Raquel Welch obituary

Raquel Welch, who has died aged 82, had only three lines as Loana in the 1966 film fantasy One Million Years BC but attained sex-symbol status from the role, in which she was dressed in a fur-lined bikini. The image made its imprint in popular culture and the publicity poster sold millions. The feminist critic Camille Paglia described the American actor’s depiction as “a lioness – fierce, passionate and dangerously physical”.

The tale of cavepeople coexisting with dinosaurs was Welch’s breakthrough film – and the beginning of a largely unsuccessful battle she waged to be taken seriously as an actor. When she arrived on set, she told the director, Don Chaffey, she had been thinking about her scene. She recalled his response as: “Thinking? What do you mean you’ve been thinking? Just run from this rock to that rock – that’s all we need from you.”

Ursula Andress, who had emerged from the sea in another famous bikini for the 1962 James Bond film Dr No, had turned down the role of Loana. It went to Welch, on contract to 20th Century Fox, when the American studio agreed to hire her out to the British company Hammer Films.

Welch had to contend with critics who believed her looks to count for more than any acting ability she possessed. It was true that the film was pure kitsch and noteworthy only for Ray Harryhausen’s remarkable special effects with stop-motion animation creatures – and for making Welch a star.

Nevertheless, Welch later showed her aptitude for comedy when she played Constance, the French queen’s married seamstress in love with Michael York’s D’Artagnan, in the 1973 swashbuckler The Three Musketeers, directed by Richard Lester. The performance won her a Golden Globe best actress award and she reprised the part in The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (1974).

She increasingly took roles on television and worked up an act as a nightclub singer that she took across the US. She showed her performing mettle when she made her Broadway stage debut, taking over from Lauren Bacall in the musical Woman of the Year at the Palace theatre (1981-83). In an updating of the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy 1942 movie of the same title, she gave a show-stopping performance as the TV news personality Tess Harding.

“When she makes her first appearance in a low-cut gold lamé gown, her attributes can be seen all the way to the mezzanine,” wrote the New York Times critic Mel Gussow, unable to ignore what Welch brought to the stage visually. “It would be inaccurate to say that Miss Welch is a better actress than Miss Bacall, but certainly at this stage of her career she is a more animated musical personality.”

Around that time, Welch said: “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.”

She was born Jo-Raquel Tejada in Chicago, Illinois, the first of three children, to Josephine (nee Hall) and Armando Tejada. Her father, an aeronautical engineer, was Bolivian. When Raquel was two, the family moved to San Diego, California, and, five years later, she joined the city’s junior theatre, attached to the city’s Old Globe, as well as starting ballet classes.

She said her father was volatile and terrifying, and she never saw any tenderness between her parents. One escape from this unsettled childhood came through putting on plays in the garage for friends and neighbours, using bedspreads for curtains.

On leaving La Jolla high school, San Diego, in 1958, she won a scholarship to study theatre arts at San Diego state college, but dropped out after a year to marry James Welch and became a weather presenter on KFMB, a San Diego television station.

After giving birth to two children, Damon and Tahnee, she left her husband, intending to follow her acting ambitions in New York. In the event, she worked as a model and cocktail waiter in Dallas, Texas, before moving to Los Angeles.

She was screen-tested by the producer Cubby Broccoli, who had seen her in a Life magazine photo-spread, for a part in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball, and signed up by 20th Century Fox. But a technicality involving start dates and contract options ruled out the Bond film and she was cast in Fantastic Voyage (1966), a big-budget sci-fi submarine saga, clad in a wetsuit.

After One Million Years BC, Welch – again in a bikini – played Lilian Lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, alongside Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Bedazzled (1967), a comedy irreverently resetting the Faust legend in 1960s swinging London.

Burt Reynolds and Jim Brown were the stars when she brandished a shotgun in the 1969 western 100 Rifles – another action role. But Welch made clear to the director, Tom Gries, that she would not be following his instruction to run naked through the desert with the weapon. She also disregarded attempts to get her to shower under a water tower minus her shirt.

Raquel Welch in the western 100 Rifles, 1969.
Raquel Welch in the western 100 Rifles, 1969. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

She returned to comedy for the satire The Magic Christian (1969) to play Priestess of the Whip alongside Peter Sellers’s millionaire who adopts the homeless Ringo Starr. She took top billing in Myra Breckinridge (1970), as a transgender movie critic, in a misjudged adaptation of Gore Vidal’s landmark novel.

Welch had the chance to shine in The Wild Party (1975), a period drama about the demise of silent pictures from the producer-director partnership of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, in which she was cast as Queenie, the lover of a fading screen comedian. But she fell out with Ivory over a number of issues, for example refusing to do a bedroom scene nude. “From nearly the first day, we were at loggerheads,” he recalled, “and no professional relationship, no working relationship, was ever established.”

Raquel Welch in a still from The Wild Party, 1975, a Merchant-Ivory period drama.
Raquel Welch in a still from The Wild Party, 1975, a Merchant-Ivory period drama. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Switching to television brought Welch cameos in everything from the sitcoms Mork & Mindy (in 1979, as a villain from outer space) and Evening Shade (1993) to Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (in 1995) and CSI: Miami (in 2012). She also comically played a temperamental version of herself attacking Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.

She had a regular role in the comedy-drama series Date My Dad (2017) as Rosa, former mother-in-law of Ricky (Barry Watson), trying with his three children to find him love again following the death of his wife.

In 1997, there was another stint on Broadway, in the musical Victor/Victoria. She replaced Julie Andrews, who was undergoing throat surgery, for the final seven weeks of its run at the Marquis theatre. Variety described Welch as “at best a pleasantly passable singer”, suiting “the costumes better than she does the vocal and acting requirements”.

She returned to the cinema with a cameo role in the romcom Legally Blonde (2001), starring Reese Witherspoon. Her last film was How to Be a Latin Lover (2017).

Welch was married and divorced four times. She is survived by Damon and Tahnee, and by her brother, Jimmy.

• Raquel Welch (Jo-Raquel Tejada), actor, born 5 September 1940; died 15 February 2023