Raquel Welch, actress and '60s sex symbol, is dead at 82

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Raquel Welch, actress and '60s sex symbol, is dead at 82
Raquel Welch, left, with the designer Diane von Furstenberg at a gala in Los Angeles on Jan. 10, 2014. Welch, the voluptuous movie actress who became the 1960s’ first major American sex symbol and maintained that image in a show business career that lasted a half-century, died on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at her home in Los Angeles. She was 82. (Emily Berl/The New York Times)

by Anita Gates

NEW YORK, NY.- Raquel Welch, the voluptuous movie actress who became the 1960s’ first major American sex symbol and maintained that image for a half-century in show business, died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 82.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Damon Welch. No cause was given.

Welch’s Hollywood success began as much with a poster as with the film it publicized. Starring in “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) as a Pleistocene-era cave woman, she posed in a rocky prehistoric landscape, wearing a tattered doeskin bikini, and grabbed the spotlight by the throat with her defiant, alert-to-everything, take-no-prisoners stance and her dancer’s body. She was 26. It had been three years since Marilyn Monroe’s death, and the industry needed a goddess.

Camille Paglia, the feminist critic, described the poster photograph as “the indelible image of a woman as queen of nature.” Welch, she went on, was “a lioness — fierce, passionate and dangerously physical.”

When Playboy in 1998 named the 100 sexiest female stars of the 20th century, Welch came in third — right after Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Brigitte Bardot was fourth.

The critics were often unkind. Throughout her career, Welch was publicly admired more for her anatomy than for her dramatic abilities. She even called her 2010 book — a memoir cum self-help guide — “Beyond the Cleavage.”

But when she had a chance to show off her comic abilities, the critics were kinder. Welch won a Golden Globe for her role in Richard Lester’s 1973 adaptation of “The Three Musketeers”; her character was a hopelessly klutzy 17th-century Frenchwoman torn between two lives — as a landlord’s wife and the queen’s seamstress.

Despite a career based largely on sex appeal, Welch repeatedly refused to appear nude on screen. “Personally, I always hated feeling so exposed and vulnerable” in love scenes, she wrote in her memoir, noting that even when she appeared in a prestigious Merchant Ivory film (“The Wild Party,” 1975), the filmmakers, those acclaimed arbiters of art-house taste, pressured her to do a nude bedroom scene, to no avail.

“I’ve definitely used my body and sex appeal to advantage in my work, but always within limits,” she said. But, she added, “I reserve some things for my private life, and they are not for sale.”

Jo-Raquel Tejada was born in Chicago on Sept. 5, 1940, the oldest of three children of Armando Carlos Tejada, a Bolivian-born aeronautical engineer, and Josephine Sarah (Hall) Tejada, an American of English descent. They had met as students at the University of Illinois.

When Raquel was 2, the family moved to Southern California for her father’s work in the war effort. At 7, encouraged by her mother, she enrolled at San Diego Junior Theater, where her only early disappointment was being cast in her first play as a boy. She began ballet classes the same year and continued to study dance for a decade.

After graduating from La Jolla High School in San Diego, where her nickname was Rocky, she received a scholarship — thanks to success in local beauty pageants — to study theater at San Diego State College. But she dropped out at 19 to marry her high school boyfriend, James Wesley Welch. Because of her local celebrity, she landed a job as the “weather girl” on KFMB, a San Diego television station.

The birth of her two children complicated her career plans, but she soon left her husband — “the most painful decision of my entire life,” she called it — and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. (They divorced in 1964.)

She had hoped to move to New York instead, she recalled. But the trip would have been prohibitively expensive, and, anyway, she didn’t own a winter coat.

It was not long before Raquel Welch had a contract with a major studio, 20th Century Fox. She had early hopes of making her big-screen debut in a James Bond movie; producer Albert R. Broccoli wanted her for “Thunderball.” But that dream was quashed when she was cast in “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), a science fiction film about scientists reduced to microscopic size to travel inside a diseased human body. Then came “One Million Years B.C.,” and that did it.

“There’s a certain thing about that white-hot moment of first fame that is just pure pain,” Welch said in an interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine in 2001. “It’s just not comfortable. I felt like I was supposed to be perfect. And because everybody was looking at me so hard, I felt there was so much to prove.”

She appeared in some two dozen films over the next decade, perhaps most notably “Myra Breckinridge” (1970), based on Gore Vidal’s campy novel, in which she played a glamorous transgender woman, and “The Last of Sheila” (1973), a semi-campy murder mystery with a luxury-yacht setting and a script by Stephen Sondheim.

Some of her most memorable roles were small ones. In “Bedazzled” (1967), Stanley Donen’s Faustian fantasy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, she played Lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins; in “The Magic Christian” (1969), with Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, her character’s name was Mistress of the Whip.

Welch had love scenes with former football star Jim Brown in “100 Rifles” (1969), a Western set in Mexico. She followed “The Three Musketeers” with its 1974 sequel, but those films never led to the sophisticated comedy opportunities she had hoped for. (She did, however, have a memorable chance to display her comedic side years later, when she played herself in a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld.”)

After “Mother, Jugs and Speed” (1976), a farce about ambulance drivers (which also starred Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel), her screen acting was limited mostly to television guest appearances.

But she had already discovered the joys of stage work. Inspired after seeing Frank Sinatra’s nightclub act, Welch made her club debut, singing and dancing, at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1973. Eight years later she made her Broadway debut, hired as a two-week vacation replacement for Lauren Bacall in the hit musical “Woman of the Year.” Her reviews were so admiring (Mel Gussow’s in The New York Times ended by writing, “One hopes that Miss Welch will soon find a musical of her own”) that she returned the next year for a six-month stint in the role.

“The first minute I stepped out on that stage and the people began applauding,” she told the Times later, “I just knew I’d beaten every bad rap that people had hung on me.” She returned to Broadway in 1997, replacing Julie Andrews for seven weeks in “Victor/Victoria.”

In 1987, Welch published “The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program,” which included exercises based on the principles of hatha yoga. She released a companion video with the same title.

Few thought of Welch as a Latina actress, but she embraced that identity late in her career, starring as a melodramatic Mexican American aunt on “American Family,” a PBS series (2002). She learned to speak Spanish in her 60s; her father had not allowed the language to be spoken at home when she was growing up.

Her last film was “How to Be a Latin Lover” (2017), a comic drama about an aging gigolo, played by Eugenio Derbez. She played his new target — a disarming, too-glamorous-to-be-true grandmother. Her final television appearances were on “Date My Dad” (2017), a Canadian American series, in a recurring role as the leading man’s Mexican mother-in-law.

Welch was married and divorced four times. After James Wesley Welch, her husbands were Patrick Curtis (1969-72), a producer; André Weinfeld (1980-90), a French director and producer; and Richard Palmer (1999-2008), a restaurateur.

In addition to her son, Raquel Welch is survived by her daughter, Tahnee Welch, and a brother, Jimmy Tejada.

In her late 70s, Welch was still followed by photographers, and reporters were still commenting on her appearance. In 2001, she answered questions about fashion and style in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“Style has to have substance,” she said. “It has to have fire.” Praising synergy, instinct, imagination and attitude over trendiness and fashion-magazine dictates, she concluded, “It’s about being yourself on purpose.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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