Jeff Rothenbach: An Angel gets her Wings, and a Piece of Childhood Flies Away

I was on the way to Yosemite when I got the news that Farrah Fawcett had died. I spent a lot of time over the course of the weekend thinking about her, and the loss of a piece of my childhood. It was either that or think about the pain in my legs as I hiked up to Half Dome. This seemed like the better distraction. But let me back up to put this in a better context.

A few years ago, I saw a commercial on TV, where Cheryl Ladd (four years as Kris Munroe on Charlie’s Angels) was promoting some calcium supplement that would help fight osteoporosis. It suddenly occurred to me that the angels were now “of that age,” approaching 60, where it made more sense for them to be spokespersons for fiber supplements, rather than bubble gum. My mind flashed on the realization that one day, they would also die. Maybe this needs more context, so I will back up to 1976. The year Charlie’s Angels exploded on the scene.

In the ‘70’s, TV was a very important part of my life. As an only child who would not develop an interest in books for another 20 years, this magic box of light and sound was a source of endless entertainment. Not just the mind-numbing time spent staring into the hollows, but there were hours of playing “Charlie’s Angels” with my friend Brett. He always liked Farrah’s character Jill (the outgoing, bubbly one), while I favored Jaclyn Smith’s Kelly (the elegant, reserved one). We never had a third angel. Too bad we didn’t know Rolf yet, since he always favored Kate Jackson’s Sabrina (He liked the brainy one. It figures that he would grow up to be a rocket scientist). Then again, if we had a third angel, I would probably be complaining that we didn’t have Bosley, then a Charlie. It’s a never-ending bottle of whine, so I should just put a cork in it now.

There is more to this than meets the eye. In its first season, Charlie’s Angels aired on Wednesday nights at 10:00. Not the most accommodating timeslot for the average 4th grader. Keep in mind, this was long before the days of a TV set in every room. No sir, we only had one set in the den, and if I was going to stay up until 11:00 on a school night, I definitely needed permission. Luckily, my parents were rather lenient with me and I was allowed to stay up most Wednesdays. This gave me something to chat about around the playground water fountain on Thursday. And of course, after school Brett and I would act out the shows we had seen, or create some new adventures of our own (and when I came out to my parents in high school, they were surprised?).

In the second season, Jill had left to become a race car driver, and her sister Kris joined the Townsend detective agency. More importantly, ABC was kind enough to move the angels to the 9:00 slot, pushing Starsky and Hutch to 10:00. This was much more manageable and I rarely missed an episode. The fourth season brought Shelley Hack’s Tiffany to the agency to replace the recently-married Sabrina. Then Tiffany left for a reason that I don’t recall (They couldn’t just be honest and say she was a bad actress), and Tanya Roberts’ Julie filled the third spot. It wasn’t until the fifth and final season (which was 8th grade for me) that I started moving in new directions, and the angels were no longer the centerpiece of my life.

But during those formative years, these women, along with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lindsay Waggoner’s Bionic Woman were role-models for me. I learned about strength that wasn’t always physical, about succeeding when others don’t expect you to, drawing on hidden strengths to overcome any obstacles (not to mention the whole “secret-identity/dual-life” thing). In a lot of ways, I still draw from these TV-life lessons that happened so long ago.

So the death of Farrah Fawcett is more than just “some actress” dying. This is a piece of my childhood that is lost. And the loss of that innocence that comes with childhood. Yes, they all ran around with guns (and Kelly even got shot twice) but they never got seriously wounded. You might be on the edge of your seat, worried for the angels, but you always knew deep down, that everything would be fine. No one ever dies. And then one day, you find out that Farrah Fawcett has cancer. But the angels are stronger than that. She’ll beat this. And when she didn’t, we all have to step up to fill the empty space that she leaves in the world.

In some ways, I have already started taking those steps forward. Recently, I befriended a younger, gay man at work. We talk about different subjects that sometimes lead to a mentor/protégé conversation. He even expressed frustration once over things that he just doesn’t know because he has only been alive for 24 years. I quietly smile to myself that, even though he has achieved quite a bit in his short time on earth, he is still just a kid in so many ways. On my side of the conversation, I feel like I have grown up a little more. I have reached a point in my life, where I can share some of my life experience with another person who can benefit from it.

During a recent conversation with a group of gay men, we talked about the lack of role models and mentors in the gay community. Much of this is due to the AIDS crisis of the 80’s that virtually wiped out a generation of men. Those men would now be in their 50’s to 70’s, with rich personal histories to share with the younger generations coming up. Like a butterfly effect, flapping their wings and setting off tornadoes somewhere else. With each life one touches, there is a ripple effect, in ever-widening circles.

This is one of the primary reasons that I write for Rolf’s website. Maybe when someone reads my columns, I can touch a life, and hopefully make it better than it was before. And in some small way, I can leave a legacy that goes beyond my life.

So, tomorrow is the day set for Farrah’s memorial service. I hear it will be very special. They are connecting the sound system to their telephone so that John Forsythe can deliver the eulogy. But at some point during my day, I will stop and think about how Farrah and the angels have touched my life, and the lessons that I learned from those strong, independent women.

And as I toss my hair back over my shoulder, I might startle a butterfly, who flaps his wings and somewhere else in the world…


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Tony D,

    jeff, so glad i found rolf’s site and read this letter. i too was obsessed with farrah in the 70’s, and still cannot quite process her horrible death. she was the picture of youth and beauty, and not supposed to die! for some reason, i have trouble seeing the old icons age, and/or die, perhaps because then i have to accept that i am getting older as well. though so far, so good for this 50 year old!

    nice writing!

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