Farrah Fawcett returns to television Sunday at 9 in "Silk Hope," a CBS movie about a woman who goes home to North Carolina to find that her mother has died and her sister plans to sell the family farm.

Frannie Vaughn has spent years hopping from bar to bar and bed to bed. But she draws on an untapped well of determination and sets out to save the farm as a sanctuary for the women in her family.

"I thought she was perfect for this part," said the movie's executive producer, Beth Polson. "I just couldn't imagine anybody more right than Farrah Fawcett for this role."

In the movie, based on the 1994 book by Lawrence Naumoff, Ashley Crow plays Frannie's sister and Brad Johnson is the foreman of the local textile mill.

Naumoff, who lives in the title town, a pre-Revolutionary village west of Chapel Hill, said this tale began with a chat he'd had with another writer who told him "certain women should have a home that would always be theirs, no matter what happens with the men in their lives."

Initially he had envisioned a different fate for Frannie: "I was going to kill her off -- some men were going to kill her; her wantonness was going to do her in. But as I wrote, it seemed her wantonness was connected to her vulnerability, and I liked her so much that she won. She sort of prevails from a deeper virtue -- it's coming from her ancestors."

Giving Fawcett the part was Polson's responsibility. Naumoff said only, "I presume this role is a good fit."

Fawcett did not respond to a request for an interview about "Silk Hope," but Polson was candid. Making the movie, she said, "was not milk and honey. Her reputation [for being difficult] is just so huge." Polson even invented her own term: "Farrah-whirl."

"When she's in front of the camera, she's great," said Polson. "But whatever is going on in the rest of her life that makes it hard for her to get to the camera makes it hard for all of us. It was a very, very difficult shoot."

Fawcett, who earned critics' praise for a play about a woman and a rapist ("Extremities") and movies about an abused wife ("The Burning Bed") and a mother who killed her children ("Small Sacrifices"), is generally on the mark with her portrayal of irresponsible, flighty Frannie. Polson said she thought Fawcett would win praise for her work.

"She said to me, `I am Frannie, I can do this,' " said Polson. "And she's right -- she knows Frannie."

Nevertheless, Frannie Vaughn's life is not Fawcett's. Frannie, a character in her late thirties, built a "bad girl" reputation in her home town and embellished it over the ensuing years. She is one of what Naumoff called his "wild women -- my stock in trade."

Fawcett's recent life has been tabloid fodder, and her 17-year relationship with Ryan O'Neal ended in 1997, the year she turned 50. Their son, Redmond James, is now 14.

In some ways, like Frannie's, Fawcett's life seems at a crossroads.

"I said to her at one point that I think God has been extraordinarily gracious to her," said Polson. "He made her beautiful and He also gave her talent, and when the beauty is gone, she'll still have the talent. But I also told her, it's up to you what you do with it. She just looked at me."

Despite her frustration, said Polson, she fears for Fawcett's future. "I wanted to be mad at her but I felt sorry for her. She's a troubled woman."

Fawcett, who Polson said kept fit on the set by drinking protein milkshakes and doing push-ups, still has the famously tousled blond hair that sent droves of women to their hairdressers in the late 1970s.

Fawcett vaulted to TV fame as investigator Jill Munroe on ABC's "Charlie's Angels." The series, which co-starred Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson, ran from September 1976 to August 1981. In the show's first season, Fawcett won the People's Choice Award as favorite female performer in a new television program.

Known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors (she married actor Lee Majors in 1973), she left the show after that first year to pursue a film career. With her lush hair and brilliant smile, she also sold shampoos, toothpaste and skin cream, and her wildly popular swimsuit poster sold millions of copies.

During the next eight years, Fawcett made theatrical and television movies, but she wasn't getting the parts she wanted. To put to rest doubts about her acting ability, she replaced Susan Sarandon in the off-Broadway production of the gritty "Extremities" in 1983. There were other meaty roles, too. "The Burning Bed" and "Small Sacrifices" earned her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations; she got another Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Barbara Hutton, and a CableAce Award for her portrayal of photographer Margaret Bourke White.

In January 1991, she and O'Neal paired up in a short-lived CBS series, "Good Sports." But in 1995, she appeared in the film "Man of the House," directed by James Orr, with whom she would forge a romance. Two years later, she and O'Neal parted.

The year 1997 turned out to be a strange one for Fawcett. She earned critical praise for playing the wife of a preacher in Robert Duvall's film "The Apostle," but also did a nude photo spread in Playboy and a Playboy video. During an appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman" that year, she seemed unfocused, and she did not show up for a scheduled second appearance on the program in January 1998. (She was to appear on "Letterman" Oct. 13 to talk about "Silk Hope.")

Fawcett's absence on the 1998 Letterman show occurred at about the same time her private life also made news. Early on Jan. 28, 1998, she and director Orr had an altercation at his Bel-Air mansion that resulted in his conviction for domestic abuse by a Los Angeles jury. The pair said in a joint statement shortly after the January fight that "two good friends had a small misunderstanding."

An A&E "Biography" that aired this year reported that Fawcett returned to Texas for six weeks in 1998 to visit her parents, James and Pauline Fawcett, and her older sister, Diane Walls, who is ill.

Frannie Vaughn would have understood: There's no sanctuary like home.