She doesn’t court attention anymore, but Kate Jackson still gets recognized by fans sometimes. “She is always surprised by that,” says a friend, who adds that Kate shouldn’t be. “She’s older obviously, but she still looks good. That bone structure never fades.”
For three decades, Kate, 73, starred on popular TV series, including the worldwide phenomenon Charlie’s Angels and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, before beating breast cancer and quietly slipping away from show business. “I’d had it with Hollywood’s long hours, the politics, the backstabbing and the gossip,” she said. “It was not a great town for having your feet on the ground and living a normal life.”
For the three-times divorced actress, that “normal” life included adopting a son, Charles, in 1995 and moving to a 125-acre farm in Keswick, Virginia, close to her high school best friend. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. In addition to two bouts with cancer, the actress endured financial hardship that forced her to take legal action in 2010. “Kate definitely hit a rough patch,” says the friend. “She had a difficult time with personal issues and demons she needed to deal with.”
After small roles in other television series, Kate became a superstar on Charlie’s Angels in 1976. She earned two Emmy nominations for playing Sabrina Duncan, but behind the scenes, she often bristled at the show’s simpleminded scripts. The series’ typical 14-hour workdays also wore on her. “My life was all geared to work,” said Kate. “Even though those millions of people around the country know me and like me, they aren’t in my living room at the end of the day when I’m lonely and hassled.”
Relationships on the Charlie’s Angels set grew more tense after Kate was forced to turn down the role of Joanna in the acclaimed feature film Kramer vs. Kramer because the show would not grant her time off. The role of the dissatisfied wife who leaves her husband and young son instead went to Meryl Streep, who won her first Oscar for the performance. In 1979, Kate hung up her Charlie’s Angels wings. “I finally had to say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s my life, and there’s the show, and one is killing the other, so something has to go,’” said Kate. “I sure as hell wasn’t about to sacrifice my life for a television show.”
Although she immediately returned to TV in a remake of the Cary Grant hit Topper with her then-husband, Andrew Stevens, she took time off. “I didn’t do a series for a couple of years,” she said. “I realized that from the time I was 5 years old, when I started school, I had been told when to get up every morning, where to go then, what to do when I got there, when to have lunch, when to come back, what do to after lunch, when to go home, what to study, when to have dinner, and when to go to bed.”
When Kate did return to series television with Scarecrow and Mrs. King in 1983, it was on her own terms. She even directed two episodes in 1986. “The first scene I did felt really funny,” Kate said of directing herself. “I thought, ‘Great. Who’s watching me?’ But then I began to relax more…and I had to go with what felt right.”
As the show’s star and a co-producer, Kate also had better control over her work hours. “I take really good care of myself. I’m very selfish with my time,” she said. “It’s not that great for relationships, but I rest, I eat and I take good care of myself.”
Self-care became even more important in January 1987 when Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was forced to face — square up — my own mortality,” she said. “I had to decide whether I wanted to live or to die. And if you choose life, as I did, it’s never the same.” Kate underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment and was given a clean bill of health, but in September 1989 another cluster of cancer cells was discovered. This time, her surgeon performed a partial mastectomy. “I hear that she is cancer-free,” says the friend.
It’s no surprise that Kate took the cancer death of her Charlie’s Angels costar Farrah Fawcett in 2009 very badly. They weren’t just coworkers, but friends. “We had the best time that year that she did Charlie’s Angels because we got into the habit of just sort of ad-libbing on camera and trying to make the other one laugh, or doing something unexpected,” Kate recalled.
Farrah’s death wasn’t the only hardship Kate struggled with in recent years. The actress alleged in court papers that financial adviser Richard B. Francis exploited her “extremely close relationship” with Farrah to get her as a client. According to her 2010 lawsuit, Kate believed Francis misinformed her about her finances and pressured her into buying a $2 million home in Santa Monica that he knew she could not afford, causing her “financial ruin.” The case was eventually settled out of court and the terms were kept confidential.
Kate hasn’t added another credit to her resume since she appeared in the documentary Farrah’s Story to celebrate the life of her friend in 2009. She signed a deal in 2011 to write a memoir for Gallery Books, but the release date has been pushed back several times.
Perhaps that’s OK. Although Kate’s myriad fans would love to hear her story in her own words, she has worked very hard to create a satisfying life for herself outside the limelight. “I had everything in the world, and I just wasn’t happy,” Kate said of her days on the A-list. “Listen with your ears but hear with your heart. It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. It’s true in art, in life — in everything.”