But as her life drew to a close, she captivated the public in a different way: as a cancer patient who fought for, then surrendered, her treasured privacy to document her struggle with the disease and inspire others.
Fawcett, 62, died Thursday morning at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, nearly three years after being diagnosed with anal cancer. Ryan O'Neal, the longtime companion who returned to her side when she became ill, was with her.
"After a long and brave battle with cancer, our beloved Farrah has passed away," O'Neal said. "Although this is an extremely difficult time for her family and friends, we take comfort in the beautiful times that we shared with Farrah over the years and the knowledge that her life brought joy to so many people around the world."
In the end, Fawcett sought to offer more than that, re-emerging in the spotlight with a new gravitas.
In "Farrah's Story," which aired last month, she made public her painful treatments and dispiriting setbacks -- from shaving her golden locks before chemotherapy could claim them to undergoing experimental treatments in Germany.
"Her big message to people is don't give up. No matter what they say to you, keep fighting," Alana Stewart, who filmed Fawcett as she underwent treatment, said last month. NBC estimated the May 15, 2009, broadcast drew nearly 9 million viewers.
In the documentary, she also recounted her efforts to unmask the source of leaks from her UCLA Medical Center records, which led a hospital employee to plead guilty to violating a federal privacy law for selling celebrities' information to the National Enquirer.
"There are no words to express the deep sense of loss that I feel," Stewart said Thursday. "For 30 years, Farrah was much more than a friend. She was my sister, and although I will miss her terribly, I know in my heart that she will always be there as that angel on the shoulder of everyone who loved her."
Other "Charlie's Angels" stars also paid tribute.
"Farrah had courage, she had strength, and she had faith. And now she has peace as she rests with the real angels," Jaclyn Smith said.
Said Cheryl Ladd: "She was incredibly brave, and God will be welcoming her with open arms."
Kate Jackson said she would remember Fawcett's "kindness, her cutting, dry wit and, of course, her beautiful smile. Today when you think of Farrah remember her smiling because that is exactly how she wanted to be remembered, smiling."
Fawcett became a sensation in 1976 as one-third of the crime-fighting trio in "Charlie's Angels." A poster of her in a clingy, red swimsuit sold in the millions and her full, layered hairstyle became all the rage, with girls and women across America mimicking the look.
She left the show after one season but had a flop on the big screen with "Somebody Killed Her Husband." She turned to more serious roles in the 1980s and 1990s, winning praise playing an abused wife in "The Burning Bed."
Born Feb. 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas, she was named Mary Farrah Leni Fawcett by her mother, who said she added the Farrah because it sounded good with Fawcett. As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, she was voted one of the 10 most beautiful people on the campus and her photos were eventually spotted by movie publicist David Mirisch, who suggested she pursue a film career.
She appeared in a string of commercials, including one where she shaved quarterback Joe Namath, and in such TV shows as "That Girl," "The Flying Nun," "I Dream of Jeannie" and "The Partridge Family."
She was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. According to the American Cancer Society Web site, an estimated 5,290 Americans, most of them adults over 35, will be diagnosed with that type of cancer this year, and there will be 710 deaths.
As she underwent treatment, she enlisted the help of O'Neal, who was the father of her now 24-year-old son, Redmond.
This month, O'Neal said he asked Fawcett to marry him and she agreed. They would wed "as soon as she can say yes," he said, but it never happened.
Fawcett, Jackson and Smith made up the original "Angels," the sexy, police-trained trio of martial arts experts who took their assignments from a rich, mysterious boss named Charlie (John Forsythe, who was never seen on camera but whose distinctive voice was heard on speaker phone.)
The program debuted in September 1976, the height of what some critics derisively referred to as television's "jiggle show" era, and it gave each of the actresses ample opportunity to show off their figures as they disguised themselves as hookers and strippers to solve crimes.
Backed by a clever publicity campaign, Fawcett -- then billed as Farrah Fawcett-Majors because of her marriage to "The Six Million Dollar Man" star Lee Majors -- quickly became the most popular Angel of all.
Her face helped sell T-shirts, lunch boxes, shampoo, wigs and even a novelty plumbing device called Farrah's faucet. Her flowing blond hair, pearly white smile and trim, shapely body made her a favorite with male viewers in particular.
The public and the show's producer, Spelling-Goldberg, were shocked when she announced after the series' first season that she was leaving television's No. 5-rated series to star in feature films. (Ladd became the new "Angel" on the series.)
But film turned out to be a platform where Fawcett was never able to duplicate her TV success. Her first star vehicle, the comedy-mystery "Somebody Killed Her Husband," flopped and Hollywood cynics cracked that it should have been titled "Somebody Killed Her Career."
The actress had also been in line to star in "Foul Play" for Columbia Pictures. But the studio opted for Goldie Hawn instead. Fawcett told The Associated Press in 1979 that Spelling-Goldberg sabotaged her, warning "all the studios that that they would be sued for damages if they employed me."
She finally reached an agreement to appear in three episodes of "Charlie's Angels" a season, an experience she called "painful."
After a short string of unsuccessful movies, Fawcett found critical success in the 1984 television movie "The Burning Bed," which earned her an Emmy nomination.
As further proof of her acting credentials, Fawcett appeared off-Broadway in "Extremities," playing a woman who seeks revenge against her attacker after being raped in her own home. She repeated the role in the 1986 film version.
Not content to continue playing victims, she switched type to take on roles as a murderous mother in the 1989 true-crime story "Small Sacrifices" and a tough lawyer on the trail of a thief in 1992's "Criminal Behavior."
She also starred in biographies of Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld and photographer Margaret Bourke-White.
In 1995, at age 50, Fawcett stirred controversy posing partly nude for Playboy magazine. The following year, she starred in a Playboy video, "All of Me," in which she was equally unclothed while she sculpted and painted.
Fawcett's most unfortunate career moment may have been a 1997 appearance on David Letterman's show, when her disjointed, rambling answers led many to speculate that she was on drugs. She denied that, blaming her strange behavior on questionable advice from her mother to be playful and have a good time.
In September 2006, Fawcett, who at 59 still maintained a strict regimen of tennis and paddleball, began to feel strangely exhausted. She underwent two weeks of tests that revealed the cancer.
"I do not want to die of this disease. So I say to God, 'It is seriously time for a miracle,"' she said in "Farrah's Story."