Charlie's timeless angels: Women who transformed television

Thirty years after the original series of the late Aaron Spelling's legendary TV show, its three stars paid tribute to him at the Emmy awards. But how has life treated them all since? David Usborne reports

Wednesday 30 August 2006 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Jilly - Farrah Fawcett

Of the three original stars of Aaron Spelling's 1970's television phenomenon, Charlie's Angels, only one has retained her place in the cultural landscape, despite being the first to abandon the show.

But even Farrah Fawcett herself, who is now 59 years old, might agree that her longevity as a popular icon has had more do with swimsuit fittings than elevated acting abilities.

No scholar of television is going to try to tell you that Charlie's Angels was about anything much beyond sex appeal.

Indeed, it engendered a new industry acronym: T&A TV. (That would be tits and ass.) Farrah Fawcett once said as much. "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."

Though she joined Sunday night's tribute to Spelling, those with long memories will recall that her departure from the Charlie's Angels set was not a happy one. Her decision, motivated by aspirations of a big-star film career, triggered a lawsuit against Spelling and his co-producer Leonard Goldberg, which resulted in her agreeing to make guest appearances in six episodes over the next two years.

The celebrity conferred on Texas-born Fawcett by the Angels in 1976, in which she played Jilly Munroe, was indisputable. Nothing told the story of the loyalty of her fans better than when she agreed that same year to pose for a poster dressed in a swimsuit. It sold 12 million copies, adorning the walls of social clubs, common rooms and lorry cabs from Liverpool to Lima.

Her big-screen dreams never really materialised, however. That is not to say that Fawcett did not go a long way from disproving her braless observations. In 1984, she won the first of three Emmy nominations for her portrayal of a battered wife in a television movie called The Burning Bed. She won similar acclaim for the stage and film version of Extremities, where she played a victim of rape.

Yet the impression will perhaps always linger that her one year on Charlie's Angels represented the peak of her career, at least commercially. Tabloid interest in Farrah Fawcett has never faded. It was fuelled by her nine-year marriage to Lee Majors, the star of the Six Million Dollar Man, which earned her the nickname, "The Bionic Wife". After she split with Majors - and subsequently dropped the hyphenated Majors from her last name - she began a long love affair with Ryan O'Neal. They had one child together, a son called Raymond born in 1982.

In December 1995, Ms Fawcett seemingly gave in to the sex-kitten image she knew she couldn't shake off, agreeing to do a pictorial spread, almost at the age of 50, for Playboy magazine. The issue sold more than four million copies, making it the biggest issue of the magazine for all of the Nineties.

Speculation that Ms Fawcett had somehow jumped the rails in her personal life - or even that she was struggling with drug abuse - has come and gone in recent years, most notably when she appeared unable to string a sentence together appearing on the David Letterman late-night talk show on the NBC network in 1997. She seemed to be similarly incoherent during a roast of William Shatner, the erstwhile Star Trek icon, broadcast earlier this year by Comedy Central.

Meanwhile, Fawcett has routinely dismissed other rumours in recent months over possible cosmetic surgery procedures, triggered by a photograph published two years ago when she hardly looked her glamorous best - as she did once again on Sunday at the Emmy's. The reason for her sudden return to flawless looks, she has said, is simply healthy living. "I have taken time out to look after myself and eat well. Hence, I look better," she said.

Kelly - Jaclyn Smith

Jaclyn Smith, who played Kelly Garrett, was the only one of the three original Angels to make it all the way until 1981, when the programme and the fictional detective agency run by the invisible Charlie - voiced by the actor John Forsyth - was finally retired. At 60, she is also the oldest of the trio.

Originally a model in New York, she also can probably credit Aaron Spelling with giving her the six most successful years of her acting career.

"I'm sure he's looking down on us and smiling, knowing he brought us together as only he could," she said on Sunday.

After the series ended, Smith earned a reputation as the queen of made-for-television films and mini-series in the US. Through the Eighties, she appeared in more than two dozen such productions - of the kind usually screened on a Sunday evening. In 1989, she was given the title role in a network mystery series called Christine Cromwell, but it failed to catch on and closed after one season. More recently she had a recurring co-starring role on the successful law and order series, The District.

She had to turn away some appealing offers while the Angels were riding high in the ratings. Opportunities missed included starring as the female interest in the James Bond film Moonraker starring Roger Moore. (Lois Chiles took that role instead.) Years later, she was also asked to appear with Burt Reynolds in a sequel to The Cannonball Run but she had just had a baby and declined.

There was one notable appearance recently, however - Smith did a small cameo of her old self as Angel Garrett in the most recent movie version of the show, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003). Both film versions of the series, made by Sony, featured a new trio of angels in the form of Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz.

Like Kate Jackson, a fellow Angel, Smith has fought breast cancer. She has not had anything close to a stable personal life, with three failed marriages behind her. Today, however, she lives happily with her fourth husband, a surgeon, Brad Allen. Smith spends more time nowadays as a spokeswoman for linens and household goods sold by the K-Mart chain of discount shops in the US, and also sells her own line of soft home furnishings.

Sabrina - Kate Jackson

For Kate Jackson, Charlie's Angels was at least as much a curse as a blessing. Of the three women, she was the first to become involved, working with Aaron Spelling on conceiving the programme even before the first pilot was made. It was eventually decided that Jackson would play the "smart" angel of the trio, named Sabrina Duncan, cracking cases as much with her brain as her sex appeal.

Jackson lasted slightly longer than Fawcett in the show. She gave up on it after three years, however, and again the mood on the set was sour. She had earlier been offered the lead role in the film Kramer vs Kramer and Spelling had refused to let her go. The Kramer part, which could have been the biggest of her career, went instead to a fast-rising young actress at the time, Meryl Streep. From 1983 to 1987 Jackson starred in the highly successful series Scarecrow and Mrs King, revolving around a housewife sleuthing.

Her acting career had gone into hiatus in the late 1980s, however, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose to make her fight with the disease a public one, joining the campaign to persuade women of the importance of cancer prevention and mammograms. In 1995, she adopted a child as a single mother after three failed marriages.

At the Emmy's, Ms Jackson, 58, spoke of the well-reported family feud that has pitted Spelling's daughter, Tori, against his widow, Candy, with Tori reportedly claiming that she has been unfairly squeezed out of Aaron's will, with only $800,000 coming to her from a fortune worth $500m. Candy rejects the allegations.

"It's a Machiavellian thing that's going on that Aaron would write himself," Jackson told reporters at the ceremony. "It is brilliant in its treachery and maliciousness; morally reprehensible." She recalled knowing the Spelling family in happier times, including when Tori was first born. "I saw a look of love in his eyes that I had never seen before in anyone's," she said.

She also offered another nugget of gossip. It could be that a reunion TV film, featuring all three women and perhaps the three others who at different times played one of the angels, is in the offing. "Yes, there is going to be something very, very exciting," she divulged, but refused to say more.

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