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It's late on a Tuesday afternoon, and Cheryl Ladd is sitting in her Hollywood hilltop living room patiently answering questions about Charlie's Angels and the meaning of life. It was, she says, a "glamour" show; it was not "open-heart surgery." It made household names of the six women who became Angels—though some households probably have forgotten Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts—while often playing havoc with their marriages and straitjacketing their careers. Still, after two hours of talk, there's a feeling that Ladd hasn't quite put her finger on just what it was that made Farrah & Co. a phenomenon. "Okay," says Ladd, "one last thing. Wanna see my impression of Charlie's Angels?" She springs from the couch, snugs a white clutch purse under one arm, crooks her finger at an imaginary heavy and shouts, "Freeze!" Then she drops the purse. "Oh, wait a minute," she deadpans, bending down. The purse back in place, she shakes her blond hair dramatically. "Now," she says, "I said, 'Freeze!' "

And there you may have it: Angel Essence, the combination of girls, guns and fashion that made a one-hour cop show a pop-cultural obsession. TIME magazine called Charlie's Angels an "aesthetically ridiculous, commercially brilliant brainstorm surfing blithely atop the Zeitgeist's seventh wave." Jay Bernstein, Farrah Fawcett's manager at the time, was more succinct in assessing the attractions of her eight-million-selling poster (and, perhaps, the show): "Nipples." Some feminists complained, but producers Leonard Goldberg and Spelling championed Angels as the series that "proved women could carry a TV show." Whatever the reasons, perhaps no series has been so dissected in the press. Before the Angels expired on June 24, 1981 after 115 episodes, we knew the number of costume changes per Angel per episode (eight, but 12 for Farrah when she made a guest appearance in 1979), which Angel associate claimed to have once been "raped" by Jayne Mansfield (Bernstein again, when he represented her: "What was I supposed to do? Hit a client?"), Ladd's maiden name (Cheryl Jean Stoppelmoor), and how an overworked Farrah talked Lee Majors, then her husband, into engaging a housekeeper ("If you want me in the bedroom, you'll have to hire somebody to do the dishes").

This season marks the 10th anniversary of the Charlie's Angels premiere—a good time to gather round the cathode-ray tube and try to figure out exactly what happened.

Genesis

Spelling and Goldberg created The Alley Cats, a show about three female detectives, as a starring vehicle for Kate Jackson, who had attracted a following in an earlier Spelling-Goldberg series, The Rookies. Over lunch at the Polo Lounge in February 1976, ABC executives listened to the concept and announced, "You guys should be ashamed of yourselves." Actor Robert Wagner, who would own 45 percent of the show, labeled it "the worst idea I've ever heard." Credit for the show's eventual title goes to Jackson, who, spying a picture of cherubim behind Spelling's desk, said, "How about Charlie's Angels?" Jackson, as the star, was paid $10,000 per episode; newcomers Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett-Majors received $5,000 each.

Lift Off

The show premiered on ABC Sept. 22, 1976 and was an immediate hit (by November, 59 percent of people watching TV at that hour were tuned in). "Men watch the girls, women watch the clothes," assessed designer Nolan Miller. But Angelmania proved to be a subset of a greater phenomenon: Farrahmania. A wispy, aqua-eyed blonde from Corpus Christi, Texas, Farrah, at 29, was the girl next door—with unreal teeth and hair. She was modest. "My theory is that God gives you either straight white teeth with lots of cavities or crooked stained teeth with no cavities," she said. "I have lots of cavities." She also doted on her husband, Six Million Dollar Man Majors, and her contract guaranteed that she could leave work in time to prepare his dinner: "I love Lee and I love cooking," she said.

By 1978 her endorsements had redefined the parameters of sudden celebrity: $4.5 million from Fabergé, another million for a three-hour photo session to advertise a faucet-shaped necklace and pocket change from T-shirts, lunch pails and dolls. Bernstein claims he rejected a seven-figure offer from a company wanting to bottle water "from Farrah's own faucet." "She was the female Robert Redford, the healthiest role model America ever had," he says. "In four years she made about $17 million."

Hair

"The time I spent waiting for the girls' hair to dry probably put one of my girls through a year of college."—actor David Doyle, who played the Angels' bumbling sidekick, Bosley

"She eventually resented her hair. That's when she dropped me and went to another salon."—"Farrah cut" stylist Allen Edwards

"The director's job was easier than the hairstylist's job."—a director who requests anonymity

Crisis

Critics called the show "unbelievable." "Of course it was unbelievable!" sputters Spelling. "We had a hoot doing it!" Week after week the Angels could be found, scantily clad, trapped on a cruise ship with a homicidal maniac or, scantily clad, cleaning up a face-lift farm run by the Mafia. "Angels in Chains was my favorite episode," says Goldberg, perhaps a little wistfully. "The New York Times ran a huge photo of the girls chained together wading through a swamp. The show got a 56 share. The rerun got a 52 share. I told Aaron we should just run it every week until it dropped below 40 and then make another show."

Then the unimaginable happened: After only one season, Farrah, partially due to marital strain, quit. "We were very, very shook up," says Goldberg. "She was a sensation. And she quit." A legal battle ended in compromise, with Farrah agreeing to return for six episodes. The producers enlisted Cheryl Ladd as the new Angel who was to play a scene opposite the woman she was replacing. "I went on location that day," recalls Goldberg. "Farrah had decided she wasn't doing any more bikini stuff, so she wore a chic-looking beach costume. The camera panned over to pick up Cheryl, and she was wearing a very little, very white bikini. She started to walk—very slowly, very deliberately—toward Farrah. I knew then we were going to be fine without Farrah." Ladd was equally gung ho offstage. "If I can help get anybody through puberty," she told an interviewer, "I say, 'Good!' "

Another Crisis

After the third season, the producers fired Kate Jackson, who admittedly had created problems. Once, she screeched, "Why do I have to say this garbage! This is shit, shit, shit!" "Aw, come on, Kate," cooed Ladd, "tell us how you really feel." Jackson's displeasure diminished not a whit when Angels' duties forced her to turn down the role in Kramer vs. Kramer that later won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Meryl Streep. "I'm glad I've finally hung up the halo," said Jackson, adding that the typical Angels script was "so light it would take a week to get to the floor if you dropped it from the ceiling." (Says Spelling: "In my career as a producer, the line I hate to hear from an actor more than any other is 'I won't say this; this is shit.' Once fame sets in, the actors want to cure the common cold instead of reciting dialogue.") Jackson was replaced by Charlie-perfume girl Shelley Hack. She was sacked the following season.

The Fate of Angels

Being an Angel seemed to have a particularly devastating effect on marriages. During or shortly after the Angel era, Kate Jackson divorced actor Andrew Stevens, Jaclyn Smith divorced actor Dennis Cole, Cheryl Ladd divorced actor David Ladd and Farrah decided to continue without her hyphen or her husband. "I don't think the show itself was to blame for anybody's divorce," says Ladd. "I think we just didn't have as healthy marriages as we had hoped. Doing that kind of show—filled with long hours, heavy emphasis on appearance and lots of media attention—brought to the surface the weaknesses in those relationships. I don't have a desire to do another series now." Post-Angel relationships seem to fare better: Ladd has been married for almost six years to songwriter Brian Russell; Smith has married and has two children with British cinematographer Anthony Richmond. When Farrah took up with Ryan O'Neal, PEOPLE quoted an observer's prediction: "[Ryan's] got happy feet—I don't think he'll stick around, even with Farrah." Six and a half years later they're still together, though unmarried, and have a son, Redmond, nearly 2.

Professionally, Angel notoriety has been a mixed blessing. The Big Four continue to work, but not as often or in the kind of projects they might like. Smith has become a TV-movie and miniseries queen, popping up in Rage of Angels, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and George Washington. Ladd has appeared in TV movies and will star early next year in another, about a drug-addicted nurse. Jackson made a poorly received feature, Making Love, and is now back on TV in Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The only one to have made a startling transition is Fawcett, who announced after leaving the Angels that she intended to become a serious actress. After three flop movies—the first, Somebody Killed Her Husband, was referred to by some Hollywood wags as Somebody Killed Her Career—she finally succeeded, winning excellent reviews in the TV movies Murder in Texas and The Burning Bed and for the off-Broadway and film versions of the rape drama Extremities. It is perhaps the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

"Of course the show helped their careers; a hit show can't hurt anybody," says one prominent Hollywood casting director. "I'm surprised at how well Farrah has done. Kate has cemented her career in TV mire and exchanged one fluffy series for another. I never thought Cheryl would amount to much, but she's the only one out of the original four that I would cast in a serious role today. Jaclyn Smith? She's very pretty, but that's about it."

Angels End

By 1980 the joie de jiggle had gone out of Charlie's Angels. Pneumatic Tanya Roberts was brought aboard to replace the departed Hack, but to no avail. "We became cardboard characters, Beverly Hills Girl Scouts," says Ladd. "We'd talk to Charlie, we'd do the caper, then gather in the office and talk about the caper. It became a one-note song." The last episode was called, unprophetically, Let Our Angel Live. Since that day, Charlie's Angels has aired in some 90 countries, from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, and has probably collected more in revenues than many of them. "I can't say this of every show I ever produced, but I loved Charlie's Angels," confesses Spelling. "It put us over the top and made our company financially secure and incredibly desirable." Says Goldberg: "I'd pay each of them a million dollars to do a two-hour Charlie's Angels reunion movie. But it would be very difficult to get any three of the four originals to do it."

Perhaps. But at least one original cast member isn't too proud to come out squarely on the side of the Angels. "I'd do it," says the eminently pragmatic David Doyle. "Without that show," he adds, "some of us would be worth about $3.50 a week."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Yarbrough.