The Unpredictable, Stubbornly Unusual Farrah Fawcett : Monkey See Farrah Fawcett clawed her way out of the sex-symbol limitations that could have buried her, which is harder than it seems.
NPR logo The Unpredictable, Stubbornly Unusual Farrah Fawcett

The Unpredictable, Stubbornly Unusual Farrah Fawcett

Farrah Fawcett: In 1977, her hair was iconic. But she did some real acting as well. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I kind of loved Farrah Fawcett, even though the entire first phase of her career — the one where she became a giant superstar — missed me, for the most part. I didn't watch Charlie's Angels, so most of my exposure to her came from the uphill battle for respectability she fought once she had left behind what had been gleefully and obnoxiously called "jiggle TV."

On television, this really started with The Burning Bed in 1984, a harrowing, multiple-Emmy-nominated TV movie about an abused woman that was made at a time when the TV movie was a much more common format than it is now. She was nominated for her work in it, though by then, she had also been on stage in Extremities, an entirely different harrowing story about an abused woman. She went on to a well-received performance in the TV version of that, as well.

But I won't lie: the thing from this era that I remember best is Small Sacrifices, the TV adaptation of Ann Rule's true-crime book about Diane Downs, a woman who shot her kids and claimed to have been attacked by a stranger. It shows up now and then on cable — I assume it will again soon — and Fawcett is thoroughly creepy and unsettling in it. It took her a long way away from the victim roles in Extremities and The Burning Bed.

She kept on acting and working — like in The Apostle with Robert Duvall, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and in a short run on Spin City — but she also suffered some indignities, like a famously odd interview with David Letterman in 1997. Ultimately, she became a bit of a well-known oddball, which tends to endear people to me.

What's particularly sad about Farrah Fawcett is that she might have been a great candidate to have her own cable drama if that option had been there for her in, say, the early 1990s, the way it has become such a great option for Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, and Holly Hunter. She was a good, often really interesting actress, and a powerfully popular television presence. I think she would have made a go of it. In a lot of ways, those dramas are the TV movies of this decade, but they offer non-ingenue actresses a lot more choices.

At the time Farrah Fawcett became a poster girl — literally — and at the time her hair became a lot more famous than "the Rachel" ever was, she didn't seem a likely candidate to ever act with Robert Duvall or be nominated for a decent haul of awards. As hard a pop-culture box as "TV sex symbol" can be to bust out of now, it was even harder when Farrah Fawcett did it.