By J.D. Reed
October 18, 1999 12:00 PM

Last Feb. 2, Farrah Fawcett celebrated her 52nd birthday Texas style. The Corpus Christi native partied at the home of Austin restaurant owners Jeff and Shanny Lott Blank with some 30 of her oldest friends. The actress seemed rested and relaxed. There may be some hard-earned wear on those famous cheekbones, but the megawatt smile and cascade of blonde hair that launched millions of adolescent fantasies in the ’70s on Charlie’s Angels are still powerfully on display.

The party guests, most of whom attended the University of Texas at Austin with Fawcett in the 1960s, marked the occasion with Dom Pérignon. Throughout the festivities, Fawcett stayed close to an old flame, Greg Lott, 53, whom she had dated in college in the mid-’60s, when he was star quarterback for the Longhorns. The impression that host Jeff Blank, Lott’s brother-in-law, had of Fawcett on her Texas trip was of “a person trapped in a celebrity lifestyle trying to get back into art [she sculpts and paints], trying to get away from the Hollywood game.”

Perhaps, then, her latest acting role bears an eerie resonance to her life of late. In the TV movie Silk Hope, which airs Oct. 17 on CBS, she plays irreverent, irrepressible Frannie Vaughn, who returns home and decides to stay and save the family farm after the death of her mother. Silk Hope executive producer Beth Poison says Frannie is a woman “who has had too many men, too much sex, too much rock and roll, who has come to a point in her life that’s a rude awakening. I’m no genius, but this is good casting.”

Fawcett has come to a crossroads of her own. Since 1997, when she parted company with Ryan O’Neal, 58, her live-in love of 17 years, she has seemingly been free-falling into a scandal-filled abyss. That summer began with a wacko Late Show with David Letterman appearance during which Fawcett looked disoriented and sounded incoherent. Seven months later she became involved in headline-making fisticuffs with then-boyfriend producer-director James Orr, 46, an incident that ended in court. Orr was convicted of one count of battery against Fawcett and was given three years probation.

By then the whispered word on movie sets and at industry watering holes was that Fawcett was out of control, maybe having a midlife breakdown or suffering from a substance-abuse problem, which she has vehemently and often denied. “I think she’s wiser,” says loyal pal Tina Sinatra of Fawcett’s past troubles. “It’s not a fun arena to cross, but she did it, and she’s better for it.”

Now, like her Silk Hope character Frannie, Fawcett seems to be regrouping, both emotionally and geographically. She is reconnecting with friends from her pre-Hollywood days and may, in fact, be moving back to Lone Star country. Fawcett has told friends that she wants to spend more time with her family. Her older sister (and only sibling), Diane Walls, 60, suffers from lung cancer, and their elderly mother, Pauline, 84, is ill with a heart condition. “Farrah is being very strong,” says her father, James Fawcett, 82. “She’ll call almost daily and talk with her mother and sister for almost an hour. She uses her faith in the Lord to help her be strong, especially now.”

In workaday Hollywood, Fawcett has not quite over-come her reputation for flaky behavior. “We all had serious reservations,” says Silk Hope’s Poison of casting Fawcett. “Other producers were saying, ‘We went three days over budget’; ‘You can’t depend on her.’ ” During filming last May and June, when cast and crew assembled to do a scene, Fawcett would often still be in her trailer. The reason might be that she didn’t like a lipstick color or the kind of flower tucked in her hair. Waiting on Fawcett, says costar Brad Johnson, “gets a little old after a while.” But, he notes, “as long as people let her get away with it, she’ll keep doing it.”

Still, most who have worked with Fawcett—who earned a reported $750,000 for Silk Hope—praise her performances. Poison says that on-camera “she’s on the money.” And Rob Carliner, producer of Robert Duvall’s 1997 drama The Apostle, which won Fawcett universal critical praise for her portrayal of an evangelist’s estranged wife, says, “If you want to judge her on anything, judge her onscreen. I would hold her performance in The Apostle against any actress working today.”

Throughout her troubles, Fawcett has remained a committed—and overworked—mother. She has told friends that sharing Redmond, her 14-year-old son with Ryan O’Neal, is difficult. At the time of the Orr trial, says Tina Sinatra, the headstrong Redmond lived much of the time in Malibu with his father. “There was nobody in Bel Air to play with,” says Fawcett’s close friend and former manager Jay Bernstein, referring to the sedate community where Farrah has her home.

The boy has had some rough going, which doesn’t surprise friends. “The kid’s got no discipline,” says Bernstein. Redmond, says Sinatra, was “born with the O’Neal temperament. He’s a pistol.” Marty Katz, producer of 1995’s Man of the House, in which Fawcett costarred, told PEOPLE last year, “I don’t think Redmond is troubled, but he’s looking for a touchstone.”

With her son away in boarding school, Fawcett is showing signs that she may indeed move back to Texas. That would be just fine with her dad. Hollywood, he told PEOPLE in 1998, “is all so superficial, and you have to be careful of what you say. I met Burt Reynolds at Farrah’s house one time, and I told him he was shorter than what I thought he would be. This was with his heels on, even. Farrah said, ‘Daddy, you don’t say those kind of things.’ That’s why I want her out of Hollywood. I thought it was the pits when she moved there, and I still think it’s the pits. I told her to sell all her houses. There’s plenty of houses in Texas for sale.” Last summer, Fawcett seemed to be taking the advice. She sold one of her Bel Air homes—the one she had shared with first husband Lee Majors—for about $2.7 million, and another close by, where she now resides, is on the market for $1.65 million.

As for her love life, there are two versions of what’s up with Fawcett these days. Her spokeswoman and other L.A. friends insist she is unattached and not dating anyone seriously. But deep in the heart of Texas, pals tell a different story. The actress and her old college boyfriend Greg Lott, says his brother-in-law Jeff Blank, “are very much a couple. We’ve had dinner with them on many occasions, and they kissed several times and held hands, or Greg put his arm around Farrah.” The pair have even spent time hunting for ranch property around Austin.

Lott is something of a mystery man himself. He was divorced from his wife of nine years last January and had been unemployed for sometime, say friends. He also has a troubled past, according to Texas Monthly and two Texas newspapers. He served a year in federal prison in the ’70s after being arrested while driving a truckload of marijuana from Arizona to New York. In 1982 he was arrested on a federal cocaine charge and served three years in prison. Lott, who worked as a drug counselor with inmates after he was released, has been clean and sober for more than a decade. He did not answer PEOPLE’S requests to interview him for this story.

Lott has long carried the torch for his college sweetheart. Last year he hung out with former exotic dancer Tosha Douglas, 32, and often talked to her about Fawcett. “He compared me all the time with Farrah,” says Douglas, who claims she declined the older man’s advances. “He’d say ‘Oh, you look a lot like her in her younger years. You present yourself just like Farrah.’ He’d get this faraway look in his eyes when he talked about her. And he finally got it to happen. I think they’re just playing off each other’s troubles.”

There are more troubles, too. Fawcett, says Texas pal Sylvia Longoria Dorsey, is “dealing with her mother’s and sister’s illnesses. She’s got a really strong family, and they’re all relying on their inner strength to get them through it.” Many friends, however, echo the sentiments of Silk Hope’s Poison, who says, “I am truly saddened for her. There are so many changes going on in her life that she does not have time to really deal with. I think she’s overwhelmed.” Still, the Fawcetts are fighters, and no one is counting Farrah out. During difficult times, says her father, his daughter would say, ” ‘Daddy, there may be people that try to knock me down, but the Lord has always been there to help me get back up.’ ”

J.D. Reed

John Hannah, Julie Jordan and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles and Chris Coats in Houston