Friday, June 26, 2009

Life After Farrah


I was living and working in Hollywood in the late 1970’s during the tail end of what was probably the golden age of iconic prime time television. The big hits were M*A*S*H*, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, Taxi, Happy Days, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs and, of course, Charlie’s Angels.

Cotton candy television for the most part. Shows with big budgets and big stars. Every one of them had a familiar theme, great title sequences, popular catch-phrases, cars blowing up and guest stars just as well known as the regular casts.

More people probably tuned in to their lowest rated summer repeat episodes than are currently counted on first run series considered hugely successful. They connected with huge audiences and dictated taste and fashion and fads across North America and around the world.

One of the most important things any successful television series requires is getting its iconography right. The audience has to be able to see one promo or even a single photo in a newspaper or magazine and “get” what you’re selling.

Nobody did that better than “Charlie’s Angels”.

angels in chains

The photo above is from an episode called “Angels in Chains”. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?

Pretty girls in jeopardy on a chain gang yet without one hair out of place. The prurient thrill of “Women Behind Bars” combined with cheerleader innocence in a way that said nobody was really going to get hurt – or corrupted.

At the center of that photograph stands an actress who also personified what American television was selling back then, the perfect California blonde; the kind of woman who populated discos, roller rinks and the center sections of Playboy.

Farrah Fawcett hit television like a bombshell. Although she’d been around for years, guesting on dozens of series and being a semi-regular on “Harry O” and her husband Lee Majors’ series “The Six Million Dollar Man” nobody really seemed to notice her until she became one of Charlie’s girls.

And then it was like there was nobody else. She not only captured the iconography of the series, but in posing for a poster for a photographer friend, tousling her hair in front of a Mexican blanket, she became an icon for the entire culture of the 1970’s.

That poster was everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Locker rooms. Restaurants. The bedrooms of both sexes. Looking at it now, you can’t figure out why. But looking at it in the late 70’s you just knew she was it. That was beauty. That was perfection. That was what every man wanted and every woman aspired to be.

Farrah Fawcett was one of those moments in time. Mostly forgettable before and after, but absolutely perfect in that one instant.


I didn’t watch “Charlie’s Angels” much. And when a friend who was guesting on an episode asked if I wanted to visit the set, my main reason for going was to meet director Lawrence Dobkin, famous not so much for being a good TV director but as the guy who weekly uttered the immortal line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

The “Angels” set was on the 20th Century Fox lot and when I arrived, I was almost run over by Harry Morgan, Col. Potter from M*A*S*H*, who careened up in a jeep and in costume. It was one of those moments where you wondered if that had been his quickest way to get to the front gate from the set or he really went home that way.

The “Angels” studio was no different from any other working studio or television set I’ve been on before or since. People professionally going about their business or socializing around the fringes while waiting for their next scene or set up.

Farrah had left the series after one season, encouraged to make the leap to features by her sudden fame and had been replaced by Cheryl Ladd. Her desertion had scandalized the tabloid press who filled the checkout counters with endless headlines about her bad behavior, out of control ego, etc. etc. etc.

But none of the people she’d left behind had a single bad word to say about her. Indeed they were thrilled that she was coming back in a couple of weeks to do a guest shot, something she did annually for the run of the series.

It was my first introduction to the difference between what you read or heard about the entertainment scene and what actually went on. What was written about Farrah was no more true then than what’s written about Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan or anybody else these days. 

In the reality of the real Hollywood, Farrah’s sudden fame had given her opportunities previously unavailable to her and not one person she was working with begrudged her that or hoped she’d fall on her face for moving on.

And while the tabloids debated whether Cheryl could fill Farrah’s shoes or have her impact, the clear mood on the set was, “We got a job to do. The new girl’s part of the team. Let’s make some television.”

These people were proving what one of my theatre teachers had tried to ingrain in all of his students. “This isn’t about fame. It isn’t about Art. It’s a job. Whether what you do is considered a success or determined to be of cultural importance is out of your hands. Other people decide those things. Your job is simply to do the job.”

The movies Farrah left to do weren’t very good or very successful. Later on, she made several “comebacks” that saw her nominated for several Emmys and Golden Globes that she never won. But her icon status also saw her receive People’s Choice Awards and Razzies doubly cursed by her fame to symbolize both success and failure.

She also established herself as a continuing character for the Tabs, fodder for gossip, innuendo and derision simply because she’d once captured lightning in a bottle and in doing so had sparked the synapses of people incapable of firing them themselves.

Farrah Fawcett died today and no doubt will be eulogized as “important” by some and a “train wreck” by others.  Like all of us, she had her successes and failures both in her career and in life. But what no one can deny is that for one brief moment she epitomized all of our dreams and aspirations.

And while others wanted her to be more or less than she was, the truth of her life is this.

She did the job. And she did it well.


Will P said...

Excellent post Jim!

James in TO said...

Nicely written.