Smith, who played Kelly Garrett on the 1970s series, was the only Angel to star on all five seasons
Credit: Douglas Friedman

Forty years ago today, Charlie’s Angels hit nationwide TV screens and “put three women in the forefront,” according to former star Jaclyn Smith.

In an exclusive interview excerpted from People’s special issue Celebrate the ’70s: 1976 Edition, Smith, who played Kelly Garrett on the 1970s series and was the only Angel to star on all five seasons, reflected on how the show changed her – and audiences across America.

“It was groundbreaking. It was about three emotionally and financially independent women. We shot at beautiful locations with fancy fast cars, and they cared about each other, so there was a heart to the show,” Smith, 70, told PEOPLE. “People said we were sexually exploited, but it was a nursery rhyme. We were in a bathing suit at the beach, and if there was a hint of a love scene, it was so proper. I think the producers were smart. They wanted to bring in that younger audience and did want families to watch together.”

Smith revealed that the “original idea was a blonde, a redhead and a brunette.” Although the show had already chosen a blonde and brunette, they still offered the role of Kelly to the brown-haired beauty after part owner Robert Wagner suggested her for it.

After the trio of ladies became overnight sensations to households across the U.S., Smith explained that their social worlds changed drastically.

“The minute we went on the air, we were not standing in line at the movies anymore; we had a private back-door entrance to anywhere we wanted. It was like being a rock star in those days because there were only three networks,” Smith said.

Find out more about icons and entertainment insiders of the 1970s, including fun facts and behind-the-scenes scoop with PEOPLE Celebrate the ’70s: 1976 Edition, available wherever books are soldd and digitally on Amazon!

And before Charlie’s Angels was decided as the title, creators considered both The Alley Cats and Harry’s Angels for the fashion-forward series, which had a budget of $20,000 per episode.

Asked why Angels was a fit for its decade, Smith said, “We put three women in the forefront and brought a little glamour into it. Even then we were criticized for wearing pretty clothes and having pretty hair. We weren’t trying to downplay our assets.”

In the four decades since the female-centric series aired, Smith believes the characters’ – Jill Munroe (Farrah Fawcett), Sabrina Duncan (Kate Jackson) and Kelly Garrett (Smith) – “friendship” is what makes the iconic show memorable.

“I think the bonding and friendship of the girls will always be important. That’s what the show was about in addition to being crime fighters walking around in pretty clothes,” Smith said, and added, “The friendship – that’s what makes it lasting.”

Following the success of the Angels, an all-male spin-off show called Toni’s Boys was attempted, but never got picked up. Fellow Angels star Cheryl Ladd also told PEOPLE on the success of the series, “We were very inspirational to a lot of young women. Young women would write us and say, ‘I want to be like you. I want to be a cop when I grow up and taking chances to be something else other than the acceptable school teacher or secretary.’ ”