March 05, 1984 12:00 PM

Hers was a smile that could light a night baseball game. Eyes that glowed like cool slices of fresh lime. Ash-blond hair that swirled in a sunstruck sandstorm. She was the pinup every red-blooded American male wanted to pin down, the sex symbol of the decade. She loved that, and she hated it. “Even now,” she says, “just to think about all that attention makes me feel nervous and start sweating.”

As the superstar of Charlie’s Angels, Farrah Fawcett, 37, inadvertently became a social symbol as well. At the time, Angels was blasted by critics as the prototype of the “jiggle show”—a silly, trashy guns-and-buns series about three heavily mascaraed private eyes (Farrah, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith). But the program was something more: a clumsy but successful effort to piggyback on the feminist movement. Charlie’s Angels said that women can play the same exciting games men play—and still the guys will come tapping at the bedroom door. Farrah represented a new kind of love goddess: the active and accessible nice young woman.

Niceness was Farrah’s problem. “Brought up to defer to others, especially men,” she says, she arrived in Hollywood wide-eyed and 21. Less than two weeks later she was happily deferring to the mentor she eventually married, TV actor Lee Majors. With Lee’s help Farrah was soon a highly visible TV pitchwoman. Then came Angels, and she was an instant idol.

Just as suddenly Farrah’s luck turned. “Unfortunately, on the advice of my attorney, I started to film Charlie’s Angels before my contract was worked out,” she recalls. When the fine points were still unresolved at the end of the series’ first year, she took the advice of her husband and quit. Outraged, her producers leveled a $7 million breach-of-contract suit against her, and word got around that any studio hiring the fallen Angel might be dragged into the litigation. The warning took effect. No major studio offered Farrah a picture, and her three independent movies (Somebody Killed Her Husband, Sunburn, Saturn 3) bombed. “I haven’t made my good film yet,” she admits.

Career in shambles, marriage crumbling, Farrah decided to start all over. In 1979 she split from Majors (they have since divorced), dumped her manager and plunged into a romance with actor Ryan O’Neal that is still sizzling. “You pay a price,” Farrah says, “for the wonderful things that happen. Charlie’s Angels changed my way of life, and I don’t think it will ever go back to what it was before. You can’t do crazy things, run down the street or whatever. People are watching constantly.”

Of late, people are once again watching Farrah the actress. Last year she took the harrowing lead role of a rape victim in the off-Broadway drama Extremities and won respectful reviews. And she will soon return to television with dramatic roles in two TV movies, in which she plays respectively a madam and a battered wife. Farrah is working hard at her comeback, but this time she wants the world to judge her on her skills, not her looks. “I think it’s better to have that kind of furor around you when it’s about your work,” she says, adding wistfully, “but I don’t know if it will ever be like that for me.”

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