“Charlie’s Angels” Debuted 40 Years Ago and TV Hasn’t Been the Same Since

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Cover image for  article: “Charlie’s Angels” Debuted 40 Years Ago and TV Hasn’t Been the Same Since

It’s impossible to comprehend 40 years have passed since "Charlie’s Angels" made its debut on ABC on September 22, 1976. The now iconic series would forever change the landscape of television, make international superstars of its leading ladies and launch a very lucrative marketing franchise that continues to this day. Originally titled "The Alley Cats," television mega-producer Aaron Spelling cast Kate Jackson, fresh off her four-year stint as Nurse Jill Danko on his hugely successful crime drama "The Rookies," as his first “cat.” Jackson wasn’t fond of the title, renaming it "Charlie’s Angels" during a pre-production meeting for the show. 

The premise was simple – a trio of recently graduated police academy beauties (as they were referred to at the time) were recruited by Charlie (the never-seen Charles Townsend, given voice by John Forsythe) to work as private eyes.   Newcomers Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as Jill Munroe) and Jaclyn Smith (as Kelly Garrett) would join Jackson (as Sabrina Duncan), rounding out the show’s original cast.

While critics were fast to label the series “Jiggle TV” with little substance and lighter than air storylines, audiences flocked to the show, making the pilot one of the highest-rated TV movies in history. Even series creator Spelling would later admit to the shortcomings of the premise. “Charlie's Angels was science fiction, too, but no one would believe me,” he joked while promoting his supernatural series Charmed in 1998. “I mean, if anybody believes that three young ladies graduate from the police academy­, are given terrible jobs and are hired by a man over the telephone who pays them $500 a week -- and they wear $5000 Nolan Miller gowns?”

“Farrah and I, we didn't know about a hit series,” Jaclyn Smith told me. “Kate had done The Rookies; Farrah and I were sort of innocent. Each weekAaron Spelling would call us with the ratings and it wasn’t until we did Angels in Chains [episode 4] that it clicked. I think we realized then that this was really a hit and we were sort of at home with it by that episode.” (See photo at right.)

“When Charlie's Angels became the No. 1 show I thought that was just the way it happened,” reminisced Fawcett during our 2005 interview to promote her TV Land reality series Chasing Farrah. “Now I realize it doesn't happen all the time.”

Following the pilot’s staggering ratings, Charlie’s Angels was given a full series order, and while the cast and crew were busy in production they had no idea of the show’s cultural impact. Before long even some of their harshest critics were eating their words. “We didn’t get great reviews for the show,” recalled series co-producer Leonard Goldberg. “It wasn’t until Time magazine called asking, ‘We’d like to do a special shoot for Charlie’s Angels.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re really heavy into production.’ They said, ‘This is for the cover of Time.”  A lot of publications, The New York Times included, gave us very bad reviews, but as soon as the show hit they were very quick to put us on the cover of everything they could find.”

Magazine covers weren’t the only things the Angels graced at the time. The merchandising bandwagon soon included dolls, lunchboxes, towels, rugs, puzzles, T-shirts and mugs -- all fueled by the fact Fawcett had unwittingly launched what would become the poster phenomenon of the ‘70’s by posing in a red swimsuit against a blanket in her backyard. Fawcett’s poster would go on to sell millions and follow Farrah until her untimely passing from cancer in 2009.

“It's interesting, people that I work with, younger directors and younger filmmakers tell me about my poster,” she recalled in our 2005 interview. “They had it, still have it, loved it or it's in storage in the attic. I say it's worth a lot of money, keep it.”

Charlie’s Angels ran for five seasons on ABC. Following Fawcett’s departure (after season one, with guest appearances in subsequent seasons), Cheryl Ladd would be introduced as her character’s younger sister (Kris Monroe). Jackson’s departure at the end of the third season would make way for the arrival of Shelley Hack (Tiffany Wells) in season four and then Tanya Roberts (Julie Rogers) for the final season after Hack was let go.

One person fluent in the value of Charlie’s Angels is “Angelologist” Mike Pingel. As an eight-year-old, discovering the show would be life changing in so many ways. “They were gorgeous women and as soon as they hit TV were huge superstars around the world,” he says. “The Time cover happened two months after the show premiered, so it wasn’t just me loving Charlie’s Angels.  The whole world did. I was hooked.”

While feminists were up in arms because the Angels often didn’t wear bras, Pingel asserts that three women kicking butt as leads on TV show was nothing but positive. “Up until then [women on TV] were in the kitchen, with the exception of Angie Dickinson in Police Woman.  But she had men helping her. Charlie’s Angels had three women who got the job done. Their sidekick Bosley (David Doyle) was just comic relief most of the time and Charlie was never there!  [He was just a voice on the phone.] Kids all over the world were playing Charlie’s Angels; for an adult show that was amazing. They were idols and something kids could to aspire to.” (Pingel is pictured below with Jackson, Fawcett and Smith.)

Soon an eight–year-old Pingel began keeping every Angels clipping and piece of merchandise he could find. He kept them for years only to be told by his mother as a teenager, “It was time to get rid of them.” Reluctantly, he complied -- with the exception of the games and posters he’d collected. Following a move to Los Angles in 1991 he rediscovered the original Angel dolls at a friend’s place and decided, “I have to have those!” That was when he began collecting in earnest. In the pre-eBay world he scoured thrift stores and toy shows for collectibles, beginning with the four dolls he’d coveted. “I would have liked to have bought everything,” he admits. “My roommate thought I was crazy with these boxes of Angels stuff arriving.”

In 1996 Pingel took advantage of the burgeoning Internet, taking his collecting to another level by registering CharliesAngels.com as a gathering place for people to keep up-to-date with all things Angels. “I registered the domain, as it was available, and learned how to do a web site, and that was it,” he explains. “I didn’t know what it meant on a business level at the time.”

Three months after CharliesAngels launched Yahoo named it Site of the Day and Pingel’s new life as a publicist officially began. “Media were coming to my house and wanting to know everything about the show,” he laughs. “Sony tagged me as the Angelologist and I’ve been talking Angels for 20 years now.” 

Through the web site his association with Charlie’s Angels moved into other areas. He worked for a time as Fawcett’s assistant, and currently works with Cheryl Ladd and Tanya Roberts on their web sites. He’s written two Angels books and continues to work with companies as an Angels expert, ensuring that the legacy of the show lives on.

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet management or associated bloggers. 


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