United States actress Raquel Welch — whose emergence from the sea in a skimpy, furry bikini for the film One Million Years BC propelled her to international sex symbol status throughout the 1960s and ’70s — has died. She was 82.
Welch passed away early on Wednesday after a brief illness, according to her agent, Stephen LaManna of the talent agency Innovative Artists.
Welch’s breakthrough came in 1966’s campy prehistoric flick One Million Years BC, despite having a total of three lines. Clad in a brown doeskin bikini, she successfully evaded pterodactyls but not the notice of the public.
“I just thought it was a goofy dinosaur epic we’d be able to sweep under the carpet one day,” she told The Associated Press in 1981. “Wrong. It turned out that I was the Bo Derek of the season, the lady in the loin cloth about whom everyone said, ‘My God, what a bod’, and they expected to disappear overnight.”
She did not. Instead, the very next year, she played the role of Lust for the comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their film Bedazzled, as well as a secret agent in a sexy spy spoof called Fathom.
Her curves and beauty captured pop-culture attention, with Playboy crowning her the “most desired woman” of the 1970s, although she never appeared completely naked in the magazine. In 2013, she graced the No. 2 spot on Men’s Health’s “Hottest Women of All Time” list. And in the film The Shawshank Redemption, a poster of Welch covers an escape tunnel — the last of three images character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) used, alongside posters of Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe.
Admirers took to Twitter to mourn the star, including TV host Rosie O’Donnell and actor Chris Meloni. Writer-director Paul Feig, who worked with Welch on the TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, called her “kind, funny and a true superstar whom I was pretty much in love with for most of my childhood”. He added: “We’ve lost a true icon.”
In addition to acting, Welch was a singer and dancer. She surprised many critics and won positive reviews when she starred in the 1981 musical Woman of the Year on Broadway, replacing a vacationing Lauren Bacall. She returned to the Great White Way in 1997 for the musical comedy Victor/Victoria.
She knew some people did not take her seriously because of her glamorous image. “I’m not Penny Marshall or Barbra Streisand,” she told the Associated Press in 1993. “They’ll say, ‘Raquel Welch wants to direct?’ Give me a break’.”
Welch was born Jo-Raquel Tejada in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in La Jolla, California. (The Jo in her name was from her mother, Josephine.) Welch herself was a divorced mother when she met actor-turned-press agent Patrick Curtis.
“The irony of it all is that, even though people thought of me as a sex symbol, in reality I was a single mother of two small children!” she wrote in her autobiography, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage.
This is so sad. I had the great pleasure of working with Ms. Welch when I was a regular on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and she was awesome. Kind, funny and a true superstar whom I was pretty much in love with for most of my childhood. We’ve lost a true icon. https://t.co/7RWiSn9e4P
— Paul Feig (@paulfeig) February 15, 2023
Curtis became her manager and second husband. He helped shape her into a glamor girl with hundreds of magazine covers and a string of movies, plus exercise videos and books like The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program.
Although she would appear in exploitative films, she also surprised many in the industry with fine performances, including in Richard Lester’s period piece The Three Musketeers, which earned her a Golden Globe. She was also acclaimed for her role in the Merchant Ivory comedy-drama The Wild Party, opposite James Coco.
Another Globe nomination came in 1988 for the TV movie Right to Die. She later played herself and mocked divas in an episode of the TV sitcom Seinfeld, memorably attacking the character Elaine and rattling her friend Kramer.
Married and divorced four times, she is survived by two children, Damon Welch and Tahnee Welch, who also became an actress, including landing a featured role in the 1985 science-fiction film Cocoon.