I never thought of Raquel Welch as an actor, I thought of her as a force of nature. In fact, as I sit down to write this, I’m honestly considering whether it even mattered if Welch was a good thespian or not. No one was asking Welch to be Katharine Hepburn when she made her screen debut in 1964’s A House Is Not A Home (as “Call Girl”). What the studios wanted from Raquel Welch during her heyday was to simply be Raquel Welch. While Welch may not have been the most versatile actor (not that she was often given the chance to stretch), she sure played the hell out of Raquel Welch.
With Welch, it’s not even about a movie or a role, it’s about her presence. Sure, her bombshell looks turned many a head all her live-long days, but when you saw Welch on screen (whether in One Million Years B.C. or that episode of Seinfeld where she played herself) your eyes could go nowhere else when the light hit her. Of course, she was stunningly beautiful, but there was a sense of a strength of spine in Welch that made it impossible to look away from.
That vibe was only enhanced over the years as she guested on numerous talk shows, and without fail drove the host to distraction. Welch was bold, sexy, and unapologetic. Feminine, but tough as nails. If you watch any episode of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where Welch appeared, there was never any doubt who was running the show during her segment. Johnny and Ed were just trying to hang on as best they could.
Welch is a true anomaly in pop culture history. She became famous in films that I’m willing to bet that most of us can’t remember by name…but we do remember Raquel. “Hey, did you see Raquel Welch in that one movie with Bill Cosby?”, someone might ask. Mother, Jugs, and Speed was the name of the movie (and yes, if you’re wondering, Welch was “Jugs”), but it scarcely matters. What does matter is that if Welch was in it, a forgettable movie became a whole lot less forgettable.
Her 1969 film 100 Rifles was incredibly controversial at the time. After all, America’s favorite (white—although half-Bolivian) pin-up having a (somewhat) torrid sex scene with America’s greatest (Black) football player was no small controversy during the Civil Rights era. Coupled with the film’s financial disappointment, you might have even thought her career would ebb. But, as her 100 Rifles co-star Burt Reynolds said, “She’s the gutsiest broad I know.”
Just one year later, she survived starring in one of the campiest and most infamous films ever made, Myra Breckinridge. It’s hard to overstate what a bizarre film this is, but let me just deliver the basic premise: Future film critic Rex Reed plays Myron who decides to get gender reassignment surgery. After the surgery he (somefuckinghow) looks like Raquel Welch. Myron then becomes Myra, heads to Hollywood in an effort to get her uncle, Buck Loner (played by John Huston!) to leave her his acting school or $500,000. Unfortunately, Myron starts turning up as her alter-ego and some sort of split personality something or other goes on. The film was rated ‘X’ for its sexual explicitness (including a female on male rape), and also starred Farrah Fawcett, Mae West, and Jim Backus from Gilligan’s Island. I made up none of this, including the “Buck Loner” name.
Still, nothing could dim Welch’s star. 1973 and 74 were particularly kind to her, as she scored solid supporting roles in the murder mystery The Last of Sheila, and in Richard Lester’s two warmly regarded Three Musketeers films. As the ‘70s closed, Welch (approaching the difficult age of 40 for women in Hollywood) turned to the small screen, making many series guest appearances and several TV films as well.
Of course, her greatest claim to cinematic fame is from a film she didn’t even act in: The Shawshank Redemption. As decades go by, the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) dreams of escaping the Shawshank Prison. Unbeknownst to the warden, guards, and (for a long time) the audience, Andy has been chipping away at the wall in his cell. To cover the ever growing hole in the wall, Andy procures pin-up posters of Hollywood’s hottest female stars to place over the opening. The first poster is of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, the last is Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.
For Andy, those posters didn’t just cover up his long-gestating escape, they also marked the time, and reminded him that on the other side of that wall not only did freedom await, so did the opportunity to go see Raquel Welch in motion and on a huge screen. That’d be inspiration enough for anyone to crawl through a sewer pipe.
Raquel Welch died today. She was 82 years old.