Farrah Fawcett: Actress famed for her role in the quintessential Seventies programme 'Charlie's Angels'

It was one of the most famous posters of the 1970s – Farrah Fawcett wearing a red swimsuit – and sold 12 million copies around the world. Although the actress inside the costume walked out on the glossy American television series Charlie's Angels after just a year of playing one of the three scantily clad female detectives, the image lived on.

Then known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors – married at the time to television's Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors – she also created a new fashion with her mane of long, tousled locks. The hairstyle was copied by women everywhere, although one writer uncharitably described it as "reminiscent of an Afghan hound on heat".

In Charlie's Angels, she acted Jill Munroe, with Kate Jackson as Sabrina Duncan and Jaclyn Smith as Kelly Garrett, the trio working for a detective agency and receiving their assignments from an unseen boss, the wealthy Charlie Townsend (voiced by John Forsythe, before he landed the role of Blake Carrington in Dynasty), whom they heard only on a conference phone speaker.

Glamour was the order of the day in the colourful, all-action series – from the stable of the legendary producer Aaron Spelling – and it firmly went against the women's-lib tide of the time by contriving scenarios that often called for the women to be wearing as little as possible. There were frequent costume changes in each episode, but shorts and bikinis were firmly top of the list, and wet T-shirts worn without bras were not uncommon. It was also part of the formula for the female sleuths to be menaced, slapped or bound.

One episode had Fawcett going under cover as a playmate centrefold when a men's magazine feared its models were being targeted by a killer. At various other times, the trio posed as strippers, cheerleaders and health-spa attendants. The blatant sexism meant that the programme was labelled "jiggle TV", but it survived criticism to attract up to 50 million viewers in the United States and many more around the world.

However, Fawcett was unhappy with her $10,000-per-episode contract and wanted to further her career, so announced that she was leaving at the end of the first series (1976-77). Cheryl Ladd was brought in as her replacement – Jill's younger sister, Kris – but shocked producers issued a lawsuit against Fawcett for breach of contract. It was resolved when she agreed to make six guest appearances in Charlie's Angels during Series 3 and 4 (1978-80), before the programme eventually ran out of steam a year later.

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1947, the daughter of an oilfield contractor, Farrah Fawcett graduated in microbiology and art from the University of Texas at Austin. She then moved to California and found work as a model but had ambitions to act. As a result, she made her film début in the small role of a starlet in the love story Un Homme Qui Me Plaît ('A Man I Like', 1969), a French-Italian production shot in the United States, before landing bit-parts on television, credited as "Show Girl" in an episode of the television sitcom R.F.D. Mayberry (1969), "Pretty Girl" in The Partridge Family (1970) and "Hitchhiker" in the sex farce Three's a Crowd (starring Larry Hagman, 1969). At the same time, she was the familiar face of television commercials for UltraBrite toothpaste, Wella Balsam shampoo and Noxzema shaving cream.

Gradually, more meaty acting roles came her way, as one-off characters in popular series such as McCloud (1974) and Marcus Welby, M.D. (1974), before Fawcett became a semi-regular in Harry O (1974-76), as Sue Ingham, neighbour of the downbeat private eye played by David Janssen.

In 1973, she married Lee Majors, whom she had dated for five years, and acted in the pilot of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), in which he starred as Steve Austin, the seriously injured astronaut who was rebuilt with nuclear-powered bionic limbs, and she played four different characters (1974-76) in the subsequent series. She had previously had a bit-part in two 1971 episodes of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, with Majors in a starring role as the young lawyer Jess Brandon.

By the time the couple separated, in 1979, Fawcett was trying to make it as a film star but had little success with pictures such as the thriller Sunburn (1979), the outer-space opus Saturn 3 (1980) and the cross-country road race yarn The Cannonball Run (1981).

The tide turned when she went against type to play a battered wife in the television film The Burning Bed (1984), the true story of Francine Hughes. She had to fight for the role, against strong resistance from the American network NBC, but was rewarded with an Emmy nomination.

Plaudits also came for her stage performance as a rape victim who exacts revenge in the playwright William Mastrosimone's Extremities (West Side Arts Theatre, New York,1983), a role she took over from Susan Sarandon off-Broadway and repeated in a 1986 film version.

When big-screen success still did not follow, Fawcett mused: "There are may be five feature scripts a year that I would like to do and there are 15 women out there who are getting those scripts before me."

However, she continued to play strong-minded but unglamorous women in television films, with the titles roles in Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story (1986), Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987) and Double Exposure (as the Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White, 1989). She also won a second Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Diane Downs, a real-life Oregon woman who shot her three children, in Small Sacrifices (1989).

Having begun an 18-year relationship with the actor Ryan O'Neal, Lee Majors' best friend, in 1979 – and given birth to his son, Redmond, six years later – Fawcett teamed up with him to star as presenters of a cable television sports programme in the sitcom Good Sports (1991), but it survived for only one series.

Television work kept coming throughout the 1990s and the actress retained many fans, many of them among the four million worldwide who bought Playboy magazine when she posed for it in 1995, at the age of 48. When she did the same two years later, on hitting her half-century, the video Playboy: Farrah Fawcett, All of Me (1997) was released to mark the occasion.

In the same year, The Apostle (1997), a film in which she took the role of the straying wife of Robert Duvall's preacher, was a critical success. Then, Fawcett was offered a cameo role in the 2000 big-screen version of Charlie's Angels, but negotiations fell through after she demanded the part of Charlie.

The actress was stripping again – shedding her clothes and dancing in a fountain while experiencing a nervous breakdown in a shopping mall – when another rare film role came along, as the wife of a gynaecologist (Richard Gere) in Dr T & the Women (directed by Robert Altman, 2001).

Fawcett then had short runs in two popular American television series, as Judge Claire Simmons (2001) in the sitcom Spin City and Mary Gressler (2002-3) in The Guardian (winning her a third Emmy nomination).

But her starring role on Broadway as a fading beauty queen in the writer Nancy Hasty's comedy Bobbi Boland was cut short after just seven preview performances when its producer decided the play, which she had originally seen off-Broadway, did not transfer well to a bigger venue (Cort Theatre, 2003). Subsequently agreeing to have cameras follow her daily life for the reality television series Chasing Farrah (2005) seemed the decision of a real-life fading star.

Her own life was also the subject of conjecture after she appeared incoherent on The Late Show with David Letterman(1997) and The Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner (2006), but she denied speculation about drug or alcohol abuse.

In 1998, Fawcett's older sister, Diane, died of lung cancer and the actress ended a relationship with the director James Orr after he assaulted her. She subsequently did charity work for the Cancer Society and anti-domestic violence campaign groups. Then, in 2006, Fawcett herself was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.

Anthony Hayward

Mary Farrah Leni Fawcett, actress: born Corpus Christi, Texas, 2 February 1947; married 1973 Lee Majors (marriage dissolved 1982), (one son with Ryan O'Neal); died Los Angeles 25 June 2009.

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