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Farah Fawcett, the original Charlie's Angel, dies at 62

Actress loses three-year battle with the cancer she dubbed her 'terrorist' at Los Angeles hospital

Friends and family announced yesterday that Farrah Fawcett, the shimmering actress who became one of greatest sex symbols of her generation, had died in a Los Angeles hospital, ending a three-year battle against the cancer she dubbed her "terrorist".

A statement from her longstanding companion, actor Ryan O'Neal, spoke of the bravery with which the 62-year-old star faced her final illness, taking to the airwaves in order to draw attention to her painful struggle, in a moving television documentary called Farrah's Story.

Fawcett recently announced her intention to finally marry O'Neal, who had been her on-off partner for more than two decades. However she never had time to make the final, defiant gesture against a disease that had left her feeling "like a blonde nothingness".

"After a long and brave battle with cancer, our beloved Farrah has passed away," said O'Neal, who was at her bedside when she died. "Although this is an extremely difficult time for family and friends, we take comfort in the beautiful times we shared over the years, and the knowledge that her life brought joy to so many people around the world."

In her final, two-hour documentary, Fawcett charted every stage of her decline from the anal cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2006 and later spread to her liver. Despite often being shown in extreme pain, she always maintained a sense of humour, tearfully telling doctors "You wouldn't stop until you got my hair," as they shaved her scalp.

Fawcett's blonde locks had famously catapulted her to fame during the 1970s, when she was spotted by a Hollywood talent agent in a student magazine feature about the "10 most beautiful co-eds" at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was studying.

After moving to Los Angeles, she began modelling and in 1975 posed for the poster that would turn her into an international icon. It showed her in a one-piece red swimsuit, beaming pneumatically in a gesture that managed to capture the spirit of both the sexual revolution and the Californian lifestyle.

The poster sold more than eight million copies, and brought her to the attention of television producer Aaron Spelling, who cast her as one of the crime-fighting protagonists of Charlie's Angels. That role would, for better and worse, define her acting career.

Fawcett became a fixture on the show-business circuit, and helped sell T-shirts, lunch boxes, shampoo, wigs and even a novelty plumbing device called "Farrah's faucet." For a time, she also formed part of a famous Hollywood marriage with Lee Majors, the star of The Six Million Dollar Man, though the couple separated in 1979.

She was nominated for two Emmys and five Golden Globes, winning particular praise when she played an abused wife in The Burning Bed. However, Fawcett's celebrity wattage would – perhaps unfairly – often eclipse her standing as an actress.

In one typical public controversy, she caused an enormous stir by agreeing to pose for Playboy in 1995. Despite her sex-symbol status, she had famously always refused to appear naked in films or magazines.

Her personal life, and particularly her tumultuous relationship with O'Neal – which began in 1980 – was constantly followed by the tabloids. A rambling 1997 interview with David Letterman, at the time of one of their periodic break-ups, fuelled speculation that she might be having a breakdown.

Although Fawcett suffered tabloid intrusion at the start of her illness, when employees of a Los Angeles hospital leaked her medical records, she was later able to use her status as a pop culture icon to her advantage.

Farrah's Story, which was broadcast around the world in May, allowed her to make an impassioned plea for the US government to reform its dysfunctional healthcare system and modernise cancer screening.

Announcing her death, Fawcett's publicist, Allen Miller, left a tribute on the actress's official website. "I am sorry to say our Farrah has passed to a better place and left the pain and confines of her bed behind," it read. "She is free to be the woman we all knew and loved; so few have touched so many."