Joan Weldon, Actress Pursued by Giant Ants in 'Them!,' Dies at 90

Joan Weldon
Courtesy Everett Collection

Joan Weldon

The Warner Bros. contract player also appeared in several Westerns and was a standout in the world of musical theater.

Joan Weldon, the actress and singer dubbed "filmdom's fairest exterminator" after her turn as a young scientist investigating giant, radiation-mutated ants in the 1954 sci-fi classic Them!, has died. She was 90.

Weldon died Feb. 11 at her home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, her family announced.

A onetime contract player at Warner Bros., Weldon during her heyday appeared in several Westerns, including The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) and Riding Shotgun (1954) opposite Randolph Scott; The Command (1954) with Guy Madison; Gunsight Ridge (1957) alongside Joel McCrea; and Day of the Badman (1958) with Fred MacMurray.

On the stage, she starred for three years as Marian the Librarian opposite Forrest Tucker in the original national tour of The Music Man, then played a countess alongside Alfred Drake on Broadway in 1961's Kean.

Weldon also toplined a national tour of Oklahoma! with Them! co-star Fess Parker in 1963, and a year later she became the first performer on the stage at the New York State Theater/Lincoln Center, portraying Natalie in a revival of The Merry Widow.

In Them!, her Dr. Pat Medford and her father (Edmund Gwenn) are myrmecologists brought on after strange footprints are discovered in a New Mexico desert. It turns out the prints were created by ants mutated by radiation released from an atomic bomb test.

"I didn't think much of Them! when I read the script; I just knew that [her character] was a scientist, and I was hoping that somewhere along the line there would be some romance or love interest," Weldon told Tom Weaver in an undated interview. "But [director] Gordon Douglas didn't want to refer to any kind of romance whatsoever. It was totally devoid of any interplay with anybody. The ants were supposed to be the star. Basically, it was an anti-war, anti-nuclear message [film].

"Jack Warner was unenthusiastic about Them!; so was an executive named Steve Trilling," she added. "Even Gordon Douglas didn't take it seriously when he was first assigned to it. He said at one point that they should get Martin & Lewis to star in the thing!"

Them!, however, received an Oscar nomination for special effects, was one of Warners' highest-grossing films of the year and spawned a series of "big bug" horror movies in Hollywood.

Joan Louise Welton was born in San Francisco on Aug. 5, 1930. Her mother died when she was 6, and she was raised by her grandmother. While a student at Galileo High School, she made her first public singing appearance as a member of the San Francisco Opera company chorus, at 16 its youngest singer under contract.

After a performance with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, she was signed by Warners, where execs changed her last name to Weldon and gave her $250 a week. She then made her film debut in the crime drama The System (1953).

Weldon said she worked six days a week as she made eight pictures in rapid fire, culminating with Them! and the MGM musical Deep in My Heart (1954), directed by Stanley Donen.

In her conversation with Weaver — he dubbed her "filmdom's fairest exterminator" — the actress said Them! was a "very tough picture to make, because of the heavy wool suit that I wore. We were in the Mojave Desert, and it was 110 in the shade. Poor Teddy [Gwenn], he had a suit and a tie and a hat, and I had the hat and the high heels and the hose. And, in those days, you wore girdles, and they were heavy!"

Weldon later hosted the 1955 TV show This Is Your Music and appeared on such series as The Millionaire, Cheyenne, Perry Mason, Have Gun — Will Travel and Maverick and in the 1958 film Home Before Dark, her final onscreen credit.

Survivors include her husband of 56 years, David; daughter Melissa; grandchildren Sienna, Alexander and Ella; and stepdaughter Claudia.