Raquel Welch, the big-screen star of the 1960s and ’70s who gained fame in movies including Fantastic Voyage, One Million Years B.C., Myra Breckinridge and many others, died today after a brief illness. She was 82.
Her death was confirmed by her reps at Media 4 Management.
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Welch’s career spanned more than 50 years, 30 films and scores of TV series and appearances, including about a dozen visits to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson spanning two decades. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Imagen Foundation in 2001.
Born Jo Raquel Tejada on September 5, 1940, in Chicago, Welch’s family moved to San Diego when she was a toddler. She attended San Diego State on a theater arts scholarship and got her start as a local TV weathercaster before starting to land guest shots on such classics TV series as McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, The Virginian and others. Her breakout role came as Cora in the wild 1966 sci-fi pic Fantastic Voyage, also starring Stephen Boyd, Edmund O’Brien, Donald Pleasance and Arthur Kennedy. It followed the adventures of a group of people who are miniaturized along with a submarine and injected into the bloodstream of a nearly-assassinated scientist in an effort to save his life. But they only have an hour before they return to real size.
The film won Oscars for its visual effects and for Art Direction/Set Decoration and became a cult classic. It maintains a 91% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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Welch then starred as a clan cavewoman in the 1966 British film One Million Years B.C., another wild tale set in an age when humans and dinosaurs existed together. A slightly censored version was released in the U.S., and the film became a TV staple in later years.
She went on to star with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook in the London-set 1967 comedy Bedazzled and opposite James Stewart, Dean Martin and George Kennedy in the 1968 western Bandolero! Welch’s next major film was with Mae West and John Huston in the title role of Myra Breckinridge. Based on the satirical Gore Vidal novel that reportedly was the first whose main character underwent a sex-change operation, the 1970 film followed her character’s journey to Hollywood in search of stardom and a cut of her wealthy uncle’s estate. It was West’s final major film and Farrah Fawcett’s first.
Firmly established as a movie star, Welch continued her big-screen career opposite some of the era’s biggest stars. She appeared with Burt Reynolds in the 1972 cop comedy Fuzz; with Richard Burton in Bluebeard the same year; with James Coburn, Richard Benjamin and others in Herbert Ross’ The Last of Sheila, written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; and opposite Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed and Michael York in 1973 The Three Musketeers.
That pic earned Welch a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical and spawned a 1974 sequel, The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge. She also starred with Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel in the L.A.-set 1976 ambulance-crew romp Mother, Jugs & Speed.
Among her other films of the era was Kansas City Bomber, the 1972 drama set in then-popular world of roller derby, along with The Beloved (1971) and toplining the western Hannie Caulder with Robert Culp and Ernest Borgnine, also in 1971.
Welch never was shy to fight for herself and her place at the Hollywood table. In that context, she made a very different set of headlines in the 1980s when she sued MGM over being dumped from starring with Nick Nolte in Cannery Row.
Set to play an empathetic prostitute in the David S. Ward-helmed movie based on the work of John Steinbeck, Welch was booted off the project by the studio over a contract violation. She insisted on having her hair and makeup done at her home before coming to set every day.
MGM said no and replaced Welch with Debra Winger.
After trying to make peace by taking another role and being rebuffed by the studio then run by David Begelman, Welch hit back and sued MGM for $24 million.
Making headlines all over the world, Welch alleged in her suit that the studio had built the movie and its financing around her and then used the hair-and-makeup dispute as a way to get a younger actress in the hooker role.
The matter dragged on through the courts and appeals, but Welch ultimately was awarded a $10 million verdict in 1987 — which, of course, generated a whole new set of headlines for her.
Welch’s film career had ebbed by the late 1970s, and she began to do more TV work. She appeared in a couple of Season 2 Mork & Mindy episodes with Robin Williams in 1979 and continued to appear in telefilms throughout that decade and the 1980s.
Among her higher-profile roles of the era was the title character in The Legend of Walks Far Woman, the 1982 NBC telepic about a woman who kills her abusive husband. Another was in Right to Die, in which she toplined as a successful woman whose life is changed forever after her ALS diagnosis. The role earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
She later did a memorable cameo as herself in 1994’s Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, getting into a wrestling match onstage at the Oscars with Leslie Nielsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin, and briefly appeared as Mrs Windham-Vandermark in 2001’s Legally Blonde.
Welch also played herself in the classic 1997 Seinfeld episode “The Summer of George.” It featured the actress mistakenly presenting a Tony Award to Michael Richards’ Kramer, with unexpected repercussions. The final episode of the all-timer series’ penultimate season also featured the classic “catfight” between Welch and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes.
Other 1990s TV guest roles included Evening Shade — reuniting with Reynolds — Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Lois & Clark and multiple episodes of Spin City and C.P.W. Her small-screen credits since then include a recurring role on the 2002 PBS series American Family, which starred Edward James Olmos and Sonia Braga, along with 8 Simple Rules, CSI: Miami, telefilm House of Versace, the short-lived CBS sitcom Welcome to the Captain and the Canadian comedy Date My Dad.
Since the 1960s and throughout her career, Welch appeared on scores of TV talk, game and awards shows. She hosted Saturday Night Live during its first season in 1976, was a presenter at multiple Academy Awards and Tony Awards ceremonies, appeared on Bob Hope comedy specials and toplined her own specials in 1970, 1974 and 1980. Her 1970 CBS special Raquel! showcased Welch’s comedy, dancing and singing skills, earning a 51% share.
She also was a guest on Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and talk or variety shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Craig Ferguson, Bonnie Hunt, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Merv Griffin and others.
Welch also appeared twice on Broadway. The first time in 1981, when she filled in for a vacationing Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year. In 1997, she played the lead role of Victoria Grant in Victor/Victoria, replacing original star Julie Andrews.
Despite her Golden Globes win and nom, Welch never earned an Oscar or Emmy nomination during her long career. But other accolades include an ALMA Award in 2001, a Western Heritage Award for The Legend of Walks Far Woman and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996.
Welch is survived by her son, Damon Welch, and daughter, Tahnee Welch.
Dominic Patten contributed to this report.
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