Jo Raquel Tejada (September 5 1940 - February 15 2023)
Raquel Welch was the poster girl that launched a thousand dreams, one of the most desirable women of a generation. She spent much of her career fighting to be considered a serious actress. She was quoted as saying “I have exploited being a sex symbol and I have been exploited as one. I wasn’t unhappy with the sex goddess label. I was unhappy with the way some people tried to diminish, demean and trivialise anything I did professionally. But I didn’t feel that from the public.”
Born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago, Illinois, she was the first child of Armando Carlos Tejada Urquizo and Josephine Sarah Hall. Her father was an aeronautical engineer from La Paz, Bolivia. In fact her cousin, Lidia Gueilier Tejada, became the first female president of Bolivia. Her mother was the daughter of architect Emery Stanford Hall. She said her father was "volatile" and "terrifying" and she never saw any affection between her parents. She found escape in putting on plays in the garages of neighbours.
The family moved to San Diego when Welch was just two years old. She began studying ballet but quit after being told after ten years of study that she did not have the right body shape. While at High School she won the title of Miss La Jolla and Miss San Diego at the County Fair. She eventually triumphed as Maid of California. Her parents divorced after she finished her studies.
She set about pursuing a career in acting immediately after finishing high school with honours in 1958. She attended San Diego State College on a theatre arts scholarship and in 1959 married her high school sweetheart James Welch. After gaining roles in local theatre productions she got the job of the weather presenter on KFMB local San Diego television. She gave birth to two children, Damon and Tahnee and with the demands of her job and family life she gave up drama classes. After divorce from James she moved to Dallas, Texas with her children and scraped a living as a cocktail waitress and as a model.
She returned to Los Angeles in 1963 despite plans to move to New York. As she attempted to find roles at film studios she met Patrick Curtis, who would become her personal and business manager. The pair hatched a plan to market her as a sex symbol and she insisted on using her married name to avoid type casting as a Latina.
She was cast in a small role as a call girl in the film A House Is Not A Home (1964), which also featured a theme song penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Her second role was in the musical Roustabout (1964), an Elvis vehicle. She gained further small roles in television including Bewitched. She featured weekly on The Hollywood Palace as a billboard girl and presenter but her first feature role came in 1965, in the beach film A Swingin' Summer.
With her star rising, she created further buzz when she appeared in Life magazine in a feature entitled "The End of the Great Girl Drought". She almost landed the role of Domino in Bond feature Thunderball but a technicality on start dates for the production saw her miss out but she came to the attention of the wife of producer Saul David. Curtis and Welch won a seven year nonexclusive contract with 20th Century Fox for five films over five years and two "floaters". Executives tried to get her to change her name to Debbie but she stood her ground on her own name. She screen tested for Saul David's film Our Man Flint (1966) but was then cast for Fantastic Voyage (1966). This sci-fi adventure of a medical team miniaturized and injected into a scientist to attempt to save his life was the role that set her on her way.
She was then loaned to Hammer Studios in Britain to star in One Million Years BC (1966). This saw her don a costume of a two piece deer skin bikini and say merely three lines of dialogue. The New York Times described her turn as a "marvelous (sic) breathing monument to mankind." The publicity still became a best selling poster and catapulted her to stardom as a sex symbol of the age.
She appeared in three Italian productions in 1966 and an international anthology piece called The Oldest Profession (1967). She married Curtis on Valentine's Day in 1967. That same year her first vehicle role was in the British spy film Fathom (1967), filmed in Spain. Second Unit Director Peter Medak spoke of people commenting on her with disregard but he said she was determined and day by day improved. The Los Angeles Times film critic stated "Raquel can't act from here to there, but...(she was) born to be photographed." She was cast as Lust in the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy Bedazzled (1967), a swinging sixties retelling of the Faustian story set in London which proved popular. As did the western Bandolero! (1968) co -starring James Stewart and Dean Martin.
Her co-star, Edward G. Robinson, in the MGM film The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) commented "I must say she has quite a body. She has been the product of a good publicity campaign. I hope she lives up to it because a body will only take you so far."
She also starred alongside Frank Sinatra in Lady in Cement (1968). She confessed to struggling to remember to act when on screen with Sinatra.
100 Rifles (1969) was shot in Almería, Spain. The film developed a controversial profile with an onscreen depiction of interracial intimacy. On screen Welch distracted soldiers by showering under a water tower, but she refused demands to run naked in the desert with her rifle in hand. It was the beginning of a long running struggle in her career to resist calls to go nude on-screen. Meanwhile, off-screen, Welch engaged in two extramarital affairs during shooting with two Spanish actors. This provoked her husband to chase one of them at gunpoint through a hotel.
Attempts to change expectations
Her most controversial role came in Myra Breckinridge (1970) in which she played the transsexual heroine in an attempt to establish herself as a serious actress. She continued to work. Dubbed by Playboy as the Most Desired Woman of the 1970s her popularity continued to soar in the seventies, frequently hosting the Oscars. In 1971 she returned to Spain to film Hannie Caulder. and one of the first as a Western with a female lead. It would have a lasting influence on revenge films and cited as inspiration for Kill Bill: Volume I (2003) by Quentin Tarantino.
Welch divorced Patrick Curtis in 1972 and she started to take on roles that addressed gender roles in her work. Kansas City Bomber (1972) she played a single mother and roller derby star trying to manage her personal life and professional ambitions. She performed her own stunts and broke her wrist while filming. She filmed her cameo in Bluebeard while she was injured.
In December 1972 Welch made her nightclub debut at the Las Vegas Hilton, taking to the stage prior to the Elvis show. Over the next ten years she took her dancing and singing show to various venues across the country.
Welch achieved her greatest critical success as Constance in The Three Musketeers (1974) opposite Michael Yorke. She won a Golden Globe for her performance and reprised the role in the sequel the following year. The Wild Party (1975) was a Merchant Ivory production set around the demise of silent film. Welch felt the professional relationship on production was dead on arrival after she refused to do a bedroom scene naked.
Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976) saw Welch once again take on gender roles and themes of equality and discrimination but her film career began to slow before she was blackballed after successfully suing MGM after being fired from an adaptation of Cannery Row. She adjusted herself toward television. Highlights included appearing on The Muppet Show, singing with Miss Piggy and a guest role in an episode of Mork & Mindy.
Welch was convinced to pose for Playboy in 1979, but never did a fully nude shoot. Hugh Hefner later wrote, "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. The pictures prove her point." Welch refused to take all her clothes off on screen or pose naked throughout her career, insisting it was not the way she was raised.
Away from the Silver Screen
A Broadway stint deputizing for Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year in 1981 was so well received that she returned to reprise the role in 1982 for six months. Welch was among the candidates considered for the role of Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. She garnered more critical acclaim for her TV work, winning a Bronze Wrangler for Fictional Television Drama The Legends of Walks Far Woman (1982) and a nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Actress for Television Film Right to Die (1987) portraying a mother with Lou Gehrig's disease. Welch married producer André Weinfield in 1980, but the pair separated in 1990. They had worked together on producing her Beauty regime books and her multi platinum collection of fitness and yoga videos were produced and directed by Weinfield. Welch was also a very successful businesswoman with her line of wigs. Her beauty regime included abstinence from alcohol and tobacco along with yoga.
In the 1990s Welch returned to cinema with a cameo role in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) seventeen years since her last role and she made cameo appearances, especially sending up herself, something of a turn in her later career, including an episode of Sienfeld in 1997. She made her return to Broadway, following Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli in the title role of Victor/Victoria in 1997. Theatre critic Jamie Portman wrote that her glamor made Welch "scarcely believable as the vulnerable Victoria and totally unbelievable as the swaggering tuxedoed Victor", but that she at least "earns high marks for valor (sic)" for attempting to breathe life into "the misbegotten musical". Variety described her as “at best a pleasantly passable singer”, suiting “the costumes better than she does the vocal and acting requirements”.
Into the twilight
Welch tried her hand at personal happiness once more in 1999 when she married Richie Palmer, owner of Mulberry Street Pizzeria. He was engaged to actress Cathy Moriarty when he met Welch. The pair separated in 2003 and later divorced.
In 2001 she had a role in comedy Legally Blonde alongside Reese Witherspoon. Her last film role was to be How to Be a Latin Lover (2017)
Raquel Welch spent her life trying to get away from the label of sex symbol and to be recognised as a serious actress. A curious irony after it was a marketing device she had concocted herself. She admitted rather frankly ""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 helped to redefine the sex symbol iconography, moving away from the blonde bombshells of the 50s and leading the charge for the sultry, exotic brunette. She worked hard to break through the glass ceiling and attempted to tackle challenging themes of equality and gender in her work. Her poster pin up success saw her role as the deer skin bikini clad cavewoman as the cover for the unsuspected depth and determination of the escape plan from prison in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) .Welch will be remembered as an underestimated and determined individual that beat a path for those who came after her.
Raquel Welch passed away peacefully after a brief illness. She is survived by her children.