February 15, 2023
The death of Raquel Welch today at 82 — after what was reportedly a brief illness — is one of those wake-up calls that yes, everyone dies.
Though she'd mostly been in hiding following the cancellation of the Canadian series Date My Dad and the smashing success of her final film, How to Be a Latin Lover in 2017, Welch was one of those seemingly ageless figures with an ageless figure whose name instantly conjured images of beauty, glamour and sex appeal. She was part of the pop firmament, and I suppose still always will be.
Born September 5, 1940, as Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago, she grew up in San Diego.
She married her high school sweetheart, James Welch, who gave her her non-ethnic surname, in 1959, and began working in local plays. A job as a weather girl at KFMB was an early professional gig, but after her first of four divorces, she moved to Dallas, where it was back to cocktail waitressing for the aspiring performer.
Back in L.A., the single mom of two met former child actor Patrick Curtis (1939-2022). Curtis dined out on his uncredited appearance as Baby Beau Wilkes in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. It was he who, with Welch, hatched a plan to make her a sex star, a plan that worked in spades.
With great intention, the newly married couple secured Welch her very first movie work, playing a hooker in 1964's A House Is Not a Home with an all-star cast, a film whose theme song (by the very recently departed Burt Bacharach, 1928-2023, and his partner Hal David, 1921-2012) is now an American standard.
She had an uncredited bit part in the Elvis Presley (1935-1977) flick Roustabout (1964), also making appearances on such TV shows as The Virginian, McHale's Navy and Bewitched. She was passed over as Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island (1964-1966) — which might have taken that character in a different, more adversarial direction opposite resident bombshell Tina Louise (b. 1934) as Ginger.
Welch — she retained her married name strategically, in order to avoid advertising her status as a Latina (her dad was Bolivian, her mom of English descent) — became a household name soon enough without the S.S. Minnow, first as the star of the hit Fantastic Voyage and then for her iconic work as Loana in the campy One Million Years B.C., both in 1966.
Welch rocked a deerskin bikini in the latter, preposterous Hammer Studios film, but had the last laugh, as the movie's insipidity was drowned out by her immediate ascension to the rank of number-one sex symbol of the era.
A poster of Welch in her cavegirl bikini was a major plot point in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption.
The frothy spy film Fathom (1967) did not free Welch from the sex-symbol mold, but in a misguided effort to vary her film output, she said no to playing Jennifer in Valley of the Dolls (1967), a role Sharon Tate (1943-1969) was only too happy to grab.
Welch shone in the Peter Cook (1937-1995)/Dudley Moore (1935-2002) farce Bedazzled (1967), and her westerns Bandolero! (1967), with Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) and Dean Martin (1917-1995), and 100 Rifles (1969), with Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds, took critical drubbings, but had box-office appeal.
Sex scenes with Jim Brown (b. 1936) in 100 Rifles were highly controversial for what now seems a laughable reason — miscegenation.
Welch told Men's Health in 2012, "Maybe Jim got hate mail — I don’t know. I never got any hate mail. And the studio never called me and said, 'Oh, boy, we’re going to have to do some damage control. The reaction has not been good.' I mean, okay fine, I’m not brain-dead. I knew that it would probably be loaded for some people. And the studio might’ve thought it was a way to. ... market the movie. I was very much the girl of the moment, and to put me in a very sensual scene with Jim Brown, I can see how that might get a big reaction."
Her character also took a public shower to distract the enemy in that film, but Welch steadfastly refused nude scenes and nude poses, never baring all even though it was becoming more accepted to do so as a way to keep the public's interest.
Perhaps her greatest misstep was 1970's Myra Breckinridge, the film adaptation of Gore Vidal's (1925-2012) outrage-mining novel about a trans woman obsessed with Old Hollywood — and with wreaking havoc on all mankind. The film featured a tasteless genitalia reveal, a scene in which Raquel as Myra anally rapes a naive male acting student, and made greedy, irreverent use of clips from vintage movies, which infuriated some of the stars whose likenesses were used in what was considered it porn by some.
The rabidly negative critical reception (it does have a queer following of sorts) of the film was all the more disappointing for its a rare, late-career performance by Mae West (1893-1980), who was in her 70s but still vamping, and who did not get along well with Welch. Welch later recalled West demanding that she be the only one of the two allowed to wear costumes in black-and-white, and trying to upstage her younger co-star.
At a 2012 screening of the film at NYC's Lincoln Center, Welch whipped out a flawless West impersonation:
Though beaten up by critics, Welch went on to achieve an unqualified TV hit with her variety special Raquel! (1970), which showcased her singing and dancing. She did another in 1980.
She also appeared in the revenge western Hannie Caulder (1971), making her a rare woman anchoring a western. Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963) has confirmed the film was a major inspiration for him.
Other '70s films on her résumé: Kansas City Bomber (1971), a roller derby romp that led to her being called "the hottest thing on wheels"; and the cult-classic murder mystery The Last of Sheila (1973), considered one of the inspirations for the current Knives Out movies (2019 & 2022).
Welch snagged a Golden Globe for her comedy performance in The Three Musketeers (1973), which was her first and only major acting award. She went on to appear in its sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974), and starred with Bill Cosby (b. 1937) and Harvey Keitel (b. 1939) in the raucous Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976).
By 1979, Welch was on episodes of Mork & Mindy with Robin Williams (1951-2014), and was, as was so often required of her, lampooning her va-va-voom factor.
She made her Broadway debut replacing Lauren Bacall (1924-2014) in 1981's Woman of the Year. She would go on to have another success on Broadway in 1997 in Victor/Victoria, following Julie Andrews (b. 1935) and Liza Minnelli (b. 1946).
Welch famously sued MGM after being fired from the film Cannery Row (1982). The part went to Debra Winger (b. 1955), but over $10 million went to Raquel in a 1986 verdict.
Bouncing back, she starred in a best-selling series of workout videos under the brand The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program (1984), capitalizing on her status as one of the most beautiful women in the world. She also became a wig entrepreneur.
Some of her best work was in made-for-TV films, including The Legend of Far Walks Woman (1982) and the ALS drama Right to Die (1987).
Though she had worked hard to show off her triple-threat status, Welch was still thought of as "difficult. She mocked herself in Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Parody (1994) with an iconic self-parody on Seinfeld in 1997.
After a small but pivotal role in Legally Blonde (2001), Welch belatedly embraced her Hispanic heritage with the film Tortilla Soup (2001) and the TV series American Family (2002-2004).
She made appearances on 8 Simple Rules (2004) and CSI: Miami (2012); and gave her last two performances, in the surprise smash hit How to Be a Latin Lover and on the short-lived Canadian TV series Date My Dad, both in 2017.
Through it all, Welch hardly seemed to age, and her star power was never diminished, perhaps aided by going into virtual seclusion after that. To my knowledge, she was photographed just once — in 2021 — after 2017.
Along with Welch and Curtis, from whom she was divorced in 1972, she was also married to André Weinfeld (from 1980-1990) and Richard Palmer (from 1999-2004).
Welch is survived by her son Damon Welch (b. 1959), and her daughter Tahnee Welch (b. 1961), who is known for her work in Cocoon (1985) and Cocoon: The Return (1988).