The first significant American sex symbol of the 1960s and a show business icon for the next 50 years, Raquel Welch passed away on Wednesday at her Los Angeles home. She was 82 years old.
Her son Damon Welch announced her passing. The reason wasn’t stated.
Ms. Welch’s breakthrough in Hollywood began with a poster just as much as it did with the movie it promoted. She played a Pleistocene era cave lady in the 1966 film “One Million Years B.C.,” posing in a rocky prehistoric setting while wearing a torn doeskin bikini. With her rebellious, alert-to-everything, take-no-prisoners stance and dancer’s figure, she took the spotlight by the throat. She was 26 years old. The industry needed a goddess because it had been four years since Marilyn Monroe had passed away.
The feminist philosopher Camille Paglia called the billboard image “the unforgettable image of a woman as queen of nature.” She continued, calling Ms. Welch “a lioness” who was “fierce, passionate, and dangerously physical.”
In the 1966 film that catapulted Ms. Welch to fame, she portrayed a Pleistocene-era cavewoman.
Ms. Welch was third among the 100 sexiest female stars of the 20th century, behind only Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, according to Playboy in 1998. In fourth place was Brigitte Bardot.
The critics were frequently harsh. Throughout her career, Ms. Welch received more praise from the general public for her physique than for her acting prowess. She even gave the title “Beyond the Cleavage” to her memoir and self-help book from 2010!
However, they were friendlier when she got a chance to showcase her comedic skills. Ms. Welch received a Golden Globe award for her performance in Richard Lester’s 1973 production of “The Three Musketeers,” in which she played a hopelessly awkward 17th-century Frenchwoman who was trapped between two lives as the queen’s seamstress and a landlord’s wife.
Ms. Welch frequently declined to go nude on camera despite having a job that relies heavily on sex appeal. In her memoir, she noted that even when she appeared in a prestigious Merchant Ivory film (“The Wild Party,” 1975), the filmmakers, those renowned arbiters of art-house taste, pressured her to do a nude bedroom scene, to no avail. “Personally, I always hated feeling so exposed and vulnerable” in love scenes, she wrote.
It’s true that I’ve benefited from my body and sex appeal in my career, but I’ve always stayed within the law, she claimed. I reserve some things for my private life, though, and they are not for sale, she continued.
Due to her father’s job in the war effort, the family relocated to Southern California when Raquel was 2 years old. At age 7, her mother pushed her to attend at San Diego Junior Theater, where her only first setback was being cast as a guy in her first performance. She started taking ballet lessons that year and studied dancing for ten more years.
She earned a scholarship to study drama at San Diego State College after graduating from La Jolla High School in San Diego, where she was known by the moniker Rocky. This was made possible by her success in regional beauty pageants. However, she left school at age 19 to wed James Wesley Welch, her high school sweetheart. She was hired as the “weather girl” on KFMB, a San Diego television station, as a result of her local fame.
Her professional goals were hampered by the birth of her two children, but she quickly separated from her husband, calling it “the most difficult decision of my entire life,” and relocated to Los Angeles to pursue acting. (In 1964, they got divorced.)
She remembered that she had intended to relocate to New York. However, the cost of the trip would have been unaffordable, and she was without a winter coat anyhow.
She soon signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, a major studio. When “Thunderball” producer Albert R. Broccoli recruited her, she had early dreams of making her big-screen debut in a James Bond film. But that goal was dashed when she was cast in the science fiction movie “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), which was about scientists who were shrunk to tiny size and traveled inside a sick person’s body. One Million Years B.C. followed, and it was the turning point.
According to Ms. Welch, “that white-hot moment of first fame is just pure anguish.” She made this statement in a 2001 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine. Simply said, it’s uncomfortable. I had the impression that I should be flawless. And I felt like I had a lot to prove because everyone was looking at me so closely.
Over the following ten years, she made appearances in about two dozen movies, perhaps most notably “Myra Breckinridge” (1970), which was based on the campy novel by Gore Vidal and featured her as a glamorous transgender woman, and “The Last of Sheila” (1973), a semi-campy murder mystery with a setting on a luxury yacht and a script by Stephen Sondheim.
Small roles were some of her most enduring ones. She played Lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, in Stanley Donen’s Faustian fantasy “Bedazzled” (1967), starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; in Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr’s “The Magic Christian” (1969), she played Mistress of the Whip.
In the 1969 western film “100 Rifles,” which was set in Mexico, Ms. Welch and the former football great Jim Brown had passionate sequences. She watched the 1974 sequel to “The Three Musketeers” after it came out, but she never got the chance to do the kind of intellectual comedies she had intended to. (Years later, she did get a memorable chance to show off her humorous side when she played herself in a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld,” though.)
Her screen acting was mainly confined to television guest roles after the 1976 comedy “Mother, Jugs and Speed,” which also starred Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel and was about ambulance drivers.
But she had already experienced the fun of performing on stage. Ms. Welch was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s nightclub performance and made her club debut at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1973, singing and dancing. Eight years later, she made her Broadway debut in the popular musical “Woman of the Year,” taking Lauren Bacall’s place for a two-week vacation. She returned the following year for a six-month run in the part thanks to the rave accolades she received (Mel Gussow concluded his review of her in The New York Times by writing, “One hopes that Miss Welch will soon find a musical of her own”).
She later reflected, “I just knew I’d defeated every nasty rap that people had hung on me the first minute I stepped out on that stage and the crowds began applauding. In 1997, she made a comeback to Broadway, taking over for Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria” for seven weeks.
The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program, which featured workouts based on hatha yoga’s tenets, was issued by Ms. Welch in 1987. The same-titled companion video was also published by her.