting the show was that her marriage to Majors, who insisted she be home to greet him when he returned from a hard day at the studio, was faltering. Fawcett also expressed the wish to get more challenging roles. The marriage ended in 1982, and the films she was making did not stretch her. In fact, it was said that she did not expand her range, only her wardrobe.
She was star-billed in Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978), a lame comedy-thriller in which she was an amateur detective; Sunburn (1979), in which she posed as the wife of the insurance investigator Charles Grodin in order to crack a murder case in Acapulco; and Saturn 3 (1980), a science-fiction thriller in which she was hotly pursued by a lustful robot whose filaments are set fizzing by her trim body. The turning point came after the asinine The Cannonball Run (1981), in which she was one of the "chicks" being chased by 64-year-old Dean Martin dressed as a Catholic priest.
Fawcett, determined to go to the opposite extreme, then made a brave and reasonably successful stage debut off-Broadway as a rape victim in Extremities, repeating the role in the tawdry screen version in 1986. Also during the 1980s, Fawcett displayed a touching vulnerability as a battered wife in the made-for-TV The Burning Bed (1984) and as a bright schoolteacher persecuted by her mother-in-law in Between Two Women (1986), rising to the challenge of her co-star, the splendid Colleen Dewhurst.
She continued to impress in two TV biopics: Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story (1986), and Double Exposure (1989), as the famous Life Magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White, silencing some of those who had mocked her acting abilities over the years. Small Sacrifices (1989) gave Fawcett her first role as a "baddie", a psychopathic woman who kills one of her children. Her co-star in the TV movie was her lover Ryan O'Neal, with whom she had a son, Redmond O'Neal, born in 1985.
At the same time, her feature film career had depreciated even further. She appeared briefly as Jeff Bridge's ex-wife, aptly a successful model, in Alan Pakula's See You in the Morning (1989), but her part in Funny About Love (1990), a romance starring Gene Wilder, ended up on the cutting-room floor.
She hit the headlines again in 1998 (having split up with Ryan O'Neal after 17 years together) when she was severely injured by the producer James Orr, after she had spurned his proposal of marriage. He was charged and sentenced for assault. In early 2006 she was diagnosed with cancer. However, on her 60th birthday, she announced that she was now cancer-free. Unhappily, the disease recurred with force. She is survived by her son, who was arrested for drug possession while his mother was struggling for her life in hospital.
• Farrah (Ferrah Leni) Fawcett, actor, born 2 February 1947; died 25 June 2009
News: The actor Farrah Fawcett has lost her battle with cancer