- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Raquel Welch, the almond-eyed sex symbol who turned a doeskin bikini into one of the most iconic cinematic images of the 1960s, has died. She was 82.
Welch’s management company told The Hollywood Reporter that she died Wednesday morning following a brief illness. Her son, Damon Welch, confirmed that she died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles.
Her success in Hollywood was due partly to talent, partly to perseverance, but mostly to hitting the genetic jackpot. Although she turned in several respectable performances — as a scientist’s assistant in Fantastic Voyage (1966), as Lilian Lust in Bedazzled (1967), as a transgender revolutionary in Myra Breckinridge (1970) — it was her strikingly photogenic features and voluptuous figure that catapulted her to international stardom.
“The indelible image of a woman as queen of nature,” is how cultural critic Camille Paglia once described Welch’s onscreen appeal. The actress herself put it more succinctly. “I became,” she wrote in her 2010 autobiography, Beyond the Cleavage, “every male’s fantasy.”
Her first starring role came with her second film after signing with 20th Century Fox, though it was hardly an actor’s dream. Her biggest line of dialogue in the prehistoric drama One Million Years B.C. (1966) was, “Me, Loana … You, Tumak.” Her experience on the set was even less inspiring.
“On the first day of shooting,” she recalled, “I went straight up to the director, Don Chaffey, and said quite seriously, ‘Listen, Don, I’ve been studying the script and I was thinking …’ He turned to me in amazement and said, ‘You were thinking? Don’t.'”
Still, even before the film came out, it was clear it would make Welch a star. The advance poster — Welch in the animal-skin two-piece — became the linchpin of the entire marketing campaign (“Mankind’s first bikini,” boasted one tagline). Although the movie was not a hit, Welch was. “A marvelous breathing monument to womankind,” raved The New York Times. Time magazine listed her cavewoman costume in its “Top Ten Bikinis in Pop Culture.”
Welch was not prepared for the attention. “In one fell swoop, everything in my life changed and everything about the real me was swept away. All else would be eclipsed by this bigger-than-life sex symbol,” she wrote in her autobiography of the rush of sudden fame. “She came into public consciousness as a physical presence, without a voice. … It felt like I’d stumbled into a booby trap — pun intended.”
Welch was born in Chicago on Sept. 5, 1940, and christened Jo Raquel Tejada. Her dad was a Bolivian aeronautical engineer and her mom a seamstress whose ancestry dated to John Quincy Adams.
Her family moved to San Diego when she was 2, and while her childhood was mostly trauma-free, it was hardly warm or nurturing. “Physical affection was in short supply,” she wrote in her memoir. “There was no cuddling or lovey-dovey stuff happening, even between Mom and Dad. I don’t recall ever seeing him kiss her or hold her hand.” Her father, she went on, was “terrifying.”
The “Jo” fell off her name early on in her school days, but the rest of Raquel took some time to develop, especially in her own estimation. “I didn’t like my hair (very fine like my mother’s), or my eyes (too deeply set and almond-shaped, in standard-issue brown), or my nose (not cute enough) or my mouth (a bit too wide),” she admitted. Nevertheless, while in high school, she won first prize in a local beauty contest — “Miss Photogenic” — which launched a string of pageant triumphs. She soon was crowned Miss La Jolla, Miss San Diego and finally, Maid of California.
She’d also won a scholarship to San Diego State University, where she studied drama for a time, but her heart was elsewhere. Against her father’s wishes, she married her high school sweetheart, James Welch.
Soon after, she landed a job as a local TV weather girl, but meteorology was not her destiny, and she left the gig after giving birth, at age 19, to Damon. Two years later, she had a daughter, Tahnee. Within a few more years, though, her marriage fell apart. She wanted to move the family to New York where she could pursue acting. He didn’t. Instead, Raquel left her husband and took the kids to Los Angeles, a decision she later described as rash. “The damage I did to my children and Jim by taking off as I did is immeasurable,” she wrote. “I have no defense for my foolishness, except to say that I was young and pigheaded.”
She was also lucky. She arrived in L.A. in 1963 with no car, no connections and $200 in her pocket; within a year, she was landing roles in Elvis Presley movies (1964’s Roustabout) and small parts on TV shows like Bewitched and McHale’s Navy. At one point, she nearly was Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island and a “Bond Girl” in Thunderball.
But even if she always didn’t get the part, her auditions created enough buzz that she was offered a contract with 20th Century Fox — though not before some discussion about her name. Her agent convinced her to keep her married surname, arguing that it would help her avoid being pigeonholed in Latino roles. The studio tried to convince her to change her given name to Debbie. Welch declined.
Her first film for Fox was Fantastic Voyage, an ensemble sci-fi thriller about a team of doctors shrunken to microscopic size and injected into the body of an ailing scientist. The movie did respectable box office — and won Oscars for visual effects and art direction — and Welch’s performance was well-received (even if she spent much of the picture paddling through hemoglobin in a tight, white scuba suit).
After One Million Years B.C. (1966), she spent the next couple of years hopping between international productions — an Italian comedy titled Sex Quartet (1966), a French farce about prostitution called The Oldest Profession (1967) — and projects for Fox, including 1968’s Lady in Cement, co-starring Frank Sinatra) and Bandolero!, with James Stewart and Dean Martin; 100 Rifles (1969), in which she and Jim Brown broke taboos with an interracial love scene; and Bedazzled, a Stanley Donen satire about the seven deadly sins in which she was typecast as the incarnation of lust.
“I didn’t have many lines,” she recalled of the part to THR in 2019, shortly after Donen died. “All I did was saunter up in a red-lace bikini and say, ‘Hot-buttered buns?’ I did it in a Southern accent because I figured Lust came from a hot [climate].”
After playing a go-go dancer in Flareup and a slave driver amid topless oarswomen in Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian in 1969, Welch took on the role that most stretched her range — and might well have ended her career. That would be Myra Breckinridge in the film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s scandalous novel about a gay film buff turned acting teacher who fakes his own death, undergoes a sex-change operation and then claims to be his own widow.
“I don’t know exactly what kind of actress you’re looking for,” she supposedly told producer Richard Zanuck to get the part, “but I was thinking if a guy was going to change his sex and wanted to be like a movie star type of girl, don’t you think he might want to look like me?”
The production was a train wreck, with British director Michael Sarne taking seven-hour “thinking breaks” while the cast and crew waited on the set (he would never make another Hollywood movie). Meanwhile, Welch and Mae West, who came out of retirement for a small role, feuded over wardrobe and refused to shoot scenes with each other.
When it was released, critics tore it to pieces; to this day, Myra Breckinridge is often cited as “the worst movie ever made.” But Welch — whose character at one point anally rapes one of her male students — remained proud of her performance. “Myra Breckinridge is the antithesis of sex symbol,” she told GQ in 2012. “She’s revolutionary. She’s a warrior.”
Throughout the 1970s, Welch continued to sharpen her acting chops. In ’72, she starred as a single mom on the professional roller derby circuit in Kansas City Bomber (Jodie Foster, in one of her first film roles, played her daughter). She co-starred with Charlton Heston, Oliver Reed and Faye Dunaway in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) and with Richard Benjamin in The Last of Sheila (1973). There also were leads in James Ivory’s The Wild Party (1975); Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), an ambulance-company comedy with Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel (she played Jugs); and the French action film Animal (1977), in which she co-starred with Jean-Paul Belmondo.
She also became a fixture on television, with CBS producing her 1970 variety special, Raquel! (Tom Jones, Bob Hope and John Wayne were guests), and another in 1973, Really Raquel (the only guests this time were Sid and Marty Krofft puppets), along with appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show and as a presenter at the Oscars.
The ’70s, though, were also a difficult decade. Her second marriage, to publicist Patrick Curtis — he produced her 1965 film A Swingin’ Summer — fell apart in 1972, after she learned he’d cheated on her. “I couldn’t stand that my husband was being unfaithful,” she said afterward. “I am Raquel Welch, understand?”
She would marry twice more, to French producer Andre Weinfeld (from 1980-90) and to restaurateur Richard Palmer (1999-2003). But perhaps the roughest patch of her career came during the next decade, as she entered her 40s.
A dispute with MGM over her casting in a 1982 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row ended up in court after the studio fired her a few weeks into production, claiming she was showing up late for early morning rehearsals. Welch ultimately ended up winning about $10 million in damages after she proved the studio was falsely blaming her for cost overruns and delays. Still, the case soured Hollywood on Welch, and she found herself blackballed by the film industry.
She found roles in TV movies (like the 1987 NBC drama Right to Die, about a woman with ALS), began a fitness and beauty career (with a video and book in 1984) and flirted with pop music (releasing a 1987 dance single “This Girl’s Back in Town”). But it wasn’t until Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) that she returned to the big screen, and it was for an uncredited role — playing herself.
There were a smattering of other appearances — a don’t-blink part in Legally Blonde (2001), a recurring role on PBS’ American Family — and TV guest spots (a 1996 episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, a 1997 installment of Seinfeld). In 1997, she also had a stint on Broadway in Victor/Victoria.
And even into her 70s, she continued appearing on talk shows (like Fox’s O’Reilly Factor in 2011, when she described herself as “somewhat conservative”) and on television (including a 2017 turn on the Canadian sitcom Date My Dad).
But for the most part, Welch spent her final years at home in Beverly Hills, living contentedly by herself. “I don’t like to have a man,” the woman who once described herself as “every male’s fantasy” told Piers Morgan in 2015. “Because I’m too set in my ways. I like what I do. I actually enjoy being me, and I make a very good living at it and I’m happy.”
She is survived by son Damon Welch and daughter Tahnee Welch.
Abbey White contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story misidentified the title of Roustabout.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day