Ryan O'Neal Recalls Moment Farrah's Health Turned

05/12/2009 AT 08:15 AM EDT

For a good part of her 2½-year cancer battle, Farrah Fawcett showed few signs of what the disease was doing to her. "She was very athletic and healthy and hungry and beautiful," her companion of 27 years, Ryan O'Neal, recalls. "Everything was just as you remember about her."

But then, last year, came the day of reckoning, the actor, 68, tells Meredith Vieira in a two-part Today show interview scheduled to air Wednesday and Thursday. "The first time I ever noticed, I walked with her and [the couple's 24-year-old son] Redmond on the beach one day.

"We used to take that walk all the time to the rocks and back. And halfway there she stopped and said, 'Can we go back?' And Red and I looked at each other and we knew that … see, she could fool you because she always looked good. She looked really good. And he [Redmond] used to say to me, 'She'll be all right. Look at how nice she looks.' "

A Fearless Role Model

Calling Fawcett, 62, "extraordinary" and a role model for those learning to cope, O'Neal says, "In the last two years, I loved her more than I've ever loved her – ever. She's so much more of a woman and powerful, courageous, fearless, all those adjectives. I look at her with awe."

On Tuesday's Today show, Vieira showed a brief clip from her interview with O'Neal, in which he talks about son Redmond's final visit with his mother. The younger O'Neal, who is currently serving a jail sentence after having pleaded guilty to drug possession and one misdemeanor DUI charge, was brought to the house "like he was John Dillinger," in shackles and chains.

"When you go into her," O'Neal told Redmond, "don't rattle your chains." As O'Neal tells Vieira, "She doesn't know ... she just holds him."

On Friday, NBC will air the two-hour documentary Farrah's Story, a video diary in Fawcett's own words about the challenges she has faced, as well as about the treatments she received both in the U.S. and in Germany.

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