Raquel Welch Dead: ‘Legally Blonde’ Star Was 82

Raquel Welch, the actor who became an icon and sex symbol thanks to films like “One Million Years B.C.” and “Three Musketeers,” died Wednesday in Los Angeles after a brief illness, her manager confirmed to Variety. She was 82.

She came onto the movie scene in 1966 with the sci-fi film “Fantastic Voyage” and the prehistoric adventure “One Million Years B.C.,” the latter of which established Welch as a sex symbol. The actor went on to appear in the controversial adaptation of Gore Vidal’s “Myra Beckrinridge,” “Kansas City Bomber” and Richard Lester’s delightful romps “The Three Musketeers” (1973), for which she won a Golden Globe, and “The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge” (1974). She was one of the first women to play the lead role — not the romantic interest — in a Western, 1971 revenge tale “Hannie Caulder” — an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (2003), according to the director.

(Earlier, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford toplined 1952’s “Rancho Notorious” and 1954’s “Johnny Guitar,” respectively, but these were Western roles in which each actor held court, in effect; they didn’t ride the lonesome trail — like Clint Eastwood or Welch — bent on righting wrongs.)

Welch also showed some grit in the 1972 roller derby movie “Kansas City Bomber.” Variety said the film “provides a gutsy, sensitive and comprehensive look at the barbaric world of the roller derby. Rugged, brawling action will more than satisfy those who enjoy that type of commercial carnage, while the script explores deftly the cynical manipulation of players and audiences. Raquel Welch, who did a lot of her own skating, is most credible as the beauteous but tough star for whom team owner Kevin McCarthy has big plans. At the same time, Welch is torn between her professional life and her two fatherless children.”

Also in 1972, Welch appeared as a female cop who serves as a decoy in the hunt for a rapist in the police farce “Fuzz,” starring Burt Reynolds. The New York Times said: “The straightest performance is given by Raquel Welch, who isn’t around much of the time. When she is, she looks as irritated, but as resolutely patient, as Gloria Steinem defending women’s rights on a TV talk show.”

In 1973 she was part of the all-star ensemble for “The Last of Sheila,” a Herbert Ross-directed mystery movie famous for having been scripted by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Welch appeared along with Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, James Mason and Ian McShane.

In an effort, perhaps, to recapture the magic of the successful “Musketeer” films, Richard Fleischer directed 1978’s “The Prince and the Pauper” (aka “Crossed Swords”), a period drama loosely based on the Mark Twain novel, with lots of swashbuckling adventure thrown in and an impressive cast assembled: Oliver Reed (who’d played one of the musketeers), Welch, Mark Lester (the star of “Oliver!”) as the identical boys Edward and Tom, Ernest Borgnine, George C. Scott, Rex Harrison and David Hemmings.

After guesting on “Mork and Mindy” in 1979, Welch appeared in a series of TV movies during the 1980s, a couple of which brought her critical acclaim.

She starred in and produced, under the Racquel Welch Productions banner, an adaptation of the Colin Stuart novel “The Legend of Walks Far Woman,” and in the words of TCM, “made a personal crusade” of getting it on the air after NBC was reluctant to broadcast it — but finally did in 1982. In this Western drama set in the late 19th century, based on a true story and featuring almost entirely Native American or Latino actors, Welch’s Pikuni Blackfoot Indian Walks Far Woman is married to a Sioux warrior who suffers a concussion and subsequently becomes violently abusive, forcing her to defend herself by killing him; the Sioux tribe reacts by banishing her.

In the 1987 TV movie “Right to Die,” Welch starred as a successful woman who’s diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and ultimately finds her living situation impossible to endure; Welch drew a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

Welch guested on “Evening Shade” in 1993 and on “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” in 1995 as TV news reporter Diana Stride, who wants to discover the true identity of Superman and expose him to the public; she also made guest appearances on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” in 1996, as herself on a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld” and on a 2004 episode of “8 Simple Rules.”

Welch appeared on Broadway twice, replacing Lauren Bacall in the starring role of Tess Harding in the hit musical “Woman of the Year” in the early ’80s and replacing Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria” in 1997.

In more recent years Welch had starred as Aunt Dora, the eccentric sister to Edward James Olmos’ Jess Gonzalez, on the 2002 PBS series “American Family: Journey of Dreams,” the first drama series ever to air on broadcast television featuring a Latino cast; in 2001 she appeared in “Legally Blonde,” starring Reese Witherspoon, and in Maria Rispoll’s “Tortilla Soup,” a remake of Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” in which she played the romantic interest for Hector Elizondo.

Welch was a series regular, playing a former soap star, on CBS’ brief 2008 comedy “Welcome to the Captain,” set in a Hollywood apartment building and also featuring Jeffrey Tambor, and she guested on “CSI: Miami” in 2012 as the matriarch of a very powerful Miami family.

Most recently she appeared in a pair of TV movies, Lifetime’s “House of Versace” in 2013 and the Hallmark Channel’s “The Ultimate Legacy” in 2015.

Jo Raquel Tejada was born in Chicago to a mother who could trace her ancestry to the Mayflower and a father from Bolivia. The family moved to San Diego, where the young girl took ballet and acting lessons; as a teen she won beauty contests. Welch also did some professional modeling.

She made her screen debut as one of the call girls in Russel Rouse’s film “A House Is Not a Home” (1964). That year she also made an uncredited appearance in the Elvis Presley movie “Roustabout.”

She did some TV guesting work and appeared in the beach party movie “A Swingin’ Summer” in 1965.

Twentieth Century Fox signed her to a contract, and by 1966 she was among the stars of “Fantastic Voyage” alongside Stephen Boyd. The medical sci-fi film concerned an important scientist suffering from a possibly fatal blood clot; a team of scientists and their vessel are shrunk down to microscopic size so they may enter his body and repair the damage. The film won Oscars for best visual effects and art direction. That same year, she appeared scantily clad in strips of fur in the prehistoric fantasy “One Million Years B.C.,” which made her into an international sex symbol.

The actor had no regrets about her career, but looks “at her sex-symbol years with mixed feelings,” she told the AP. “I enjoy the fact that I was celebrated in that capacity,” she said. “It was limiting, though. But the truth of the matter is that because my look was kind of exotic, I was never going to get cast in all the roles that I’d like to get cast in.”

Welch’s memoir “Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage” was published in 2010.

She became a successful businesswoman over time, launching “Raquel’s Total Beauty and Fitness Program” in the mid-’80s and more recently developing a line of wigs and hair extensions, as well as skin care products.

Welch was married four times, the first to publicist and agent James Welch, her high school sweetheart, from 1959-64; the second to director-producer Patrick Curtis from 1967-72; the third to producer, director and journalist André Weinfeld from 1980-90; and the fourth to Richard Palmer.

She is survived by a son, Damon Welch, and a daughter, actor Tahnee Welch.

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