Hollywood actress Raquel Welch has died at the age of 82. The iconic film star passed away peacefully in Los Angeles on 15 February after a brief illness, her management company, Media Four has announced in a short statement.
She became an international sex symbol in the 1960’s, most famously remembered for playing a bikini-clad cavewoman in the 1966 fantasy movie, One Million Years B.C, which had followed an eye-catching performance in another sci-fi film: Fantastic Voyage. In a career spanning over five decades, Ms Welch appeared in more than 30 movies and 50 television shows. She won a Golden Globe in 1974 for her role in The Three Musketeers.
Alongside her acting career, Ms Welch was seen as a sex symbol, with Playboy calling her the “most desired woman” of the 1970’s. When the magazine produced their list of “100 Sexiest Stars of the Twentieth Century” she was ranked number three, behind only Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
She was married on four occasions, and after first separating in 2003 and later divorcing her fourth husband, Richard Palmer, Ms Welch vowed to never remarry.
From beauty pageant to movie set
She was born Jo Raquel Tejada on September 5, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, with her family then moving to San Diego in southern California when she was just two-years-old. As a teen she won beauty pageants and later became a local weather forecaster. In her early working life she modelled for the Neiman Marcus clothing store and worked as a cocktail waitress.
Her big break came in 1964 when she was cast in two small cameo roles for the films: A House is Not a Home, and the musical: Roustabout, which starred Elvis Presley. She then won a feature role in the beach film: A Swingin’ Summer the following year. Her stunning looks had begun to get her noticed and she quickly landed a contract with 20th Century Fox.
In an early example of her strong character she refused a request from studio executives to change name to “Debbie”. They believed that “Raquel” would be too difficult to pronounce, but she was having none of it and they eventually and somewhat reluctantly, backed down.
Although her talent was such that it was inevitable that she would be incredibly successful under any name, it is still hard to imagine her going by the name “Debbie Welch” it just does not have the same ring to it. Indeed, just as with Marilyn Monroe, people only had to use the star’s first name for her to be instantly identified in any form of media coverage; so whoever the executive was, they had a lucky escape.
It was in 1966 that her career really took off, first being handed a leading role in the sci-fi film: Fantastic Voyage, in which she portrayed a member of a medical team that is miniaturized and injected into the body of an injured diplomat, with the mission to save his life. Remember this was the sixties so this was cutting-edge stuff back then and the film was a massive hit, meaning that almost overnight she became a huge star.
Film to be forever remembered for
Then came what could arguably be said to be the defining moment in her film career, in a role where she actually only had three lines to speak. Fox loaned Ms Welch to Hammer Studios in the UK, where she would star in the fantasy film: One Million B.C. Her only costume which was a two-piece deer skin bikini, did not leave a great deal to the imagination and prompted the New York Times at that time to label her “a marvellous breathing monument to womankind.”
The publicity shot of her in the bikini which was used to promote the film raised her profile and stature to that of the leading sex symbol of the era. A poster of image became a bestseller and turned her into an instant pin-up.
Poster girl aids escape
Indeed, it is because of that particular poster that she is famously remembered in a movie she had nothing to do with. The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 seven-times Academy Award nominee, about a wrongfully convicted prisoner tunnelling himself out of his cell, has the character Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, concealing his handiwork work with three different posters over the course of his time locked up.
There is Rita Hayworth from Gilda, in which the actress played the wife of a casino kingpin; Marilyn Monroe’s billowing dress picture from the 1955: The Seven Year Itch; and then finally and most famously, Raquel Walsh’s image from: One Million Years B.C.
In a fantastic scene, when guards discover Dufresne’s cell empty, the corrupt warden Samuel Norton is furious and looking at Ms Welch’s image on the iconic poster he rages: “It’s a conspiracy! And everyone is in on it, even that cupcake on the wall; what do you say Miss Fuzzy Britches?” He then launches a rock at the poster revealing the tunnel that had been dug out with a rock hammer over the course of 19 years.
A little far-fetched, but still a wonderful film and one in which Raquel Welch is very much remembered.
Golden Globe success
Ms Welch developed her own unique persona which catapulted her to iconic status that carried her through the sixties and seventies. Her portrayal of strong female characters helped to rid the industry of the “dumb blonde bombshell” that Hollywood had favoured.
She fought against the traditional sex symbol interpretation and proudly won a Golden Globe in 1974 for her role in The Three Musketeers. She was nominated again for Best Actress in 1987 for her performance in the Television Film: Right to Die. She made many cameo appearances on hit TV shows including: The Muppet Show; Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Seinfeld, and Mork and Mindy.
Girl of many talents
Ms Welch also performed on stage, with one of her most notable roles coming on Broadway in a production of Victor/Victoria, following in the footsteps of Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli. As well as acting, she also sang and regularly performed a one-woman musical act in a Las Vegas nightspot. She even released a single, the dance track: “This Girl’s Back In Town”, which made the top thirty in the dance charts.
In 1994, Ms Welch received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, belatedly many felt, at 7021 Hollywood Boulevard. Then in 2001 she was awarded the “Imagen Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award” for her positive promotion of Americans of Latin heritage throughout her career.
In her later years she also used her image and name to release her own signature line of wigs, a jewellery and skincare collection, and a Mac Cosmetics makeup line.
Actress Reese Witherspoon wrote on Twitter: “Raquel was elegant, professional and glamorous beyond belief.” She added that she was “So sad to hear about her passing”, mentioning how much she loved working with her on Legally Blonde, calling her “Simply stunning.”
Actress Viola Davis said she was “ageless to me…iconic”.
“We will never forget our remarkable friend Raquel Welch, one of our favourite guests on The Muppet Show” the Disney series tweeted, referring back to when the actress sang alongside Miss Piggy.
Actor Paul Feig remarked how “kind and funny” she was; calling her a true superstar, who he said he was “Pretty much in love with for most of my childhood.” He had worked with Ms Welch on the TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch and spoke for many when stating: “We have lost a true icon.”
“There are people one aspires to be like and then there are those you know you will just never be like because they are just so individually undeniably themselves. Raquel Welch was one of those people. RIP.” was the heartfelt tribute left on Instagram by Little House on the Prairie actress Melissa Gilbert.
Hollywood actor Robert Wagner called Ms Welch an “incredibly gifted woman with such a beautiful soul”, sending his best wishes to her family and her children.
Four times married… and divorced
Raquel Welch was married four times; firstly marrying her high school sweetheart, James Welch, on May 8, 1959, and with whom she had two children, Damon Welch, born November 1959 and Latanne “Tahnee” Welch, born December 1961. Although they separated in 1962, finally divorcing in 1964, she still retained his surname right up to her death.
She then married producer Patrick Curtis in 1967, but divorced him in 1972. Then after an eight year gap she married again, this time to another producer, André Weinfeld. Their marriage lasted ten years before they divorced in 1990.
Finally, she wed Richard Palmer in 1999, but again this would not last and they separated in 2003, followed by a divorce some time later. Four was enough, and after Palmer, Ms Welch decided the marriage lark was not for her and said she would never to remarry; a vow which she upheld.
Flat refusal to perform naked
Despite her image as something of a sex temptress, Ms Welch continually expressed discomfort with the way her body was represented. As such a strong willed character she was able to successfully escape the “sex symbol” label cast upon her by producers and directors alike for early work, many of whom repeatedly tried, but ultimately failed, to get her to perform nude scenes. She always flatly refused.
Not even Hefner could change stance
When she posed for Playboy in 1979 she was asked to do a full nude shoot, but again she was having none of it. Hugh Hefner was to later write: “Raquel Welch, one of the last of the classic sex symbols, came from the era when you could be considered the sexiest woman in the world without taking your clothes off; she declined to do complete nudity, and I yielded gracefully.”
Ms Welch’s personal life could not be further removed from that which her screen image suggested. She once famously remarked: “What I do on the screen is not to be equated with what I do in my private life; I am understated and dislike any hoopla.” On another occasion she went further by saying: “I was not brought up to be a sex symbol, nor is it in my nature to be one. The fact that I became one is probably the loveliest, most glamorous and fortunate misunderstanding”.
She also addressed her mistaken image in her memoir, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage, in which she opened up about her childhood, her early career, and her suffering as a single mother in Hollywood.
Another great has left the set.