Fawcett was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, the younger of two daughters. Her mother, Pauline Alice Fawcett (nee Evans; January 30, 1914 – March 4, 2005), was a homemaker, and her father, James William Fawcett (October 14, 1917 – August 23, 2010), was an oil field contractor. Her elder sister was Diane Fawcett Walls (October 27, 1938 – October 16, 2001), a graphic artist. She was of Irish, French, English and Choctaw Native American ancestry. Fawcett once said the name "Ferrah" was "made up" by her mother because it went well with their last name. Another theory is that her father, an oilman, reportedly named her "Farah" for the Arabic word for "joy", and she reportedly asked to change the spelling to "Farrah".
A Roman Catholic, Fawcett's early education was at the parish school of the church her family attended, St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Corpus Christi. She graduated from W. B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi, where she was voted "most beautiful" by her classmates her freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school. For three years (1965–68), she attended the University of Texas at Austin, studying art. She lived at Madison House on 22nd street, west of campus. During her freshman year, she was named one of the "ten most beautiful coeds on campus", the first time a freshman had been chosen. Their photos were sent to various agencies in Hollywood. David Mirisch, a Hollywood agent, called her and urged her to come to Los Angeles. She turned him down, but he called her for the next two years. Finally, in 1968, the summer following her junior year, with her parents' permission to "try her luck" in Hollywood, Fawcett moved to Hollywood.
Upon arriving in Hollywood in 1968, Fawcett was signed to a $350-a-week contract with Screen Gems. She began to appear in commercials for such products as Noxzema, Max Factor, Mercury Cougar automobiles, and Beautyrest mattresses, among others. Her earliest acting appearances were guest spots on The Flying Nun (1969) and I Dream of Jeannie (1969–70). She made numerous other TV appearances, including on Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Mayberry R.F.D., and The Partridge Family. She appeared in four episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man with husband Lee Majors, on The Dating Game and S.W.A.T, and had a recurring role on Harry O alongside David Janssen. She had a sizable part in the 1969 French romantic-drama Love Is a Funny Thing. She played the lesbian lover of Raquel Welch in Myra Breckinridge (1970).
In 1976, after Pro Arts Inc. pitched the idea of a poster of Fawcett to her agent, a photo shoot was arranged with photographer Bruce McBroom, who was hired by the poster company. According to friend Nels Van Patten, Fawcett styled her own hair and did her makeup without the aid of a mirror. Her blonde highlights were further heightened by a squeeze of lemon juice. From 40 rolls of film, Fawcett herself selected her six favorite pictures, eventually the choice was narrowed to the one that made her famous. The resulting poster, of Fawcett in a one-piece red bathing suit, is the best-selling poster in history.
Due to the popularity of her poster, Fawcett earned a supporting role in Michael Anderson's science-fiction film Logan's Run (1976) with Michael York. She and her husband, television star Lee Majors, were frequent tennis partners with producer Aaron Spelling. Spelling and his business partner eventually chose Fawcett to play Jill Munroe in their upcoming made-for-TV movie, Charlie's Angels, a movie of the week which aired on March 21, 1976, on ABC. The movie starred Fawcett (then billed as Farrah Fawcett-Majors), Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith as private investigators for Townsend Associates, a detective agency run by a reclusive multimillionaire whom the women had never met. Voiced by John Forsythe, the Charles Townsend character presented cases and dispensed advice via a speakerphone to his core team of three female employees, whom he referred to as "Angels". They were aided in the office and occasionally in the field by two male associates, played by character actors David Doyle and David Ogden Stiers. The program quickly earned a huge following, leading the network to air it a second time and approve production for a series, with the pilot's principal cast minus Ogden Stiers.
The Charlie's Angels series formally debuted on September 22, 1976. Each of the three actresses were propelled to stardom, but Fawcett dominated popularity polls and was soon proclaimed a phenomenon. She subsequently won a People's Choice Award for Favorite Performer in a New TV Program. In a 1977 interview with TV Guide, she said, "When the show was number three, I thought it was our acting. When we got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra."
Fawcett's appearance in the television show boosted sales of her poster, and she earned far more in royalties from poster sales than from her salary for appearing in Charlie's Angels. Her hairstyle went on to become an international trend, with women sporting a "Farrah-do", a "Farrah-flip", or simply "Farrah hair". Iterations of her hair style predominated among American women's hairstyles well into the 1980s.
Fawcett left Charlie's Angels after only one season in the spring of 1977. After a series of legal battles over her contract with ABC, Cheryl Ladd eventually replaced her on the show, portraying Jill Munroe's younger sister Kris Munroe. Numerous explanations for Fawcett's precipitous withdrawal from the show were offered over the years. Because her husband, Lee Majors, was the star of an established television show himself (ABC's Six Million Dollar Man which aired from 1974 to 1978), the strain on her marriage due to filming schedules that kept them apart for long periods was frequently cited, but her ambition to broaden her acting abilities in films has also been given as an explanation. She never officially signed her series contract with Spelling owing to protracted negotiations over royalties from her image's use in peripheral products, which led to an even more protracted lawsuit filed by Spelling and his company when she quit the show. As a result of leaving her contract four years early, she reluctantly signed a new contract with ABC stating that she would make six guest appearances on the series over a two-year period (1978–80).
Charlie's Angels was a major success throughout the world, maintaining its appeal in syndication and spawning (particularly in the show's first three seasons) a cottage industry of peripheral products, including several series of bubble gum cards, two sets of fashion dolls, numerous posters, puzzles, and school supplies, novelizations of episodes, toy vans, and a board game, all featuring Fawcett's likeness. The "Angels" also appeared on the covers of magazines around the world, from countless fan magazines to TV Guide (four times) to Time Magazine.
In 2004, the television movie Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Charlie's Angels dramatized the events from the show, with supermodel and actress Tricia Helfer portraying Fawcett and Ben Browder portraying Lee Majors, Fawcett's then husband.
In 1980, Fawcett starred in Stanley Donen's science-fiction film Saturn 3 with Kirk Douglas, though the film earned unfavorable reviews from critics and poor box office sales. The following year she starred alongside an ensemble cast, which included Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., in the comedy The Cannonball Run (1981). Later that year, she co-starred with Katharine Ross, Sam Elliott, and Andy Griffith in the television movie Murder in Texas.
In 1983, Fawcett won critical acclaim for her role in the Off-Broadway stage production of the controversial play Extremities, written by William Mastrosimone. Replacing Susan Sarandon, she played an attempted rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker. She described the role as "the most grueling, the most intense, the most physically demanding and emotionally exhausting" of her career. During one performance, a stalker in the audience disrupted the show by asking Fawcett if she had received the photos and letters he had mailed her. Police removed the man and were able only to issue a summons for disorderly conduct.
The following year, her role as a battered wife in the fact-based television movie The Burning Bed (1984) earned her the first of her four Emmy Award nominations. The project is noted as being the first television movie to provide a nationwide 800 number that offered help for others in the situation, in this case victims of domestic abuse. It was the highest-rated television movie of the season.
In 1986, Fawcett appeared in the movie version of Extremities, which was also well received by critics and performed well financially. For her performance she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. (At the time there was even talk and buzz about the possibility of her receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in the film.) She appeared in Jon Avnet's Between Two Women with Colleen Dewhurst, and took several more dramatic roles as infamous or renowned women. She was nominated for Golden Globe awards for roles as Beate Klarsfeld in Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story and troubled Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story, and won a CableACE Award for her 1989 portrayal of groundbreaking LIFE magazine photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White in Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White.
Her 1989 portrayal of convicted murderer Diane Downs in the miniseries Small Sacrifices earned her a second Emmy nomination and her sixth Golden Globe Award nomination. The miniseries won a Peabody Award for excellence in television, with Fawcett's performance singled out by the organization, which stated "Ms. Fawcett brings a sense of realism rarely seen in television miniseries (to) a drama of unusual power".
Fawcett, who had steadfastly resisted appearing nude in magazines throughout the 1970s and 1980s (although she briefly appeared topless in the 1980 film Saturn 3), caused a major stir by posing semi-nude in the December 1995 issue of Playboy. At the age of 50, she returned to Playboy with a pictorial for the July 1997 issue, which also became a top seller. The issue and its accompanying video featured Fawcett painting on canvas using her body, which had been an ambition of hers for years.
That same year, Fawcett was chosen by Robert Duvall to play his wife in an independent feature film he was producing, The Apostle. She received an Independent Spirit Award nomination as Best Actress for the film, which was highly critically acclaimed. In 2000, she worked with director Robert Altman and an all-star cast in the feature film Dr. T & the Women, playing the wife of Richard Gere (her character has a mental breakdown, leading to her first fully nude appearance).
Christopher Ciccone, Madonna's brother, describes befriending Fawcett around this time, and giving her a studio visit for her abstract paintings and sculpture. In 2000, Fawcett's collaboration with sculptor Keith Edmier was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, later travelling to The Andy Warhol Museum. The sculpture was also presented in a series of photographs and a book by Rizzoli.
In November 2003, Fawcett prepared for her return to Broadway in a production of Bobbi Boland, the tragicomic tale of a former Miss Florida. However, the show never officially opened, closing during preview performances. Fawcett was described as "vibrating with frustration" at the producer's extraordinary decision to cancel the production. Only days earlier the same producer closed an Off-Broadway show she had been backing.
Fawcett continued to work in television, with well-regarded appearances in made-for-television movies and on popular television series including Ally McBeal and four episodes each of Spin City and The Guardian. Her work on the latter show earning her a third Emmy nomination in 2004.
Fawcett began dating Lee Majors in the late 1960s. Fawcett was married to Majors from 1973 to 1982, although the couple separated in 1979. During her marriage, she was known and credited in her roles as Farrah Fawcett-Majors.
From 1979 until 1997, Fawcett was involved romantically with actor Ryan O'Neal. The relationship produced a son, Redmond James Fawcett O'Neal, born January 30, 1985, in Los Angeles. In April 2009, on probation for driving under the influence, Redmond was arrested for possession of narcotics while Fawcett was in the hospital. On June 22, 2009, The Los Angeles Times and Reuters reported that Ryan O'Neal had said that Fawcett had agreed to marry him as soon as she felt strong enough.
From 1997 to 1998, Fawcett had a relationship with Canadian filmmaker James Orr, writer and producer of the Disney feature film in which she co-starred with Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Man of the House. The relationship ended when Orr was charged with and later convicted of beating Fawcett during a 1998 fight between the two.
On June 5, 1997, Fawcett received negative commentary after giving a rambling interview and appearing distracted on Late Show with David Letterman. Months later, she told the host of The Howard Stern Show her behavior was just her way of joking around with the television host, partly in the guise of promoting her Playboy pictoral and video, explaining what appeared to be random looks across the theater was just her looking and reacting to fans in the audience. Though the Letterman appearance spawned speculation and several jokes at her expense, she returned to the show in 1999. Several years later in February 2009, Letterman ended an incoherent and largely unresponsive interview with Joaquin Phoenix by saying, "We owe an apology to Farrah Fawcett."
Fawcett's elder sister, Diane Fawcett Walls, died from lung cancer just before her 63rd birthday, on October 16, 2001. The fifth episode of her 2005 Chasing Farrah series followed the actress home to Texas to visit with her father, James, and mother, Pauline. Pauline Fawcett died soon after her daughter, on March 4, 2005, at the age of 91.
Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006 and began treatment, including chemotherapy and surgery. Four months later, on her 60th birthday, the Associated Press reported that Fawcett was, at that point, cancer-free.
In May 2007, Fawcett brought a small digital video camera to document a doctor's office visit. There, she was told a malignant polyp was found where she had been treated for the initial cancer. Doctors contemplated whether to implant a radiation seeder (which differs from conventional radiation and is used to treat other types of cancer). Fawcett's U.S. doctors told her that she would require a colostomy. Instead, she traveled to Germany for treatments described variously in the press as "holistic", "aggressive", and "alternative". There, Dr. Ursula Jacob prescribed a treatment including surgery to remove the anal tumor, a course of perfusion and embolization for her liver cancer by Doctors Claus Kiehling and Thomas Vogl in Germany, and chemotherapy back in Los Angeles. Although initially the tumors were regressing, their reappearance a few months later necessitated a new course, this time including laser ablation therapy and chemoembolization. Aided by friend Alana Stewart, Fawcett documented her battle with the disease.
In early April 2009, Fawcett, back in the United States, was hospitalized, with media reports declaring her unconscious and in critical condition, although subsequent reports indicated her condition was not so dire. On April 6, the Associated Press reported that her cancer had metastasized to her liver, a development Fawcett had learned of in May 2007 and which her subsequent treatments in Germany had targeted. The report denied that she was unconscious and explained that the hospitalization was due not to her cancer but a painful abdominal hematoma that had been the result of a minor procedure. Her spokesperson emphasized she was not "at death's door", adding "She remains in good spirits with her usual sense of humor ... She's been in great shape her whole life and has an incredible resolve and an incredible resilience." Fawcett was released from the hospital on April 9, picked up by longtime companion O'Neal, and, according to her doctor, was "walking and in great spirits and looking forward to celebrating Easter at home."
A month later, on May 7, Fawcett was reported as critically ill, with Ryan O'Neal quoted as saying she now spends her days at home, on an IV and often asleep. The Los Angeles Times reported she was in the last stages of her cancer and had the chance to see her son Redmond in April 2009, although shackled and under supervision, as he was then incarcerated. Her 91-year-old father, James, flew out to Los Angeles to visit.
The cancer specialist who was treating Fawcett in L.A., Dr. Lawrence Piro, and Fawcett's friend and Angels co-star Kate Jackson – a breast cancer survivor – appeared together on The Today Show dispelling tabloid-fueled rumors, including suggestions Fawcett had ever been in a coma, had even reached 86 pounds, and had ever given up her fight against the disease or lost the will to live. Jackson decried such fabrications, saying they "really do hurt a human being and a person like Farrah." Piro recalled when it became necessary for Fawcett to undergo treatments that would cause her to lose her hair, acknowledging "Farrah probably has the most famous hair in the world", but also that it is not a trivial matter for any cancer patient, whose hair "affects [one's] whole sense of who [they] are". Of the documentary, Jackson averred Fawcett "didn't do this to show that 'she' is unique, she did it to show that we are all unique ... (T)his was ... meant to be a gift to others to help and inspire them."
The two-hour documentary Farrah's Story, which was filmed by Fawcett and friend Alana Stewart, aired on NBC on May 15, 2009. The documentary was watched by nearly nine million people at its premiere airing, and it was re-aired on the broadcast network's cable stations MSNBC, Bravo and Oxygen. Fawcett earned her fourth Emmy nomination posthumously on July 16, 2009, as producer of Farrah's Story.
Controversy surrounded the aired version of the documentary, with her initial producing partner, who had worked with her four years earlier on her reality series Chasing Farrah, alleging O'Neal's and Stewart's editing of the program was not in keeping with her wishes to more thoroughly explore rare types of cancers such as her own and alternative methods of treatment. He was especially critical of scenes showing her son visiting her, for the last time, in shackles while she was nearly unconscious in bed. She had generally kept her son out of the media, and his appearances were minimal in Chasing Farrah.
Fawcett died at age 62 on June 25, 2009, at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, with O'Neal and Stewart by her side.
A private funeral was held in Los Angeles on June 30, 2009 with her son Redmond permitted to leave his California detention center to attend the funeral, where he gave the first reading. Fawcett is buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
News of Fawcett's death was largely overshadowed by the death of music legend Michael Jackson, who died hours later the same day.
The night of her death, ABC aired an hour-long special episode of 20/20 featuring clips from several of Barbara Walters' past interviews with Fawcett as well as new interviews with Ryan O'Neal, Jaclyn Smith, Alana Stewart, and Dr. Lawrence Piro. Walters followed up on the story on Friday's episode of 20/20. CNN's Larry King Live planned a show exclusively about Fawcett that evening until the death of Michael Jackson several hours later caused the program to shift to cover both stories. Cher, a longtime friend of Fawcett, and Suzanne de Passe, executive producer of Fawcett's Small Sacrifices mini-series, both paid tribute to Fawcett on the program. Coincidentally, de Passe worked for Motown Records in the 1960s and 70s and played a major part in the development of The Jackson 5 which included lead singer Michael Jackson. NBC aired a Dateline NBC special "Farrah Fawcett: The Life and Death of an Angel" the following evening, June 26, preceded by a rebroadcast of Farrah's Story in prime time.
That weekend and the following week, television tributes continued. MSNBC aired back-to-back episodes of its Headliners and Legends episodes featuring Fawcett and Jackson. TV Land aired a mini-marathon of Charlie's Angels and Chasing Farrah episodes. E! aired Michael & Farrah: Lost Icons and The Biography Channel aired Bio Remembers: Farrah Fawcett. The documentary Farrah's Story re-aired on the Oxygen Network and MSNBC. BET aired the 2004 movie The Cookout, which Fawcett was in.
Larry King said of the Fawcett phenomenon:
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said "Farrah was one of the iconic beauties of our time. Her girl-next-door charm combined with stunning looks made her a star on film, TV, and the printed page."
Kate Jackson said:
In March 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences caused controversy when Fawcett was excluded from the "In Memoriam" montage at the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony, along with fellow television stars Bea Arthur, Gene Barry, and Ed McMahon. Michael Jackson, though not primarily known for his film roles, was among those memorialized in the montage, adding to the controversy. In addition to Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, friends and colleagues of Fawcett publicly expressed their outrage at the oversight, including actress Jane Fonda and film critic Roger Ebert. AMPAS executive director Bruce Davis cited Fawcett's recognition at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards for her "remarkable television work," and said of all the exclusions: "There's nothing you can say to people, particularly to family members, within a day or two of the show that helps at all. They tend to be surprised and hurt, and we understand that and we're sorry for it."
The red one-piece bathing suit she wore in her famous 1976 poster was donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH) on February 2, 2011. Said to have been purchased at a Saks Fifth Avenue store, the red Lycra suit, made by the leading Australian swimsuit company, Speedo, was donated to the Smithsonian by her executors and was formally presented to NMAH in Washington, D.C., by her longtime companion Ryan O'Neal. The suit and the poster are expected to go on temporary display sometime in 2011–12. They will be made additions to the Smithsonian's "popular culture" department. The famous poster of Farrah in a red swimsuit has been produced as a Barbie doll. The limited edition dolls, complete with a gold chain and the girl-next-door locks, were purchased by Barbie fans.
In 2011, Men's Health named Fawcett in its list of the "100 Hottest Women of All-Time," ranking her at No. 31.
The song "Midnight Train to Georgia" was inspired by Fawcett and Lee Majors. Songwriter Jim Weatherly phoned Majors, who was a friend, and the call was answered by Fawcett. Weatherly and Fawcett chatted briefly and she told him she was going to visit her mother and was taking "the midnight plane to Houston". Although Majors and Fawcett were both successful by that time, Weatherly used them as "characters" in his song, about a failed actress who leaves Los Angeles and is followed by her boyfriend who can’t live without her. Eventually the genders were swapped to a failed actor who leaves Los Angeles and is followed by his girlfriend who can't live without him, a train replaced the plane, and Houston was changed to Georgia. The recording by Gladys Knight & the Pips attained the number 1 position on the Billboard chart in 1973.
In 1980, O'Neal facilitated a meeting between Fawcett and artist Andy Warhol, and he created two portraits of Fawcett during their time together. The portraits were later loaned by Fawcett to the Andy Warhol Museum for a temporary period. Following a 2013 court case between O'Neal and the University of Texas, which had been named by Fawcett as the recipient of all of her artwork, one of the portraits was deemed the property of O'Neal. The portrait was valued between US$800,000 and US$12 million during the hearing of the court case.