Raquel Welch had only three lines in the 1966 film “One Million Years B.C.,” but her doeskin bikini did all the talking, launching her as an international icon almost overnight.
Forever determined to prove that she was more than a sex object, Welch died Wednesday, according to her management company, Media Four. She was 82.
She was a La Jolla beauty queen turned single mom, but to the world, Welch was an exotic actor whose smoldering looks and curvy figure suited the mood of the swinging 1960s.
“I liked that there was something very superhero about her,” Welch told The Times in 2016, referring to her role as, Loana, the cave girl. “At least I wasn’t one of those mincing little girls; I never wanted to be that.”
Indeed, Welch had a complicated relationship with her persona. She was rarely taken as seriously as she carried herself as an actress. And though she proudly refused to do nude scenes, her fame was always tied directly to her sexuality, a fate she accepted with regret.
“There was this perception of ‘Oh, she’s just a sexpot. She’s just a body. She probably can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.'” she told Men’s Health in 2012.
In an era when men often considered women largely ornamental, Welch earned a reputation for being strong-willed and independent. In 1970, at the peak of her fame, she took a role that no one wanted as a transsexual woman in the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s bestseller “Myra Breckinridge.”
Welch said she asked to be in the film because she was a fan of Vidal’s novel and thought it would offer a dramatic role that might take her career in a new direction.
The film, perhaps, became best known for the fight she had on set with her co-star, Mae West, over who got to wear a black dress. But, she said, the final script was stripped of the book’s off-color humor and absurdity that she had so enjoyed. Welch ended up hating the finished project, as did audiences and critics.
“I couldn’t control that the script wasn’t coming together,” Welch said in her defense. “Each rewrite got further and further from making any sense.”
A decade later, Welch sued M.G.M. when the studio replaced her with a much younger, more affordable Debra Winger in the 1980 film version of John Steinbeck’s World War II-era novel “Cannery Row.”
Welch claimed the studio fired her because of her age and to save money, ruining her career just as she was poised to win recognition as a serious actress. The studio said she was let go for showing up late and taking too long in makeup.
After a six-year legal battle, she won a $14-million settlement. But in the process, she earned — rightly or wrongly — a reputation for being difficult, and her film career largely flickered out.
Welch blamed Hollywood’s reluctance to embrace older women for her diminished career.
“As life goes on, you get more valuable as a person. Many women look better,” she told The Times in 2010. ” I think I look better because I have lived, and I have a different kind of aura about me having lived.”
Born Jo-Raquel Tejada on Sept. 5, 1940, in Chicago, Welch was the oldest of three children. Her father was a Bolivian-born aeronautical engineer who moved his family to San Diego when Welch was a toddler to design aircraft during World War II.
He was a volatile man who bullied the household, especially her mother, a seamstress of English descent. Welch once threatened him with a fireplace poker to protect her mother.
A star student, Welch started winning beauty pageants when she was 14, ultimately earning the state title of Maid of California in 1958, the year she graduated from high school. Though she attended San Diego State University on a drama scholarship, she dropped out to get married and work as a weather girl at a local T.V. station.
Welch married her high school sweetheart, James Welch, and had two children by age of 21. After they separated, Welch moved to Los Angeles with her children to pursue acting. Within three years, she was a superstar.
She earned minor roles in popular T.V. shows and films, such as her turn as a coed in Elvis Presley’s “Roustabout.” She got her first lead role as a bikini-clad know-it-all in the 1965 film “A Swingin’ Summer.”
After a screen test opposite James Coburn for the 1965 James Bond spoof “Our Man Flint,” she became one of the last contract players at 20th Century Fox to sign a multi-year deal.
She said one of the studio’s first moves suggested changing her first name to Debbie, saying that Raquel “felt too ethnic.” She refused.
“I’m proud of my Bolivian heritage,” she told The Times years later.
She quickly landed a role as a doctor in the 1966 Oscar-winning drama “Fantastic Journey” and her career-making appearance in the prehistoric remake, “One Million B.C.” That film’s poster launched her to stardom.
“In one fell swoop, everything in my life changed, and everything about the real me has swept away,” she wrote in her 2010 memoir, “Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage.” “All else would be eclipsed by this bigger-than-life sex symbol.”
Welch became a pop culture icon, equal parts self-mocking bombshell and glamour-driven variety show host. She earned a Golden Globe for her demure role in the star-studded 1973 drama “The Three Musketeers.” Also, she starred in high-profile thrillers and comedies, such as the roller derby drama “Kansas City Bomber” and the neo-noir mystery “The Last of Sheila.”
In 1981, Welch starred on Broadway in the musical “Woman of the Year,” earning critical raves. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for portraying a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease in the 1987 T.V. drama “Right to Die.”
During the 1990s, Welch appeared in several T.V. shows, co-starring with Lauren Hutton in the drama “C.P.W.” in 1996, appearing in a recurring role on “Spin City” and even playing herself on an episode of “Seinfeld.”
In the 2000s, Welch embraced her Latin heritage by co-starring in PBS’ Golden Globe-nominated series “American Family,” about a Latino family struggling in Los Angeles. She also had a scene-stealing role in “Legally Blonde” opposite Reese Witherspoon.
In 2017, Welch co-starred in the ensemble comedy “How to be a Latin Lover” with Rob Lowe and Salma Hayek as the mother-in-law in the Up T.V. sitcom “Date My Dad.” More recently, she was known for developing her wig line.
Though she believed it held her back, she remained without regret taking on the sex kitten roles that propelled her early career.
“I am not a fool,” she explains. “I realized when I came along, I wasn’t Meryl Streep, who had been put into a bikini. I was somebody that got rocketed into the spotlight and superstardom overnight. I knew this would give me an opportunity, and I should make the best of it.”
She is survived by a son, Damon James Welch, and a daughter, Tahnee Welch.