Welch reflects on her life as sex symbol, movie star
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.