Los Angeles A winsome smile, tousled hair and unfettered sensuality were Farrah Fawcett’s trademarks as a sex symbol and 1970s TV star in “Charlie’s Angels.”
But as her life drew to a close, she captivated the public in a far different way: as a cancer patient who fought for, then surrendered, her treasured privacy to document her struggle with the disease and inspire others.
Fawcett, 62, died Thursday morning at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, nearly three years after being diagnosed with anal cancer. Ryan O’Neal, the longtime companion who returned to her side when she became ill, was with her.
“After a long and brave battle with cancer, our beloved Farrah has passed away,” O’Neal said. “Although this is an extremely difficult time for her family and friends, we take comfort in the beautiful times that we shared with Farrah over the years and the knowledge that her life brought joy to so many people around the world.”
In the end, Fawcett sought to offer more than that, re-emerging in the spotlight with a new gravitas.
In “Farrah’s Story,” which aired last month, she made public her painful treatments and dispiriting setbacks — from shaving her golden locks before chemotherapy could claim them to undergoing experimental treatments in Germany.
“Her big message to people is don’t give up. No matter what they say to you, keep fighting,” Alana Stewart, who filmed Fawcett as she underwent treatment, said last month. NBC estimated the May 15, 2009, broadcast drew nearly 9 million viewers.
In the documentary, she also recounted her efforts to unmask the source of leaks from her UCLA Medical Center records, which led a hospital employee to plead guilty to violating a federal privacy law for selling celebrities’ information to the National Enquirer.
“There are no words to express the deep sense of loss that I feel,” Stewart said Thursday. “For 30 years, Farrah was much more than a friend. She was my sister, and although I will miss her terribly, I know in my heart that she will always be there as that angel on the shoulder of everyone who loved her.”
Other “Charlie’s Angels” stars also paid tribute.
“Farrah had courage, she had strength, and she had faith. And now she has peace as she rests with the real angels,” Jaclyn Smith said.
Said Cheryl Ladd: “She was incredibly brave, and God will be welcoming her with open arms.”
Kate Jackson said she would remember Fawcett’s “kindness, her cutting, dry wit and, of course, her beautiful smile. Today when you think of Farrah remember her smiling because that is exactly how she wanted to be remembered, smiling.”
Fawcett became a sensation in 1976 as one-third of the crime-fighting trio in “Charlie’s Angels.” A poster of her in a clingy, red swimsuit sold in the millions and her full, layered hairstyle became all the rage, with girls and women across America mimicking the look.
She left the show after one season but had a flop on the big screen with “Somebody Killed Her Husband.” She turned to more serious roles in the 1980s and 1990s, winning praise playing an abused wife in “The Burning Bed.”
Born Feb. 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas, she was named Mary Farrah Leni Fawcett by her mother, who said she added the Farrah because it sounded good with Fawcett.
As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, she was voted one of the 10 most beautiful people on the campus and her photos were eventually spotted by movie publicist David Mirisch, who suggested she pursue a film career.
She appeared in a string of commercials, including one where she shaved quarterback Joe Namath, and in such TV shows as “That Girl,” “The Flying Nun,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Partridge Family.”
She was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. According to the American Cancer Society Web site, an estimated 5,290 Americans, most of them adults over 35, will be diagnosed with that type of cancer this year, and there will be 710 deaths.
As she underwent treatment, she enlisted the help of O’Neal, who was the father of her now 24-year-old son, Redmond.
This month, O’Neal said he asked Fawcett to marry him and she agreed. They would wed “as soon as she can say yes,” he said, but it never happened.
In 1995, at age 50, Fawcett stirred controversy posing partly nude for Playboy magazine. The following year, she starred in a Playboy video, “All of Me,” in which she was equally unclothed while she sculpted and painted.
Fawcett’s most unfortunate career moment may have been a 1997 appearance on David Letterman’s show, when her disjointed, rambling answers led many to speculate that she was on drugs.
She denied that, blaming her strange behavior on questionable advice from her mother to be playful and have a good time.
In September 2006, Fawcett, who at 59 still maintained a strict regimen of tennis and paddleball, began to feel strangely exhausted.
She underwent two weeks of tests that revealed the cancer.
“I do not want to die of this disease. So I say to God, ‘It is seriously time for a miracle,”’ she said in “Farrah’s Story.”