How Farrah Fawcett Changed the World
Reflections on the Elvis of television.
American music changed on July 6, 1954, when Elvis Presley, just nineteen, walked into the Sun studios in Memphis to make his first commercial record. American television changed on October 15, 1969, during a very brief moment in an episode of The Flying Nun. Alejandro Rey, who played a roguish but lovable casino owner, sat on a couch next to a 22-year-old Texas girl with shiny blonde hair who was dressed in a sailor blouse and miniskirt. “Soon,” he said, “we’ll go out to sea.”
“Out to see what?” she said with a dizzy giggle.
Within a year of his modest beginning, Elvis was a national figure. The leading musical stars of the day were people like Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, and Perry Como, considerable talents all. Elvis’s heat burnt them to cinders. Watching him on Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, and the couple of lesser-known television shows where he was introduced to the whole country, anyone could see that Elvis was a sexual phenomenon of immense power. But no one could have seen then what ultimately is important about him. He was the originator and the lifelong king of a kind of music that is the most powerful common experience for all those born between World War II and 1960.
Farrah Fawcett took longer to reach the national consciousness. But when she did, in 1976, she became the first person from television to claim the same worshipful adulation and obsessive interest from the public that Elvis received as a rock star. That first appearance on The Flying Nun came too early—at a time when the generation that had made Elvis an icon was either in or just out of college. Farrah’s emotional moment had not yet arrived. The winds of social rebellion were blowing, and rock was the informing idea behind a youth culture whose focus was sex, drugs, and urgent yearnings of either a political or religious kind. It was the era when all that Elvis had begun held sway.
Farrah Fawcett had nothing to do with any of it. She wasn’t interested in drugs or rebellion; she played good tennis. She was fresh and blonde and toothy and tanned. She was all-American and middle American. Her values were those of the sorority house and the country club. By 1976, the year she zoomed to stardom, the country was ready for those values, too. Farrah was a comfort, not a threat. All the demons Elvis had summoned, placed on record, and loosed upon the land, she soothed and sent on their way. She was not rock ‘n’ roll. She was television.
1. The Dr Pepper Perplex—Comedy
Farrah Fawcett asks her publicist (Paul Bloch) for a down-home drink from her native state—but can he find one in Los Angeles?
Farrah Fawcett took one look at me and said, “I’m so unprepared.” She covered her face with both hands, shook her head, and lightly stamped her foot. Then, composing herself after this practiced gesture or sudden attack of insecurity, she shook my hand, and we sat down at opposite ends of a beige couch. She was wearing tan suede boots, gray slacks, a light tan sweater, and a gray knit jacket with fur epaulets. Her hair, an equal mixture of tan and blonde, was a glorious mess. She wore no lipstick or eye shadow or nail polish or any other visible makeup except for an almost imperceptible bit of cover-up to camouflage a small blemish near her mouth. Her only jewelry was two diamond rings on the fourth finger of her left hand. The smaller of the two was the size of the nail on my little finger; the larger, the size of the nail on my thumb.
We were in a conference room in the offices of her publicist, Paul Bloch. I had been ushered in earlier by a secretary, given some tea, and allowed to wait for a while. Finally a door on one side of the room opened, and in came Bloch, a hefty man with a round jack-o’-lantern face wearing slacks and a knit shirt.
“Hello, hello,” he said. “How are you? Good to see you. How’re you doing? I’ll bring Farrah in in a minute.” And then he disappeared through a door on the opposite side of the room.
A few minutes later he did bring her in, and when we were settled on the couch, he asked Farrah if she wanted anything to drink.
“Oh, just a soda.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll have it.”
“You name it,” Paul Bloch said, “and I’ll find it.”
“Dr Pepper,” she said with the confidence of a woman who feels certain of her audience. And Bloch disappeared out the door again.
I mentioned that first appearance on The Flying Nun. “Let me tell you a cute story about that,” she said and rushed into a solo performance. She ejected out of the couch into the middle of the room and, with much waving of her arms and wide modulations of her voice, proceeded to do all the parts in this minor drama. “They told me they were ready,” she said, gesturing toward her now vacant place on the couch. Then she turned, shaking her arms as if she were frustrated and confused. “The people doing my makeup had put one of my false eyelashes on crooked. I said, ‘But what about my eyelash?’ And they said, ‘We don’t care about your eyelash. Sit there.’” Now she was looking frantically around waving her arms, little girl lost. “I said, ‘Sit where? Here?’”
There was nothing to do but watch all this. Her energy kept building, but where was the punch line? At this point Paul Bloch rushed back in carrying a paper cup with a plastic straw and handed it to Farrah. She took a sip. “It is Dr Pepper,” she said with an immense smile. She sat back down and put the cup on the coffee table in front of the couch. “And that,” she said, “is when I realized this is a professional business.”
“The Return of Daisy Miller.” (1976) A young American girl (Farrah Fawcett) bombs in Italy but triumphs on American TV.
In answer to the inevitable question: Farrah Fawcett in person looks exactly like the Farrah Fawcett you see in photographs or on television. At five feet six inches, she is slightly above average height. Forced to guess her age, you would not say more than her actual 35 years, but you would not guess her to be much younger either. All her movements are familiar, too. As she sat on the couch, for the most part with one foot on the floor and her other leg bent at the knee and pulled up on the couch but with the sole of her boot not touching the upholstery, she looked just as she did in Charlie’s Angels when she sat on the couch in the office of the Townsend detective agency listening to Charlie’s instructions. “What I always liked about that girl,” she said, referring to her role as Jill Munroe on Angels, “is that she was always teasing Charlie just a little to find out who he was. You know, at the end of the show she’d say, ‘Charlie, I’ll be playing tennis at the club and if you played there . . .’” The change from Farrah to Farrah-in-the-role was a perceptible but still subtle rise in intensity, as if I’d been watching her through a camera and a faint mist had just evaporated off the lens.
This subtle change is the essence of television acting. Unlike the theater or the movies, where acting means the ability to assume a variety of different characters and personalities, television demands that an actor establish a personality that is comfortable and appealing to the viewer and never varies. That’s why to anyone who’s seen a television show even once, you can describe a whole episode with a single sentence: Mary Tyler Moore’s blind date turns out to be Ted. There’s no need to worry that Mary has turned alcoholic and bitter or that Ted has finally seen beyond his own ego. People watch television to be with people, for the most part to be with people they like. And the people they like on television are the kind they like in real life—attractive, easy-going, and entertaining people who are themselves.
“That’s one of the problems in movies,” Farrah said. “I look like me. Here’s all this hair, and look, you can pull it back or pile it up and it’s still all this hair. So that’s a problem. On Charlie’s Angels they’d say, ‘Have her wear a bikini.’ There are forty men on a set. I don’t feel right running around in a bikini. That’s not me. I’d say, ‘Why can’t it be a tennis outfit? Why?’ And okay, so I didn’t wear a bra. Well, I’d been doing that since college.”
Besides being themselves, television personalities should fit some general type that everyone knows or can imagine knowing, like Mary, the chipper working girl. And Farrah? What general type is she? If you went to high school or college anywhere in the United States, you have met Farrah Fawcett. She is that girl you knew who was completely average in every way except for being—quite clearly—the prettiest girl around. She is not at all dense, but neither is she a scholar. She likes the same sports everyone else likes, the same clothes, the same music, the same movies. She has the kind of all-purpose American manners, based on friendliness rather than refinement, that are the same from the nice girl sunning by the country club pool to the nice girl who has to spend her summers working at McDonald’s.
The combination of extraordinary looks and the completely average makes this kind of girl seem unique and mysterious at the same time that she seems perfectly familiar. A young male who aches just to look at her can be surprised to find she’ll go out with him, but when he arrives, after three solid hours of showering and hair-combing, she says, “. . . such a good friend from my hometown and he’s going to meet us for dinner . . .” At dinner, just when our swain has gathered his pride to tell her off for this and leave, she has the unerring instinct to turn and say, “When are we going on that evening boat ride you promised?” and the speech never gets made. Will the boat ride happen? Who knows? She is, in short, precisely the heroine of Henry James’s novella Daisy Miller (1878).
Daisy was a young American girl who, while visiting Italy, was ostracized by Roman society for her various offenses against propriety. But did she know they were offenses? Winterbourne, an American living in Europe, “said to himself that she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon her ostracism, or even to have perceived it. Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced.” (Winterbourne’s mistake, at least in Daisy’s eyes, was becoming more interested in this conundrum than in her.) The elegant organism of Farrah Fawcett carries all this with her, and, frozen within the edges of a poster, captured inside a chameleon role inside an electronic box, she carried it into every home in America.
3. Father Knows Best—Comedy
A happily married couple (James and Pauline Fawcett) raise a beautiful daughter.
She was born on February 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi. Her father, James, had grown up in Hillsboro as the second oldest of seven children and had gone to work in the oil fields right out of high school. At the time Farrah was born, James Fawcett was working in a refinery. He and his wife, Pauline, had had another daughter, Diane, nine years before.
Farrah was beautiful, even as a child. Before she was in school, people would stop her mother in the grocery store and, with an odd prescience, say, “She looks like an a-n-g-e-l.” In grade school Farrah would come home and entertain her parents by mimicking the nuns in her Catholic school. She grew up with straight white teeth and lots of blonde hair. As she got older, the younger kids in the neighborhood would drop by just to look at her. “Your eyes,” they would say. “Your hair.”
As a teenager, she never went through a gawky stage and never had trouble with her skin, and of course, there was always the hair. She had a wide circle of friends and admirers. Some of those admirers, drafted after graduation, not at all members of the high school aristocracy, would later carry on a correspondence with her from Viet Nam and other places around the world. She did, however, show a preference for the kind of men that would continue to attract her in college and in Hollywood: good guys with handsome, round faces who played sports and were comfortable in the world of other good guys, men who in these regards were not unlike her father. After coming home from a date, Farrah would knock on the door of her parents’ bedroom and say, “Mother, let’s eat.” The two of them would fix some food and talk into the night.
In 1965 Farrah entered the University of Texas at Austin. By this time Pauline Fawcett had become very much absorbed in the life of her younger daughter. She came to Austin with Farrah and helped her move into her dorm. Then, when her mother said she thought she’d leave, Farrah said, “Leave? Why?”
Mrs. Fawcett stayed through rush week. At parties Farrah attracted a circle of boys; word about her spread so fast that within a few days her roommate had to screen her calls. She pledged Delta Delta Delta, although during rush she had complained disconsolately to her mother that none of the sorority girls liked her because their boyfriends were spending so much time talking to her. Mrs. Fawcett returned home after the first week, but she came back to Austin frequently to stay in the dorm with Farrah. Mrs. Fawcett would smuggle in a small pet dog in her suitcase. In later years there was always an extra bed or a separate room for her mother’s visits wherever Farrah lived.
She was selected as one of the ten most beautiful girls on campus, a rare honor for a freshman. Her picture found its way into the hands of David Mirisch, a show business publicist in Los Angeles. He called her at the university and told her she should come to Los Angeles to try her luck in Hollywood.
She had gotten odd long distance calls often enough. Her mother remembers them coming from college boys around the state and even the rest of the country—and once from Paris. Dorm life being what it is and horniness being what it is, college boys who have struck out with the beauties at their own school will, with just a name and a photograph to go on, ring up a girl hundreds of miles away and try to talk her into some impossible rendezvous. David Mirisch’s call was clearly something else, but what? Confused, Farrah told him to call her father, which Mirisch did. And for the next couple of years he kept on calling.
In the meantime Farrah stayed at the university. She studied art with Charles Umlauf, a well-known sculptor. She dated a football player and developed a group of close friends who remain in her orbit today. She still corresponds with Umlauf, and at the end of our talk in Los Angeles, I was introduced to another friend from college, a Texas woman who had come from her ranch outside Athens to visit Farrah in California and who, apparently, had been waiting patiently somewhere until we finished.
By the spring of 1968 Farrah was at the end of her junior year, and the lure of Mirisch’s call to Hollywood had become too much to resist. Her parents had agreed, the idea being that she would try it for the summer, see how things went, and then come back to Austin for her senior year. She showed up at the office of Frank Armstrong, who was then a photographer for Texas Student Publications, and asked him to shoot some pictures for her to take to California. They went to Zilker Park, where Farrah climbed rocks and trees and ran with outstretched arms across the playing fields while Armstrong’s shutter clicked away.
It is more typical for a girl to run off to Hollywood to get away from her family, but Farrah, as when she left for college, took them along on the trip, and she remains close to her parents. Today the Fawcetts live in a comfortable house in far North Houston. They are both handsome, likable, and in a word, sweet. Every day their mailbox is jammed with correspondence for Farrah, sometimes arriving addressed only “Farrah, Houston.” There come all kinds of greeting cards and letters, usually very large or with elaborate folds or designs showing that the senders have picked them out in hopes that this particular card will stand out from the rest. The letters are often personal, like this one from Ohio: “Farrah, I wanted you to know I’ve met a wonderful girl and I know we’ll be very happy. I want to thank you for all you’ve meant to me . . .” Other fans get the Fawcetts’ phone number somehow and call just to chat. Mrs. Fawcett talks to them, frequently at some length. One young woman from Minnesota called over a period of time, decided she was tired of the snow, and moved to Houston. The Fawcetts put her up in their house until she found a job and her own apartment, having known her only over the phone. And Farrah calls almost every day, too.
“She likes for me to go along on trips,” Mrs. Fawcett says. “If there’s some business dinner she has to go to and then some party where she doesn’t want to go, she can just say, ‘I have some plans with my mother.’ It’s easier on her that way.”
Mr. Fawcett is still in the oil business. He pats you on the back and laughs and says, “Are you a country boy or a city boy?” in a way that lets you know “country boy” is the preferred answer. Even today, if Farrah is upset she will crawl into his lap for a soothing talk. “I tell her, ‘Health and happiness,’” says Mr. Fawcett. “Those are the important things.”
Her close relationship with her mother and father is certainly one reason why Farrah has not foundered on the tempting but jagged rocks of Hollywood. Not everyone is so fortunate; some end up like Barbara Payton, whose story is a sad but instructive digression.
“The Barbara Payton Story.” A young Texan (Payton) seeks fame in Hollywood but finds misery instead. Also staring Tom Neal, Franchot Tone, James Cagney, and Gregory Peck.
She was a very beautiful young girl from Odessa who married at seventeen and had her husband, a soldier, take her to Hollywood for their honeymoon. That was in 1944. By 1949, five years, one husband, and one baby boy (left with her parents) later, she was starring in B-pictures and had begun an affair with, among many others, the actor Tom Neal. “I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their name for success,” she wrote in her “shocking” autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed (© Holloway House, Los Angeles, 1963). Just looking at Neal, she wrote, “sent red peppers down my thighs.”
In 1950 Payton starred with James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and her private life made headlines. The debonair actor Franchot Tone had fallen in love with her. He and Neal went to her house one hot summer night to talk things over. The three of them began drinking. Tone, sent into a sudden fury by tripping over one of Neal’s barbells, threw a punch. The barbell should have been a warning. Neal immediately flattened Tone’s nose and sent him to the hospital. Payton subsequently married Tone, although she was never able to leave the brawny Neal completely out in the cold.
The next year, 1951, was the apex of her career: she co-starred with Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant. But her reviews were bad, and the fight had made Hollywood, then officially much more straitlaced, wary of her. The next year the best she could do was a movie called Bride of the Gorilla; the year after that, The Great Jesse James Raid. Her marriage broke up. She made a few cheapo science fiction thrillers in England and toured with Neal in a stage production of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but soon enough the bulk of her income was from prostitution.
“You know,” she wrote in I Am Not Ashamed, “at first when you start going in the wrong direction you hardly notice it. There are a few less autograph hounds outside the theater. The studio boss rushes past you on the lot but you are sure he didn’t see you. The market manager politely reminds you your account is running a little high. You don’t quite get the ‘A’ treatment at the beauty parlor. Your agent sends you just a few less scripts to choose pictures from. And most important you look in the mirror and you don’t look quite as good. You don’t know why but that’s the way it is.
“Then all of a sudden you find yourself doing a western. A western with ‘Jesse James’ in the title . . . . When people at parties ask you what you’re doing you find yourself excusing your role. Like ‘I was given six varied scripts to look at and I chose a western of all things because it was a fine role with shading and character.’ Or, ‘You know I’m doing a western because it’s such fun and you know how I love to ride . . .’
“You drink a little bit more. You get on that sorry-for-yourself kick. If you’re like me you need more affection and sex because you have to prove there’s one area of living you can still score in. You go to pills . . . You take pills for anything in any quantity. It doesn’t make much difference. They all seem to work.”
Early in 1962 Payton was arrested for soliciting on Sunset Boulevard. She was bloated and alcoholic and appeared in court clutching a large box of Kleenex whose contents she used to swab her tears. She had a scar running down her stomach and thigh where a customer had stabbed her. “I live in a rat-roach infested apartment,” she wrote, “with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rosé wine. I don’t like what my scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men. I love the Negro race and I will accept money only from Negroes.” She died at the age of forty in 1967.
For every Barbara Payton, however, there are thousands and thousands who have found in Los Angeles a different kind of life. Hollywood in particular and Los Angeles in general have often been portrayed as tinsel to the core, a place of thwarted desires and broken dreams. Lives like Barbara Payton’s, where stardom was followed by sordid excesses and ignominy, are trotted out as exemplary, even in movies: Sunset Boulevard, A Star Is Born, and many more. But for all the glitter and lunacy, for all the people there whose combination of high energy, greed, and phoniness have caused the phrase “L.A. hustler” to pass into the language, Los Angeles remains what it has always been—a city of great beauty and opportunity. Fortunes are still being made not only in entertainment but also in oil, real estate, electronics, virtually anything you can name, including chocolate chip cookies. Along the city’s broad avenues and boulevards, which seem to run on endlessly with only the ocean being sufficiently powerful to stop them cold, there is an infinite variety of shops, stores, workshops, offices, eateries, all manned by so many people of so many different nationalities speaking so many different languages that you can find any product and any service that exists anywhere in the world. There is domestic architecture of astonishing, frequently dreamlike beauty, not only along the streets of exclusive enclaves like Bel-Air and Beverly Hills but along average streets in average parts of town. And if you make your fortune there, look what comes along with it: the best houses, the best food, the best cars, the best clothes, and the company of people who are the best at whatever they do, all this in a setting with the Pacific on one side and the mountains on the other. And the sun shines every day.
5. The Girl In The XR-7—Adventure
A television actress (Farrah Fawcett) almost freezes in the ocean even though she’s married to a big star (Lee Majors).
It was to this lovely, energetic, seductive and dangerous city that Farrah Fawcett moved in the summer of 1968. Farrah, her mother, her father, and her father’s sister drove to Los Angeles, pulling behind them a U-Haul trailer stuffed with Farrah’s clothes. They drove across West Texas, across the mountains of New Mexico, across the deserts of Arizona and eastern California, across the mountains, and down into Los Angeles. Mrs. Fawcett was driving at the end, her eyes bleary and her face haggard from the trip. On a freeway a patrol car pulled them over. She had been driving in an inside lane, forbidden for cars with trailers, but when the cop saw her, his first question was “Have you been drinking?” Mrs. Fawcett began stammering a reply in her distinct Texas accent, and the cop laughed and waved them on.
They stayed the first night in a Holiday Inn. David Mirisch came out to meet them there, and the man who had been calling Farrah in Texas to come to Hollywood saw her for the first time. The Fawcetts, in turn, saw the man in whose hands they were placing their daughter’s future. The next day Mirisch took them to Universal Studios and showed them around. There they met Gene Barry, then starring in the series The Name of the Game. The cast and crew had just completed a scene that required a large number of young women, who were still on the set. “You should have come earlier,” Barry said to Mr. Fawcett. “We had all these pretty girls up there dancing.”
Mirisch had arranged for Farrah to stay in the Hollywood Studio Club, a residence established by the YWCA in 1926 for women who come to Hollywood to find work in movies. Her room was at the top of three flights of steps. The woman who ran the place wouldn’t allow men above the first floor, so Mr. Fawcett was able to bask in the California sun while the three women trudged up and down the stairs carrying in Farrah’s possessions from the U-Haul.
Then they went on to Las Vegas. As they walked about, Mr. Fawcett got angry and had words with a young man who had stopped in his tracks and begun staring at Farrah. “I don’t mind them looking,” he said, defending himself against his wife’s insistence that he hush, “but just to stare, I don’t like that. That’s plain rude.” Later Farrah and her aunt sat down at the same blackjack table. Farrah began to win, the aunt to lose. Finally the aunt threw down her cards in disgust. “The dealer’s just letting her win because she’s so pretty,” she said. In the evening the Fawcetts put Farrah on a plane. Her mother cried as the plane took off. All she could think of was that there would be no one at the airport in Los Angeles to meet her daughter.
David Mirisch comes from an old and distinguished show business family. His grandfather, father, and uncles are all in the business and among them have received numerous Oscars. Our Mirisch now runs David Mirisch Enterprises, which he describes as an international promotional firm. His offices are on the third floor of a low, nondescript office building on Beverly Drive, not far from, but on the less glamorous side of, Wilshire Boulevard. Here also are the offices of the WPAA, or the World Professional Arm-wrestling Association.
Inside the door is a small waiting room containing a small secretary’s desk with bottles of nail polish standing by the typewriter. Along the walls are black and white photographs, some of actors and actresses and others of brawny guys arm-wrestling. Posters for racquetball and tennis promotions are mixed among the photographs. When I walked in to call on Mirisch, a tall, thin, rather handsome young man appeared, then disappeared back into the offices to tell Mirisch I was there. As I waited, I could hear Mirisch talking on the telephone. “André,” he said, “do you want a fabulous, beautiful girl who has waitress experience?” After a brief silence he asked someone in his office, “How much experience do you have?”
“Two years. All right, I’ll send her right over. Oh, she’s wonderful. Okay, okay. I love you, too. Good-bye.”
Then the girl asked him some questions. “Oh, it’s a steak and salad kind of place,” he said. “You know, average check ten, fifteen dollars. You’ll make about fifty, sixty dollars a night.”
After a few moments’ further conversation and the smack of kisses, Mirisch emerged with the young woman on his arm. She had an average blonde prettiness and was wearing a simple black dress. “Hey, Mr. Curtis,” he said. “I’d like you to meet my latest discovery.” She looked back and forth between Mirisch and me. Who was I? “He’s a writer from Texas,” Mirisch said. “He’s here doing a magazine article.”
“Oh,” she said, still confused as to what degree of attention she should pay me. “Nice to have met you.”
We went into Mirisch’s office. His desk was piled with stacks of paper, books, and knickknacks. He is a round-faced man with wavy hair, about fifty years old, slightly bug-eyed, and he was dressed in a sport shirt and slacks. “What’s in this for me?” he asked.
I said I wasn’t sure and plunged ahead anyway. “Listen,” he said, “without me, Farrah Fawcett would be a housewife in Texas. What this business is is luck. Take Erik Estrada. He’s a nice-looking boy, but really all he can do is ride on a motorcycle, and anyone can do that. There were a number of people that tried out for that role, and he got it. He was the lucky one. The rest of them we may or may not have heard of, but now we’ve heard of him. It’s the same thing with Farrah. She’s no better or worse than anyone else. She just happened to be at the right place at the right time to get on a good product like Charlie’s Angels and take it from there.”
Whatever luck can or cannot do for a career, Farrah didn’t have much luck with Mirisch. She made some appearances and got her picture in the local papers as Miss Boat Show and the like. On September 23, 1969, a little more than a year after her arrival in Hollywood, Farrah had her lawyer send Mirisch a letter saying that she no longer required his services and a check for $210.46 to settle the account. At this time, had Farrah stayed in Texas, she would have just completed her senior year at the university. As it was, alone in Hollywood, she had the self-possession and the clear sense of her own self-interest to come to the conclusion that the 25 per cent Mirisch was charging for his services was too much, to find a lawyer, and to get out.
Not long after the Flying Nun appearance, Farrah had a screen test for the movie Myra Breckenridge and landed a role in it. The movie is a flaming piece of kitsch. In it Farrah plays a short and rather chaste love scene with, of all people, Raquel Welch. Farrah is surprisingly effective in her role, in part because she appears to be exactly what she was: a green girl from Texas who landed in bed with a big movie star of the wrong sex.
“I never had to look for work,” she told me. “I always had jobs.” She kept working because she had both a natural talent for television acting and a shrewd sense of how to conduct herself. “On Myra Breckenridge we had to wait hours“—she threw her arms out and heaved herself back into the corner of the couch—”for Raquel. I wasn’t anybody so I stood around the set and I heard what the crew said about her. I decided I didn’t want them saying those things about me.”
People who worked with her then are universal in their compliments and goodwill toward her. Lee Zimmerman of the Kenyon & Eckhardt advertising agency in New York worked with her on a Mercury Cougar commercial that began with Farrah coming out of the ocean at night, pulling off a diving mask, and saying, “Hey, you want to see my XR-7?” She had just gotten off a plane after working fourteen hours on another job, the shooting went on all night, and the ocean water was choppy and frigid. “We kept having problems,” Zimmerman says, “and had to shoot take after take. She was always ready, never complained. She stayed in that freezing water until we got it right.”
She also, very soon after her arrival in Hollywood, met Lee Majors, an ex-college football player from Kentucky who was making a good career for himself as a television actor and would later become a star in The Six Million Dollar Man. They dated, lived together for a while, and were married in July 1973, long after the idea of returning for her last year at the university had faded forever. She was doing commercials for Noxzema and Wella Balsam as well as Mercury and appearing on such shows as McCloud, Apple’s Way, The Six Million Dollar Man, Harry-O, and Marcus Welby, M.D. By the beginning of 1976 she had become a reasonably successful journeyman actress who was married to the latest national star. About this time, two separate conversations occurred—one in a farmer’s field outside Akron, Ohio, and one in a limousine returning from a Los Angeles Rams football game—that would change everything.
6. The Passionate Angel—Fantasy-Drama
The girl from “The Flying Nun” (Farrah Fawcett) conquers Planet Earth.
Ted Trikilis, a part owner of Pro Arts, a poster manufacturing company in Akron, Ohio, took a couple of days off in April 1976 to work on his farm near town. He hired Patrick Partridge, a student at Akron University, to help him. While the two were working, Partridge mentioned to Trikilis that he ought to do a poster of Farrah Fawcett. Trikilis had never heard of her. Partridge told him that she was the actress in the Mercury Cougar commercials; the guys in the dorms at school all had her magazine ads up on their walls, and when the Cougar commercials came on television, the people watching shouted and guys came running out of their rooms to watch her. Trikilis asked his wife about the idea, and she knew immediately who Farrah Fawcett was. Back at work he asked people there. None of the men recognized her name, but they all knew whom he was talking about when he mentioned the Cougar commercials. But all the women he asked knew her by name. (Much of her fame is based on her appeal to women as well as men; Charlie’s Angels, for instance, was equally popular with male and female viewers.)
With a why-not attitude Trikilis contacted the William Morris agency in Los Angeles, which was handling Farrah at the time. The agency talked to her about it and in turn told Pro Arts that Farrah said she thought the idea was “cute.” She hired a photographer, Bruce McBroom, a friend of a few years, and he shot a vast array of photographs. At Pro Arts they went around and around about which shot to use, finally deciding on one in a single-piece red bathing suit because they liked it as well as many of the others and she had marked it as her own choice. The poster was an immediate sensation and has become one of those artifacts that calls up an entire era. It is, for instance, hanging on the wall of John Travolta’s room during the scene in Saturday Night Fever where he combs his hair in preparation for an evening’s dancing. After the poster’s publication, Trikilis ran into a college professor he knew. The professor told him he’d seen it for sale in the open-air markets of New Delhi. It has sold well in excess of six million copies.
About the time Pro Arts was talking about the poster, Lee Majors went to a Los Angeles Rams football game in a limousine with Sonny Bono and a publicity agent and manager named Jay Bernstein. Bernstein wanted Majors as a client. On the way home from the game, Majors agreed to sign on with Bernstein if the agent would also handle his wife, Farrah.
Bernstein is a well-known agent who has handled such people as Suzanne Somers, Linda Evans, and, for a brief period, Patti Davis Reagan. He lives in a house overlooking Los Angeles that used to belong to Carole Lombard. It has an indoor swimming pool. In his office downstairs, there is a framed copy of the People magazine story about Farrah’s firing him and a photograph of the two of them at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977. All the rest of the wall space, from the floor to the ceiling, is hung with magazine covers bearing pictures of his clients. There are several hundred of them and most are of Farrah—People, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Tennis, foreign publications, on and on.
Having been shown the office by a secretary, I waited for Bernstein upstairs in the bar. I stared at the view of Los Angeles—endless streets of dreamy white buildings that, on the distant horizon, met a blue sky—and then noticed a stack of magazines on the endtable by the couch. The top one was the then current issue of Los Angeles magazine with a picture of Linda Evans on the cover. Below it was a stack about a foot high of Time, People, Newsweek, and so on, each one with a page paper-clipped. The next magazine was People; the clip marked an article about Bernstein. The third was another People, and the clip marked another article about him. Below that a Time was clipped at an item about one of his clients. Similarly, each clip marked an article about Bernstein or one of his clients.
In a few moments he walked in. About average height with a short, pointed beard, on the verge of pudginess, he is pushing middle age. He was wearing blue jeans, blue suede loafers, and a knit T-shirt, and he was not carrying one of his famous collection of canes, a number of which I had seen in an umbrella stand by the front door. He is obsessed with the glamour queens of Hollywood in the thirties and forties, and his ambition has always been to engineer the rise of the modern equivalents of those stars. “I felt an electricity about Farrah immediately,” he said. “I asked her if she minded if I made her a legend. She laughed like she thought I was kidding and said, ‘Sure. Go ahead.’ I thought of her as a little like Betty Grable because she was blonde. But Grable is just too boring for today. So in my mind I added Rita Hayworth for spice.”
Bernstein worked to make sure that of the three actresses on Charlie’s Angels, Farrah was the star. Hence all the magazine covers. When she left Charlie’s Angels, Bernstein handled her movie career. “She did Somebody Killed Her Husband, Sunburn, and Saturn 3,” Bernstein said. “People say that’s not much of a movie career. But remember she was involved in that suit for leaving Charlie’s Angels. She was blacklisted, since no one wanted to become part of the suit. And she never got less than $750,000 a picture.” Then, in October 1979, Farrah fired him.
“He just kept pushing me and pushing me,” she said. “For a while it was a great ego boost. He kept saying, ‘You’re going to be big. You’re going to be big.’ But he just had this idea of what he wanted me to be. He would send me books about the old movie stars with pages marked for me to read about Jean Harlow. I was rearranging some books the other day and I opened one from Jay. It was a beautiful book with this sweet, sweet flowery inscription he wrote to me, and then on the inside he had underlined passages about some of the old stars. But I realized he’d done all this and I’d never even read it. He kept pushing me and I got so tired. I’d hear him talking on the telephone and he’d become me. I mean, he’d do the interview like talking to him was just like talking to me. I finally just had enough. I separated from my husband, fired my attorney, and fired Jay Bernstein all in a month.”
Today Bernstein’s assessment of his role is this: “What I did with Farrah was simply maximize her potential.” The push he provided—all those magazine covers!—came just at the time her poster was papering the walls of America and she had begun her role in a new series, Charlie’s Angels. Only a few weeks after it aired, an ABC survey showed that over 90 per cent of the people contacted had seen the show. Two thirds of them named it as their favorite show on television. During its first season, 1976-77, it was the fifth most popular show after Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, ABC Monday Night Movie, and M*A*S*H and ahead, significantly, of The Six Million Dollar Man, which finished seventh.
Charlie’s Angels was produced by Aaron Spelling, a poor boy from Dallas who made good in Hollywood, and his partner, Leonard Goldberg. This pair had already left a significant mark on television, for better or worse, with The Rookies, S.W.A.T., Starsky and Hutch, and a number of made-for-TV movies like The Great American Beauty Contest and The Girl Who Came Gift Wrapped, in both of which Farrah had had roles.
Spelling and Goldberg had one day come up with the idea of a show with three women detectives. They originally thought the women would be called Alin, Lee, and Catherine so the names could be combined to form the show’s title, The Alley Cats. The B-movie tone of this title certainly carried over into the underlying tone of the resulting show, but as the project progressed the name got changed to Harry’s Angels (the change to Charlie was to avoid reference to Harry-O), and the difference between alley cats and angels is the reason for the show’s great popularity. The plots had the Angels solving crimes by pretending to be prostitutes, masseuses, go-go dancers, models, and the full range of other B-movie fantasies, but these are angels, after all; they are only pretending and they never really do the main thing a prostitute does. They are nice girls who become teases and return to being nice girls by the end of the show. In one episode Farrah works in a massage parlor. Customers come in and are stunned by their good fortune in finding such a girl for hire. Farrah takes a man upstairs, but when they come back down the man looks happy but confused. “She really gave me a massage,” he announces. All the waiting customers get up and leave.
Charlie’s Angels is a very sharp show technically, but it isn’t any good. There isn’t any real suspense, the plots begin as transparent and then are stretched thinner than that, and the touches of light humor—mostly mugging by David Doyle, who plays the eunuchlike Bosley—fall with a flat thud. It is even much overrated as a skin show. It is much more a tight blue jeans and tight T-shirt show, although—and here is the tease—Farrah is clearly without a bra.
Only one episode, “Angels in Chains,” is really fun, simply because it rushes through a lifetime of B-movie clichés in just one hour. The Angels work undercover as inmates in a Southern women’s prison where there have been some mysterious deaths. There are a bovine and corrupt Southern sheriff, his creepy deputy, and a butch female guard named Max. The warden appears at first to be kindly, but she is actually running a brothel in a nearby town with women from the prison. The Angels are required to go to a party there in sleazy evening gowns. They escape, all three chained together, but with the sheriff and the slobbering deputy in hot pursuit. The Angels commandeer a truck and toss boxes of potatoes off the back, which, incredibly, forces the sheriff’s car off the road and over a cliff where it explodes and burns. All this is exactly as good as it sounds. If Charlie’s Angels had always had this ludicrous but headlong swirl of ever more outlandish events . . . but it didn’t.
What it did have was three women whom people enjoyed looking at even if what the scripts called for them to do and say seemed pretty silly. At the end of the first season, during which Farrah had gone from a virtual unknown to the focus of a marketing empire of posters, T-shirts, dolls, shampoo, and a top-rated show, she quit. Her career since then, except for an accomplished performance in Murder in Texas, a TV movie about the famous case of Dr. John Hill, has never gotten back on track. But whether it would be on track had she stayed with Charlie’s Angels is hard to say. Still, she quit school, she quit David Mirisch, she quit Charlie’s Angels, she fired Jay Bernstein, and she has just gotten divorced from her husband, so she’s hardly afraid to strike out for new territory. And she has a fine instinct for what’s good for number one. When I asked her if she had sensed Charlie’s Angels was going to be a hit, she said, “I guess I must have. I remember sitting in my dressing room one day and thinking, ‘The chemistry on this show is going to sell. I’d better call my attorney.’”
7. THE GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION—Documentary
Narrated by Elvis Presley and Farrah Fawcett.
Amazingly, Farrah’s career rests on a poster and one season on a television show. But in the years since she left Charlie’s Angels, she has remained an important celebrity, with her divorce and her romance with Ryan O’Neal chronicled in the papers. At this writing, four teams of producers at MGM, in a flurry of activity that seems from the outside like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie, are working independently to develop a television show for Farrah for ABC. It will be a success or it won’t, but either way, it won’t affect the one great accomplishment of what is otherwise a rather slender career: Farrah Fawcett brought passion to television, and passion has been there ever since. Before her, television was a tremendously popular form peopled with pleasant, ordinary personalities—Robert Young, Donna Reed, Dick Van Dyke. And whatever else may have been on the air, there was most decidedly no sex. Imagine a poster of Lucille Ball or even the very lovely Mary Tyler Moore sweeping the country. Popular music before Elvis in a similar state. Elvis stirred the passions by ignoring all the boundaries of taste and propriety. Farrah stirred the passions by broadcasting a fresh, seductive heat from within the normal boundaries. He was rock ‘n’ roll; she was television.
The kind of frenzy that surrounded Elvis and Farrah is symptomatic of that crucial moment when passion is injected into a previously bland popular art form. After Elvis there was room in popular music for rebels, bohemians, and artists, because the audience was demanding that music reach inside to grab their raw nerves, and the rebels and artists were eager to do just that. The same artistic explosion happened in the English theater during Elizabethan times and in the novel during the nineteenth century; both forms were considered in their day to be lewd and corrupt and cynical stirrers of the popular passions, like rock ‘n’ roll, like television.
Elvis was able to reach as large an audience as he did as quickly as he did because of such technological wonders as the 45-rpm record. Today, with the coming of cable television, transmission satellites, videocassettes, and the rest of the whiz-bang electronic wonders, television is changing, too. Cheap and idiosyncratic local programming will find its way onto the airwaves through a glut of new channels voracious for something to broadcast; similarly, the cheap 45 and the proliferation of Top 40 radio let pretty much anyone who wanted to make a record enter the market. Some of these new television programs and their stars will touch the nerves of audiences now ready for television to do exactly that. What these new stars will be like, even what they will do, is impossible to predict. No one, seeing Elvis for the first time, could have foreseen Jimi Hendrix or the Talking Heads. But they will matter deeply to people, and in that sense, they will owe a great debt to Farrah, because it was Farrah who showed that television was a way to become important in people’s lives. Since her we have had a run of television sirens like Suzanne Somers and Morgan Fairchild, but the better part of Farrah’s legacy will be the rebels and artists for whom she, however unwittingly, made television attractive. The bohemian group of merry pranksters that appeared on the original Saturday Night Live are the best proof so far that once television was able to touch the passions, those who want to do just that rise up from nowhere. Just as Farrah, out of nowhere, rose up first.