She had a shelf full of beauty-contest prizes — Miss Photogenic, Miss La Jolla, Miss Contour. There had been modeling for Nieman Marcus, extra work and even a stint as the “weather girl” on a local San Diego morning show.
To a mid-’60s movie studio, she seemed like a good candidate for a bare-bones contract and some beach party movies.
But 20th Century Fox had just one tiny concern. Her name. Particularly her first name, which they said no one could pronounce.
Had she considered, maybe, “Debbie”?
“‘Debbie,’” Raquel Welch says now, laughing, almost 50 years later. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, that is so not me. I’m not a Debbie. I’m Raquel. I’ve always been Raquel. I think it’s a pretty name and you know what? If I do well, then people will remember it.’”
And people did — along with her great look, dazzling smile and unapologetic drive.
It’s carried her through a long career in Hollywood, the subject of a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective starting Friday. And it made her a genuine Latina Hollywood star — the first since Rita Hayworth, and a smoky explosion in a decade of pale blondes.
“There was nobody else who looked like her,” says Josh Strauss, a Film Society programming associate. “She was just organically beautiful. … What started it for me as a kid was ‘Kansas City Bomber’ but really — what kid wouldn’t love Raquel Welch?”
“I think the studio was just looking for someone they could put on a lot of provocative movie posters,” says Lee Pfeiffer, co-author of the upcoming book “Cinema Sex Sirens” and editor-in-chief of the magazine Cinema Retro. “She proved she was a lot more than that.”
Welch, 71, grew up as Raquel Tejada in San Diego. Her mother was Irish, with roots going back to the Colonial days; her father was Bolivian, an aeronautical engineer with General Dynamics.
“My father was very, very strict,” she remembers. “You did not want to cross him. But I remember when I was very young he took me to Laurence Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Prince of Foxes’ with Tyrone Power. And I just fell in love. … The whole thing of getting into costume and performing was kind of wonderful to me.”
Later, Welch got a theater scholarship to San Diego State — but soon married a handsome fellow student, James Welch and, in quick succession, had two babies. She left college for the TV gig; when her husband objected to her ambitions she left him, too, taking the kids. Eventually, she ended up in Los Angeles, and on that Fox lot, being told things would really be a whole lot easier as a “Debbie.”
“I think they wanted to Anglicize me a little,” she said. “They never said, ‘Look, we want to downplay this Hispanic thing.’ But it was hard to cast me. The girl-next-door parts — in our culture, she’s blonde, she’s Doris Day, or now Jennifer Aniston. I was a little too — exotic.”
Her body of work
Her first good-sized role came in “Fantastic Voyage,” as part of a special team “miniaturized” and sent inside a scientist’s body to operate. Then the studio loaned her out to England’s Hammer films, for the prehistoric epic “One Million Years B.C.,” in which the second-best special effect was Ray Harryhausen’s prehistoric beasties.
The best special effect, of course, turned out to be Welch’s itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, woolly-mammoth fur bikini.
“That thing never did fit right,” she grumbles about the famous two-piece. “It was always getting wet, and the wardrobe people would try to make it keep its shape, and sometimes it would shrink, and sometimes we’d have to sort of wrap it around me to make it work.”
It worked, all right. An early shot of Welch wearing it and looking vaguely awestruck left millions of males equally impressed, and became an iconic pin-up, seen everywhere from dorm-room walls to Tim Robbins’ cell in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“When we finally came back to London to see that poster and everything, that was mind-blowing,” Welch says. “A little schizophrenic, actually — I mean, I was still a single mother with two small children. But I thought, okay, this is kind of scary and you didn’t plan it this way but you’re aboard the good ship Movie Star now. Make something out of it.”
It wasn’t that easy, with the very name “Raquel Welch” becoming a go-to gag for stand-up comedians. Although the actress always drew a line — a little cheesecake was fine, full-out nudity was not — it was difficult to find parts outside the sex-symbol stereotype.
“I’d only really done two movies, and I hadn’t talked much in either,” she says. “Producers didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t too sure what to do with me. I was so green. ‘Lady in Cement’ — what was I thinking, doing that? But there was nothing going on in my head back then. It was just, ‘It’s Sinatra. It’s Frank Sinatra. Oh my God, I’m going to be working with Frank Sinatra!’ I wasn’t thinking about the movie at all.”
Actually, the movie — with Sinatra as swinging private detective Tony Rome — is a guilty pleasure, and Welch is beautiful in it. But all she cared about was the chance to see her idol up close.
“We shot in Miami, so I’d go see him at the Fontainebleau every night, giving these masterful performances,” she says. “And then the next morning, he’d walk on the set and just do it. … He didn’t like a lot of takes, but I have to say, honestly, the guy could do it in one take. Because he always played Frank, and he knew that persona backwards and forwards. That’s why you always believed him.”
You needed a bigger suspension of disbelief to get through her next big picture, “Myra Breckinridge.”
“I had read the novel by Gore Vidal and I thought it was very, very entertaining and kind of a little ahead of the times, you know, issues of sexual duality and everything,” she says. “So I was anxious to be considered for the role and I told Fox, ‘I don’t know what kind of girl you’re looking for, but I know what Myra represents, about America and Hollywood, and I’d love to do it.’
“But the movie they made was not the movie I thought it was going to be.”
Ups and downs
The cast featured film critic Rex Reed as the unhappy Myron Breckinridge, and Welch as the beautiful Myra he becomes after a sex-change operation; the style felt like “The Late Late Show” crossed with a bad acid trip, as past-their-prime co-stars like John Carradine and Mae West wandered amidst the psychedelia.
The movie was an infamous bomb — Time called it “about as funny as a child molester” — and Welch calls the entire experience “heartbreaking.” But, she points out hopefully, “At least I think it kind of shows that I wasn’t trying to be a sex symbol. I was really only trying to find interesting and varied roles.”
The pluckiness is typical Welch, her eyes determinedly fixed on the bright side. She doesn’t turn down a movie like “Bluebeard,” complaining about the awful script. She happily signs on — concentrating on the fact that she’ll be acting with Richard Burton. It’s an optimism that’s led to some bad decisions, in roles and relationships. (She’s currently separated from her fourth husband.)
Still, she kept trying. She made the sexy Western “Hannie Caulder,” the Burt Reynolds cop film “Fuzz.” “The Last of Sheila” was a truly unexpected treat — a witty story (from a screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins) with Welch, James Mason, James Coburn and Dyan Cannon as catty Hollywood characters on a deadly scavenger hunt.
“I was so happy to be part of that ensemble,” Welch says. “I thought it was a really smart, funny movie, and it did well enough, but it never totally lifted off. I don’t know why. Sometimes, if a film isn’t someone’s particular baby, if it doesn’t have someone at the studio pushing, it just doesn’t get the attention.”
Another all-star production, “The Three Musketeers,” was a bona fide hit. Welch found its success almost as puzzling.
“I really hesitated doing it,” she says. “I didn’t get my character at all. What is this woman all about? Why is she falling down all the time? I asked (director) Dick Lester, and he said, ‘There’s no reason, that’s the beauty of it. It’s just funny.’ I never got it. … Later, when it came out, I even put on some baggy old clothes and snuck in to see it with an audience and they were hysterical. They laughed at everything I did. And I still couldn’t understand why. And you know, I didn’t care why. It taught me a lot, really. Just do it. Don’t think it to death.”
It was a nice success, but the last one she would have in Hollywood for awhile.
Another attempt to show off her dramatic range — in a Merchant/Ivory film inspired by the Fatty Arbuckle case, “The Wild Party” — turned out to be a depressing and enormous flop. Then, in 1982, she was fired five days into production of “Cannery Row”; the producers first claimed she was taking too long to get ready, then ungallantly said she was too old (they ended up replacing her with Debra Winger).
Welch sued and won a multimillion dollar settlement, but, says Pfeiffer, “Hollywood does not like trouble and once you have the reputation as someone who will fight back, you get blacklisted from a lot of major productions. The suit really ended her movie career.” (It would be 16 years before Welch would do another film — a Carrot Top comedy called “Chairman of the Board.”)
Welch didn’t spend the years sitting at home, though. She did “The Legend of Walks Far Woman” for TV; she made her Broadway debut in “Woman of the Year,” following it up with “Victor/Victoria.” And she rediscovered her heritage, finally visiting the country her father never spoke of and playing Hispanic matriarchs in PBS’ “American Family” and the indie film “Tortilla Soup.”
And if she’s had time to be more reflective lately — her autobiography, “Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage,” came out just last year — she hasn’t wasted any of it on second-guessing.
“It’s like when the studio tried to change my name,” she says. “Well, yes, okay, maybe Raquel is a little different. But maybe I am too, and maybe that’s all I’ve really got to offer, and I should stick to it. I wasn’t sure of that, at first. I tried to tame myself down a little, tried to look a little more middle of the road, a little more Mary Tyler Moore, who I loved. But you know what? I felt bad about it. And finally I thought, you know, you’ve got something a little extra, girl. You should just strut it.”