May 11, 1981 12:00 PM

She lifted off to fame five years ago in a spectacular fashion that hadn’t been seen in decades—or since. In those days she received 700 interview requests weekly, pocketed some $13 million, and needed a cordon of 72 gendarmes to protect her at Cannes. Her poster’s sales doubled those of rivals like Tiegs, Ladd or Derek and its image was reproduced more than 200 million times on Farrah-phernalia worldwide. But now that her blazing orbit is over, can Farrah Fawcett, at 34 and counting, return to earth as gracefully as that other, more recent U.S. skyrocket?

At mid-career, Farrah has shed her husband of eight years, Lee Majors, 41, and taken up with Hollywood gadabout—some would say cadabout—Ryan O’Neal, 40, who is no stranger to fireworks. “If you have a man in your life, a lover who says, ‘My God, you get more beautiful with age,’ and I have that, you feel more beautiful,” says Farrah. “I’m very unsettled at the moment, but I’m happy.”

No doubt her recent professional upswing has helped. After three consecutive movie flops, she was a critical hit in Butterflies Are Free last summer at Burt Reynolds’ Florida theater and co-stars with him next month in his movie Cannonball Run. “She’s capable of doing wonderful work if given the right material,” says Burt, who fondly nicknamed her “Ugly.” This week she returns to TV with that material as the ponytailed Houston socialite of Murder in Texas, NBC’s four-hour docudrama about the Joan Robinson Hill slaying made famous in Tommy Thompson’s best-seller, Blood and Money. “I’ve waited a long time for this,” says Farrah. “I’ve had enough bad roles. I got much more out of this, though I didn’t look glamorous and wasn’t pampered as I usually am.”

There were brief encounters with cinematographer Michael Butler and footballer Dan Pastorini, but for nearly two years the offscreen pampering has fallen to the feisty O’Neal. “Ryan is the most honest person I know,” says Farrah. “He’s helped me be more independent by being the greatest ego booster I’ve ever had. I think our personalities are well suited, and I value his business experience very much. He doesn’t really give me advice,” she continues. “He discusses the pros and cons of a situation and then won’t talk about it anymore. I evaluate and make my own decision.” That’s important to Fawcett, who moved to L.A. from Texas at 21 and within two weeks met Majors, already an established TV star. “I went from parents and teachers telling me what to do to a man who was older and understood the business,” says Farrah. “This is the first time I’ve made my own decisions, and it makes me feel good.”

Certainly her decision to stick by Ryan has made them Hollywood’s most golden—and most perplexingly talked-about—couple. O’Neal, whose string of ex-sweethearts includes Barbra Streisand, Ursula Andress, Diana Ross and Bianca Jagger, is to lovelorn glamorous women what Perrier is to luncheon. “Ryan has the full complement of Irish charm, and of Irish bullshit,” says an associate. “But he’s got happy feet—I don’t think he’ll stick around, even with Farrah.” Another acquaintance says, “Ryan listens. He’s protective and considerate—qualities that attract women. He’s not popular in this town,” the friend adds, but suggests such sour grapes are trod by “men who just don’t like the idea that women like Ryan.”

No one denies that the high-living O’Neal, an amateur boxer whose recent black eye reportedly dated from a friendly match with Norman Mailer, has a temper. He has been accused of popping nearly as many paparazzi as champagne corks. With Farrah in tow last August, he allegedly threw a bottle into mobbing fans outside New York’s Pierre Hotel, cutting an off-duty cop over the eye. And photographer David McGough, whose pending lawsuit claims Ryan decked him outside New York’s trendy Elaine’s restaurant last November, snipes, “He gets more publicity for punching people out than he does for his lousy movies.”

Farrah had a nervous stomach long before she got involved with Ryan, but he must cause some concern. She very much wants to marry and have a child, and not necessarily in that order. But O’Neal already has a handful of children and that, some say, could be a threat to their relationship. “Right now my personal life is more important to me than my career,” declares Farrah. “I want to have a baby. I think life is more fulfilling when you have a little person who depends on you. I think I could have a baby without getting married, but I’d prefer not to.” In a husband, she would prefer someone who is “very giving, in the sense that he’d share everything with me, good and bad, so we communicate.”

Logistics, if nothing else, made that difficult with Majors. “One mistake I made in my first marriage was the long separations,” says Farrah, who often found herself in New York or Mexico while Majors filmed in Toronto or Florida. Their common ex-manager, Jay Bernstein, magnanimously pleads mea culpa: “If there was a villain in the marriage, it was me,” he says. “I was too concerned with making them movie stars.” Still, Farrah hasn’t written off actors per se. “It’s probably easier for me to have a relationship with someone from my own profession, but you have to be as close to equal as possible because it’s so hard on a person who isn’t up there with you to share your happiness.”

She can’t—or won’t—say whether Ryan fills the bill. “It’s too painful to talk about another man in my life when I’m not divorced yet,” says Farrah. “Lee and I have a great deal to work out. I don’t want to hurt him, and I always miss the fact that he’s not in my life. I realize how responsible he is for what I am.” Lee himself now says gallantly: “I’m not bitter about Ryan. I hope he realizes he got himself a helluva lady.”

A great obstacle to nuptials would seem to be O’Neal’s supersophisticated actor children, Tatum, 17, and Griffin, 16, but apparently they have now come round. “Tatum likes Farrah,” Ryan has said, “and she’s hardly ever liked the women in my life.” “They’re great,” says Farrah. “Ryan has encouraged them to be very free-thinking. I’ve never felt any hostility from them.”

Over the years, though, Farrah has felt some sting from critics and coworkers. “I felt uncomfortable when all of a sudden I got more attention and fan mail than Jaclyn Smith or Kate Jackson,” says Farrah of her fellow charter Angels. “I genuinely liked those two girls, but I felt them change, not outwardly, but inwardly. We never had any arguments, but I felt a little barrier.” She was similarly distressed when Hollywood called her treasonous for hanging up her halo after only one season. The fallout “has toughened me,” she says, not very convincingly in her silk-spun voice. “You can’t read negative or untrue things without building up some sort of shell.”

Her anchors remained her William Holden lookalike father, James, a Houston custodial service owner, and her mother, Pauline. “I know that I can always go home,” says Farrah. “My parents made me feel that I’m always right. The man in my life,” she says revealingly, “will always be secondary to my father.” Close friend Pat Van Patten, wife of Eight Is Enough‘s Dick Van Patten, says, “Farrah has strong emotional backing, and that’s very healthy with the whim of a career blowing this way and that. She hasn’t really changed,” adds Pat. “She’s so pretty and fresh and so full of enthusiasm, being around her makes you feel that way too.”

These days O’Neal is the lucky recipient of most of that ebullience. Their romance has leapfrogged to London, Cuernavaca, Deauville and currently, duplicating last year’s trip, to Venice, where he wrapped filming on the comedy So Fine, co-starring Mariangela (Swept Away) Melato. In New York, they share a converted industrial loft in Greenwich Village, frequent the theater and galleries (he recently bought her a $1,200 Magritte lithograph) and slip into favorite eateries like Joanna, Pete’s Tavern or Elaine’s. In L.A., she lives in the Bel Air ranch-style home she hopes to keep in the divorce proceedings with Majors, while O’Neal gets by in his Malibu beach house. Both are fitness freaks and jog early on the Malibu strand. Though a superb cook, she has gotten her 5’6½” frame down to a whippet 110 pounds with munch lunches of raisins, nuts and apricot-leaf tea. A typical day for Farrah starts with a sauna when she does her hair and nails, followed by racquetball on her own court (“I built it because it’s hard to play with everyone watching”) and a workout in her own gym. Afternoons are for business (she’s currently mulling two “good” movie scripts, and made a cameo appearance in Majors’ recently completed comedy pilot, The Fall Guy). Then she finishes with tennis or a mile jog and a home-cooked dinner—with homemade peach ice cream for dessert.

“When I was 30,” Farrah reflects, “I decided that I had done okay. I support myself. I make a lot of money. I’ve been on the cover of TIME. So I’m not going to let people put negative thoughts in my mind. I’m going to stick to it, and I think it’s all worth it in the long run. If nothing else ever happens to me,” she smiles, “I have wonderful stories to tell my grandchildren.”

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