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Classic Hollywood: Raquel Welch reflects on her life as a sex symbol and movie star

Classic Hollywood: Raquel Welch reflects on her life as a sex symbol and movie star
Raquel Welch and John Richardson from the 1966 film "One Million Years B.C.". (20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

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.

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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. "Time seems to go much faster, so there's never any time to absorb anything. 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 Miss La Jolla 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 multi-film contract with 20th Century Fox.  "Fantastic Voyage" looked to her to be an auspicious beginning. "I knew it was going to be [director] Richard Fleischer and there was quite an illustrious cast of established, wonderful actors," she said. "It would be a good chance to see what it's like to make a big movie."

Still, 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.

"I wrote it on the scenery where I was standing, and it went off in one take," she recalled proudly.

It turned out to be a prestige film. It was nominated for several Oscars 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 had just hung on Foley wires for eight months [making 'Fantastic Voyage']," she recalled with a laugh. "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 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 (which was released in the U.K. in 1966 and domestically in 1967), "A marvelous breathing monument to womankind."

"I liked that there was something very superhero about her," Welch said. "At least I wasn't one of those mincing little girls; I never wanted to be that."

When production moved to London (which was the only reason she wanted to do the film in the first place), 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. Otherwise, I was a young mother, and if I would have had to wait around for a really wonderful role that more established actresses would be more likely to be cast in, I might not have been able to have a career."

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And for all that, Welch concedes, "It's a pretty striking shot, isn't it? It wasn't like a pinup. It was really sauvage. I never liked the idea of being coy."

Writer-director Frank Darabont liked it too, and featured "Fuzzy Britches" as "The Shawshank Redemption's" most pivotal jail cell prop (no spoiler alert for the one or two people who haven't seen it).

"To mark the passage of time of Andy Dufresne's [Tim Robbins] incarceration, you had posters of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and me," Welch gushed. "I couldn't believe this fabulous director thought I deserved to be in that company, I was really honored. And on top of that, it is such a great movie."

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.

She good-naturedly dismissed a third film that came out in 1966, the Italian production "Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don't Understand," although she loved working with costar Marcello Mastroianni, who, she reported, had a penchant for napping between takes. "I think he was a very busy bee," she hinted, "but he was so charming. I was just enthralled to watch him sleep."

What would Welch tell that girl in 1966 who went up a mountain to film a dinosaur movie and came down an international celebrity?

"I was like Alice in Wonderland," she said. "I was trying to hide it because I was afraid people would see how green I was. There were so many things going for me,  but with it came a lot of stereotypical opinions about my abilities and who I was.

"In the end, I've gotten a lot of opportunities to do various things I am very proud of, including Broadway and the physical comedy in 'The Three Musketeers' [for which she won a Golden Globe]. So I would probably say to her, 'Good for you.'"

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