By Karen S. Schneider
March 10, 1997 12:00 PM

INSIDE THE PRO GYM, A HEALTH club on Brentwood, Calif.’s trendy San Vicente Boulevard, taut and tanned members worked out last Monday to the steady beat of rock and roll and paid little mind to the stars in their midst. Farrah Fawcett was inside with her long-time live-in lover, Ryan O’Neal, who pumped up and down on a StairMaster. After finishing her routine at about 2 p.m., a relaxed Fawcett walked out the back door to the parking lot, tossed her gym bag in the back seat of her green Jaguar convertible and pulled away. Half an hour later, O’Neal, beefy, muscular and sweating hard, headed out back to retrieve a towel from the trunk of his black Bentley.

“Aw, c’mon,” he complained good-naturedly when a reporter approached him in the parking lot. “What do you want from me?” Despite his longstanding reputation as a bad boy with a short fuse, O’Neal was gracious when asked how he was doing. “I feel good,” he said, then paused and added, “under the circumstances.”

The circumstances were indeed unsettling. Two days earlier, Fawcett, 50, the former Charlie’s Angels star and poster girl whose golden locks, whiter-than-white smile and skimpy swimsuit launched a million fantasies, and O’Neal, 55, a rakish playboy who charmed movie audiences in such classics as 1970’s Love Story and 1973’s Paper Moon, released a statement announcing the break-up of their 17-year relationship. “The two remain committed and will jointly participate in the upbringing of their [12-year-old] son Redmond,” read the brief release. “The couple ask that this part of their private life be respected.”

And so it goes in Hollywood—same as it ever was and yet different every time. Unlike other celebrities whose splits have grabbed headlines, Fawcett and O’Neal have been out of the limelight more often than not in the past decade. But their relationship, though never sealed with a marriage certificate, seemed special. They hung together through tough times and good. They were forever, it seemed, the passionate couple who on their first date in 1979, as O’Neal later told the Los Angeles Times, “sat and kissed and kissed until our lips were bloody.”

To the L.A.-based crew of Entertainment Tonight, that spirit seemed unchanged a few weeks back, when O’Neal accompanied Fawcett to a taping to plug her latest project: a video for Playboy Enterprises in which the former art student demonstrates her unique painting style. She slathers her naked body in paints and rolls across a blank canvas. “She was huggy-kissy with Ryan. And he was cheering her on,” says a crew member. “Their splitting came as a total surprise to us.”

Back in Fawcett’s home state of Texas, her mother, Pauline, 83, was also surprised. “I didn’t see any obvious problems,” she told PEOPLE. “Farrah called me last week and told me she was going to call the newspapers and tell it like it is—that they’re still friends, because of Redmond and all, and it’s just the end of the line for their relationship.”

Jaclyn Smith, Fawcett’s costar in Charlie’s Angels, took the news with the understanding of a three-time divorcee and single mother of two. “I am very sorry to hear of the separation,” says Smith, 48, in Utah filming the CBS movie Before He Wakes. “But they will always have the best part of their relationship, which is Redmond.”

Exactly how their relationship worked—and what has brought it to an end—is hard even for friends to pin down. In the January issue of Texas Monthly, Fawcett gave a male reporter a funny, flirtatious interview—she changed her clothes in the back seat of his car while he drove and joked that she might stop by his hotel room later—all the while dropping loving references to O’Neal. Whatever the signals she was sending, at least one friend in L.A. feels her split with O’Neal was just a matter of time. The source said it was no secret that the two had a stormy relationship. Both are volatile people, he said; in an argument they are known to give as good as they get.

Truth be told, the couple lasted far longer than most people thought they would back in 1979, when Fawcett, still married to Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors (see sidebar on page 94), met O’Neal. One of Majors’ good buddies, O’Neal, the L.A.-born son of Charles, a writer, and Patricia, an actress, was twice divorced and considered a slick ladies’ man. His romances were said to include Barbra Streisand, Joan Collins and Diana Ross. Still, he says, the playboy antics stopped the moment he met Fawcett. “All that wild stuff just left me,” he told a British news service. “I have never, never been unfaithful.”

He was not the first to be so smitten by the elder daughter of James, now 81, a retired refinery pipe fitter, and Pauline, a homemaker. First as a high-schooler in Corpus Christi, and later at the University of Texas at Austin, Fawcett made men weak. As a freshman in 1965, she was named one of the 10 most beautiful women on campus. By her sophomore year, the Delta Delta Delta sorority sister was going steady with Greg Lott, the Longhorns’ star quarterback—but Fawcett was gearing up for bigger things.

In Hollywood, publicist David Mirisch got hold of a photo of Fawcett and in 1968, the summer after her junior year, persuaded her to head west. Almost before she could unpack her bags at her all-girl rooming house, she was doing commercials for Ultra Brite toothpaste and Wella Balsam shampoo and had her first TV guest spot (on I Dream of Jeannie). She had also fallen for Majors, who asked her out after his agent showed him her photo. “It was love at first sight,” Fawcett said.

Fawcett married Majors in 1973, the same year he was cast in his star-making role as ABC’s The Six Million Dollar Man. “She’s like a little girl,” Majors told PEOPLE in 1976. “So cute, so beautiful inside.” At first, Fawcett loved playing the wife. In 1976, when she was cast as one of Charlie’s Angels, her contract stipulated that she had to be home every night by 6:30 to make Majors’ dinner. Her husband proved less committed to domesticity. “Lee very much liked to hang out with men, at bars and places like that,” Fawcett told LIFE in 1987.

She, meanwhile, was a woman on the move. Though she played sex-kitten cop Jill Munroe on ABC’s hugely successful Charlie’s Angels for only one season before leaving to find more substantial parts, the role transformed her into an overnight star—and a far more independent woman than Majors had married. “Our relationship has got to be different because I am different,” Fawcett said in 1979. “But it’s so hard for him to understand.” Nor, it seems, did Majors realize what he was doing when, while in Canada to shoot a film that year, he asked his pal O’Neal to look after Fawcett while he was away.

Open chicken coop, enter O’Neal. The sexy star of ABC’s Peyton Place from 1964 to 1969 was, as director Ted Post recalls, “a boy who enjoyed his good looks and took advantage of them.” O’Neal’s first marriage, to actress Joanna Moore, lasted from 1963 to 1967 and produced Tatum, now 33, and Griffin, 32. The same year he divorced Moore he married Peyton Place costar Leigh Taylor-Young. Their son Patrick, now 29, was a toddler when they split in 1972. Eight years later, on a date with Fawcett, O’Neal’s charms were in full force. “I was so overwhelmed by this physical and mental attraction for him,” Fawcett told LIFE in 1987, “that I didn’t think about anything except what was happening right there.”

In July 1979, Majors and Fawcett separated, and that fall she moved into O’Neal’s beachfront Malibu home. In some ways it was a difficult time. Tatum, who lived with O’Neal after his divorce from Moore, had no interest in sharing him. They costarred in Paper Moon when she was 9 (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a pint-size con artist) and often attended Hollywood events together. Over time, Tatum warmed to Fawcett, but at first, O’Neal said, “she more or less made me choose between her and Farrah, and it wasn’t a fair choice.”

Tatum, now a mother of three on the brink of a custody battle with ex-husband John McEnroe, wasn’t the only child Fawcett had to compete with. In 1977, Griffin, then 12, moved in with O’Neal and reveled in his father’s macho love; they boxed, wrestled and shot pool. On weekends, Patrick, too, enjoyed O’Neal’s laissez-faire parenting. “I’d stay up as late as I wanted, watch all the TV I wanted,” Patrick, an aspiring actor in Manhattan, told PEOPLE in 1994. Fawcett’s arrival meant an end to the anything-goes atmosphere. “She’d cook dinner, which we’d have at a set time,” Patrick recalled. “I felt she helped my dad,” Griffin told PEOPLE in 1984, “kept him calm.”

It was Griffin, now a construction worker in L.A., who frequently tested O’Neal’s cool. While still a teenager, he spent large amounts of money, racked up 27 speeding tickets and developed a drug problem that landed him in rehab at age 19. Soon after being released, he was involved in a boating accident in Edgewater, Md., that took the life of director Francis Ford Coppola’s son Gian Carlo. (Tatum, too, has since gone through drug rehab.) Both O’Neal and Fawcett had career problems as well. After leaving Charlie’s Angels in 1977, she discovered there was more to acting than skimpy clothes and big teeth. Her movies—including 1978’s Somebody Killed Her Husband and 1979’s Sunburn—were resounding flops. O’Neal’s career—marked by such ’80s films as Fever Pitch and Tough Guys Don’t Dance—didn’t fare much better.

And yet, whether playing racquet-ball or just sharing a home-cooked dinner, the two seemed happy. Finances were no problem. O’Neal made $3 million per film and, with investments in real estate, expanded his fortune to an estimated $20 million. Fawcett, who commanded $750,000 per project—and walked away from her marriage to Majors with their $1.3 million Bel Air home—didn’t need O’Neal’s money. But she relied on his encouragement. She credited him with boosting her career in the ’80s, when she first shed the pretty-girl image—and much of her hair—for the part of a rape victim in the 1983 off-Broadway play Extremities. Raves followed for the film, and in 1984 she earned an Emmy nomination for her role as a victim of domestic abuse in The Burning Bed.

Even more satisfying to the couple was the birth of their son Redmond in 1985. “We do things together, the three of us,” she told LIFE in 1987. “It’s a good atmosphere in our home.”

But Fawcett declined O’Neal’s offers to seal their domestic bliss with a wedding. “She always kept him at a certain distance, which has kept him very interested,” says a friend. No one who knows them took the lack of a legal commitment as a sign of trouble. Says Fawcett’s pal Alana Stewart: “They’re not married, but they’re more married than anyone I know.”

In the end, long-simmering tensions seem to have pulled them apart. They have different ideas on parenting. “Ryan would rather have Redmond out playing ball, and Farrah would want him to do his homework,” says a friend. Then, too, there was the difficulty of being hitched to “a legend,” as Fawcett’s former manager Jay Bernstein puts it: “Any slight imperfection of Ryan’s, like his weight gain, was exaggerated in comparison to Farrah’s perceived perfection.”

Maybe because love seemed to override what one friend calls “the constant squabbles,” some can’t believe that the split is for real. “Oh, they’ll be back together again,” says photographer Davis Factor, who shot her for a nude 1995 Playboy spread. “As chaotic and crazy as their relationship is, I don’t know who could put up with the two of them better than each other.” Fawcett’s pal Alana Stewart is hopeful as well. “I always thought they’d be together forever,” she says. And who knows, maybe they will be.