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06.25.09

Farrah's Brainy Side

A recent email exchange with the late Farrah Fawcett reveals the unlikely friendship between the Charlie's Angels star and the novelist Ayn Rand, who helped the actress understand her place in culture—and longed to cast her in a TV version of Atlas Shrugged.

Her golden hair prompted a nationwide outbreak of “feathered” bangs. Her taut body—captured most famously in a red bathing suit on a poster that sold, by her own estimation, 12 million copies—set the standard for the sun-kissed athletic sexiness of the '70s and '80s. When Farrah Fawcett, the pretty girl from Corpus Christi, Texas, who became an icon of American beauty, died today at the age of 62, the world lost its favorite angel.

Her life often read like an open book. Her famous paramours (Lee Majors; Ryan O’Neal), her spacey affect (on display most memorably in a 1997 interview with David Letterman), and her troubled son (he recently was released from jail to visit her deathbed) were always a part of the daily celebrity news feed. In mid-May, she even teamed with NBC News for a two-hour prime-time special, complete with home videos, about her battle with the anal cancer that eventually killed her.

Farrah told me, “ Charlie’s Angels was never popular with critics who dismissed it as Jiggle TV. But Ayn saw something that the critics didn’t.”

But here are a few things that almost no one knew about Fawcett:

1) Fawcett and the writer Ayn Rand shared a birthday, February 2.

2) Rand, the inventor of the philosophical system called Objectivism, never missed an episode of Charlie’s Angels. She was such a Fawcett fan, in fact, that she sought to cast the actress as the lead in a planned TV miniseries version of her best-known work, the gargantuan novel Atlas Shrugged. (NBC later scrapped the project).

3) Rand, perhaps better than anyone else, helped Fawcett understand her place in American culture.

How do I know this? Because just months before Fawcett’s death, I had an email exchange with her about Rand. At the time, I was researching a possible article about the long—and as yet unsuccessful—effort to bring Atlas Shrugged to the big screen. I contacted Fawcett just to check a few facts. Instead, I got a glimpse I hadn’t expected of an intelligent woman with a savvy comprehension of her own cheesecake image.

Like most people, my sense of Fawcett had been marred by the 1997 Letterman interview in which she talked about “using my body parts to paint with”—particularly her gluteus maximus. And that was when she could get a sentence out. She twitched and lost her train of thought and interrupted herself. Her legs splayed. Her head bobbed. “Suddenly Farrah and I are playing charades,” Letterman said at one point, half fond, half exasperated.

But that wasn't my experience of Fawcett. For all her wacked-out antics, she was no dummy. She knew people saw her as an actress who had never transcended "Jiggle TV" and she had made her peace with it. She had a sense of humor about herself.

Recently, when Letterman ended a bizarre exchange with the mumbling actor-turned-musician Joaquin Phoenix with the words, "We owe an apology to Farrah Fawcett," I agreed. He may have meant it as a punchline, but after my interaction with her, I felt like saying: Farrah, I'm sorry.

Below, excerpts from our email interview:

How did you first learn of Ayn Rand’s interest in you? I gather she got in touch in the late '70s, when Charlie’s Angels was one of the biggest hit shows ever to appear on TV?

Ayn contacted me with a personal letter (and a copy of Atlas Shrugged) through my agents. Even though we had never met (and never did), she seemed to think we must have a lot in common since we were both born on the same day: February 2nd.

Why did Rand say she was so determined to see you in the role of Dagny Taggart, the female heroine in Atlas Shrugged?

I don’t remember if Ayn’s letter specifically mentioned Charlie’s Angels, but I do remember it saying that she was a fan of my work. A few months later, when we finally spoke on the phone (actually she did most of the speaking and I did most of the listening), she said she never missed an episode of the show. I remember being surprised and flattered by that. I mean, here was this literary genius praising Angels. After all, the show was never popular with critics who dismissed it as “Jiggle TV.” But Ayn saw something that the critics didn’t, something that I didn’t see either (at least not until many years later): She described the show as a “triumph of concept and casting.” Ayn said that while Angels was uniquely American, it was also the exception to American television in that it was the only show to capture true “romanticism”—it intentionally depicted the world not as it was, but as it should be. Aaron Spelling was probably the only other person to see Angels that way, although he referred to it as “comfort television.”

Did Ayn have any favorite episodes of the show?

I have to admit that I don’t think Ayn was a big fan of the stories themselves because she kept saying that someday somebody would offer me a script (and a role) that would give me the chance to “triumph as an actress.” Ayn wanted that script to be Atlas Shrugged and that role to be her heroine, Dagny Taggart. But because of the challenges in adapting and producing the novel for television, several years went by and the script and role that Ayn hoped I would someday be offered turned out to be The Burning Bed and the role of Francine Hughes instead. And so, in an unexpected way, Ayn’s hope or expectation for me did come true. Looking back, she seemed to see something in me that I had not yet seen in myself.

Had you read Atlas Shrugged or any of her other famous books? What was your familiarity with the Rand world view?

At the time that Ayn contacted me about Atlas Shrugged, my only real familiarity with her work was the movie version of her previous novel, The Fountainhead, with Gary Cooper. I remember liking the movie because it was unique in that the characters seemed to be the embodiments of ideas as opposed to real flesh and blood people with interests and lives. Now that I think about it, I think that’s why Ayn was drawn to Charlie’s Angels. Because the characters that Kate, Jaclyn and I played weren’t really characters (the audience never saw us outside of work) as much as personifications of the idea that three sexy women could do all the things that Kojak and Columbo did. Our characters existed only to serve the idea of the show (even “Charlie” was just a faceless voice on a speaker phone).

But I also responded to The Fountainhead because, as an artist (a painter and sculptress) myself, I related to the architect’s resistance to make his work like everyone else’s—which was, of course, what Ayn’s own art was all about. And that resistance to conformity is probably one of the reasons that she was so determined to see me play Dagny: At the time I would have been the completely unexpected choice.

It sounds as if you and Rand got along pretty well.

Later, when I read Atlas Shrugged, I was reminded of my first and only conversation with Ayn and how some of the characters in her novel(s) take an immediate liking to each other, almost as if they had always known each other—at least in spirit. And this was the feeling I got from Ayn herself, from the way she spoke to me. I’ll always think of “Dagny Taggart” as the best role I was supposed to play but never did…

Plus: Check out The Daily Beast’s full coverage on Farrah Fawcett.

Amy Wallace is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Elle, Men’s Journal, the New York Times Magazine, The Nation and Conde Nast Portfolio. Previously, she spent 14 years at the Los Angeles Times, first as a reporter and later as a Deputy Business Editor over entertainment and technology coverage. She also spent four years as a senior writer at Los Angeles Magazine, where she recently returned as a part-time editor-at-large.