Welch re­flects on her life as sex sym­bol, movie star

Baltimore Sun - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Don­ald Lieben­son Don­ald Lieben­son is a free­lance writer.

At the be­gin­ning of “Fan­tas­tic Voy­age,” star Stephen Boyd can be for­given for be­ing mo­men­tar­ily dis­tracted by the comely tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant for “the top brain man in the coun­try.” He’s about to op­er­ate on a co­matose Rus­sian sci­en­tist who has de­fected to the West, but what he re­ally wants to know is, “Who’s the girl?” Ex­cel­lent ques­tion. The girl turns out to be Raquel Welch in her first ma­jor film role. “Fan­tas­tic Voy­age” was re­leased on Aug. 24, 1966, and by year’s end, the ques­tion would be moot. Ev­ery­one would know who Raquel Welch was.

For Welch, the pic­ture was the be­gin­ning of her own fan­tas­tic voy­age as a movie star and sex sym­bol, in­clud­ing play­ing a bikini-clad cave­woman that re­sulted in one of the more mem­o­rable film posters ever.

“It doesn’t seem like 50 years to me,” Welch said. “But I look back and I think, ‘Wasn’t I just a very lucky young lady to have stum­bled into these crazy cir­cum­stances?’ ”

By ev­ery mea­sure, 1966 was a break­out year for Welch. The pre­vi­ous two years, the for­mer beauty con­test win­ner and a mother of two had had cameos and un­cred­ited walk-throughs on such pop­u­lar TV shows as “Be­witched” and “McHale’s Navy” and in the Elvis Pres­ley film “Roustabout.”

A screen test op­po­site James Coburn for the 007 spoof “Our Man Flint” led to a mul­ti­film con­tract with 20th Cen­tury Fox. “Fan­tas­tic Voy­age” looked to her to be an aus­pi­cious be­gin­ning.

“It would be a good chance to see what it’s like to make a big movie,” she said.

What most re­mem­ber about “Fan­tas­tic Voy­age” is Welch in her skintight wet­suit. She vividly re­calls her crush on Boyd (“I was too fright­ened to even flirt with him”) and fuss­ing over the word “oxy­gena­tion,” which she prac­ticed over and over for fear of em­bar­rass­ing her­self in front of the more ex­pe­ri­enced en­sem­ble.

It turned out to be a pres­tige film and won for art di­rec­tion and spe­cial vis­ual ef­fects. It’s con­sid­ered one of the best sci-fi films of that era.

Welch was more skep­ti­cal about “One Mil­lion Years B.C.,” a re­make of a 1940 film star­ring Vic­tor Ma­ture.

“I told (stu­dio head Richard Zanuck), ‘Oh, please don’t make me do a di­nosaur movie.’ Mr. Zanuck told me I was go­ing to be a big star, and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I asked him, ‘What could I pos­si­bly wear (as Raquel Welch, 75, be­came known from the 1966 film “Fan­tas­tic Voy­age,” and ce­mented her fame in “One Mil­lion Years B.C.” a cave­woman)?’ He said, ‘They’ll work some­thing out.’ ”

What they worked out was an in­stantly iconic deer­skin bikini, and Welch cut a strik­ing fig­ure in it, or, as The New York Times hailed her in its re­view of the film, “A mar­velous breath­ing mon­u­ment to wom­ankind.”

When pro­duc­tion moved to Lon­don, Welch got off the plane to “tons of pho­tog­ra­phers” yelling her name. A poster fea­tur­ing a pho­to­graph taken dur­ing film­ing atop a vol­cano in the Ca­nary Is­lands had gone the 1966 equiv­a­lent of vi­ral.

Be­com­ing an overnight sex sym­bol “was not my plan, I can as­sure you,” Welch said, ‘I thought, ‘This is not at all who I am,’ but then at the same time I was think­ing, ‘Maybe that’s the way fate has planned it so I could at least get aboard.’ ”

Fifty years on, the 75-year-old Welch is still strik­ing and still work­ing. She just com­pleted film­ing “How to Be a Latin Lover,” an en­sem­ble com­edy fea­tur­ing Eu­ge­nio Der­bez, Rob Lowe, Kris­ten Bell and Salma Hayek.

WIREIMAGE 2015

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