Hollywood Flashback: When Raquel Welch, Fired and Replaced by an Actress 15 Years Younger, Sued MGM (and Won)

Raquel Welch Sued MGM - H 2015
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Raquel Welch Sued MGM - H 2015

"What they did was use me to get financing for the movie, then they dumped me for Debra [Winger], which they’d been planning all along," says Welch, who filed a $24 million breach of contract suit when the company abruptly booted her from the lead role of 1982's 'Cannery Row.'

This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In 1981, Raquel Welch was an unlikely heroine in the fight for actors’ rights. A few weeks into shooting MGM’s Cannery Row, the actress, then 40, abruptly was fired from her lead role opposite Nick Nolte in the film based on the John Steinbeck novel. The studio claimed Welch’s insistence on doing her hair and makeup at home rather than on set was a violation of her $250,000 pay-or-play contract. She immediately was replaced by Debra Winger, then 25, as the movie’s hooker with a heart of gold.

At first, Welch said she’d go along with the change if she were offered another film role. But the studio, then run by David Begelman, declined. Then all hell broke loose. Welch filed a $24 million breach of contract suit that was front-page news in The Hollywood Reporter. “What they did was use me to get financing for the movie, then they dumped me for Debra, which they’d been planning all along,” says Welch, now 75. “The really Machiavellian part of this is that Debra and I were represented by the same agency.”

When the suit went to trial, Welch had a highpowered attorney in Edward Mosk. In his closing arguments, Mosk said the case was an example of “arrogant corporate executives acting without regard for human beings.” MGM’s lawyer said the studio fired Welch because she was a “temperamental actress ... who, if she could not have her own way, refused to talk to the producer [and] director.” The jury sided with Welch, who reacted to the verdict by raising both fists in the air. Seven years later, an appeals court upheld the ruling in the “bad-faith discharge case” and awarded her $10 million ($20 million today), $8 million of which was for punitive damages.

Welch says that despite the win, she wishes the whole episode never had happened. “I needed to clear my name,” she says. “But since that time, I’ve never starred in a major motion picture. That’s not the outcome I was looking for.” Welch ended up making more money from Cannery Row than MGM did: The $11 million production earned $5 million domestically.