It’s been 5 1/2 years since Raquel Welch was dropped from MGM’s “Cannery Row,” and just days since a jury awarded her a staggering $10.8-million judgment for that high-profile firing. A triumphant Welch was filmed by television crews as she left a Los Angeles courtroom Tuesday; however, in private, she remains emotional over the entire experience.
As she sat with her husband (French-born writer/producer Andre Weinfeld) Thursday morning in their suite at the Beverly Hills Comstock hotel, the actress suddenly seemed quite frail as she haltingly described the onset of what became a long exile from Hollywood.
“When Andre came into the den of our house (in Los Angeles; the two currently live in New York) that night in December, 1980, and said that it was over, that I had been removed from the film after only seven days of filming (she was replaced by Debra Winger), I felt like I had been shot,” she explained slowly. “I felt that I was somehow in the third person and watching myself. I just sort of saw myself melting down to nothing.”
Eyes filling with tears, Welch was momentarily unable to speak. " . . . I just didn’t feel like I was . . . welcome.”
Her husband, sitting close by, murmured to her, and after several seconds she straightened her back, squared her shoulders and said resolutely, “I don’t want to go back there again; it’s always a very difficult emotional recall.”
Welch’s suit charged then-MGM executive David Begelman, “Cannery Row” producer Michael Phillips and director/screenwriter David Ward with breach of contract, conspiracy (that they had negotiated with Winger before firing Welch) and defamation.
After three days of deliberation, the jury found in her favor on all counts, aided by such testimony as that by entertainment attorney Barry Hirsch, who recalled negotiating Winger’s deal days before Welch was fired. The defendants have indicated that they will appeal.
In the $10.8-million judgment, MGM was levied for most of the $7,650,000 in punitive damages; Phillips owes about $694,444; Begelman, $27,500. No judgment was levied against Ward.
Welch had been barraged by media ever since Tuesday’s verdict. That particular morning had begun at 2 a.m. with a trip to the local ABC affiliate for a “Good Morning America” interview.
“I’m exhausted,” she admitted. “Everything has gone so fast that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and let it sink in yet.”
After years of issuing “no comments” about the “Cannery Row” affair, Welch appreciated the opportunity to talk about it. “What I felt in the courtroom was similar to how I felt when I was fired--again I was in the third person, but this time it was the end of the circle.”
As far as Welch was concerned, the judgment also heralded an industry change. “I think the era of the old boys’ network--where people only work on their career angles and look upon movie-making as a speculative investment as they pass projects back and forth--is over. I think the existence of that network wasn’t the brightest moment for this town. I think what happened to me in court was kind of a nice coinciding event with the end of that era.
“Whether people in this town like or dislike me, I think they acknowledge me as a consummate professional. I never show up late or not knowing my lines and I’ve never held up production.”
Months after her departure from “Cannery Row,” Welch said, the producers suggested in a Rolling Stone magazine article that she was fired because she couldn’t “cut it” and couldn’t take direction.
“It was outrageous; just outrageous!” she stressed. “The thing is--nobody could really know what went on; all they read was that Raquel Welch got fired. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go to cocktail parties and say, ‘Listen, I didn’t do anything; these people are crazy, they’re behind budget; they wanted another actress.’ I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened.”
So Welch filed a lawsuit. It wasn’t a popular decision among her friends. She said that the conventional feeling about the suit was, “ ‘You shouldn’t take on the big boys.’ I said that if someone thought it was wrong that I stood up for my rights, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.”
The fact was that, after she filed the suit, Welch wasn’t working at all. After living in Los Angeles for 15 years and appearing in more than 20 films, Welch found her career becalmed.
“I realized that this whole situation was affecting my film offers and my viability as a film actress. I couldn’t just sit there and cry in my beer, so I decided to start all over again.”
Her solution was a move to New York at the end of 1981. Within weeks of her arrival, she was asked to substitute for vacationing Lauren Bacall in “Woman of the Year.” It was a gamble that paid off with critical praise, and months later Welch was asked back when Bacall left the role. On Broadway, Welch proved to be a big draw; during her six-month run, the Palace theater broke its box-office record.
“It helped me tremendously in terms of my own feelings about myself, especially the fact that my professionalism went unquestioned.” She grinned, “I wasn’t considered to be some paper head from Hollywood.”
Despite her Broadway success, Hollywood wasn’t calling. “I really thought it would generate some offers,” Welch said, “but during that period I only received two: One was to play a vampire and the other was to play a Nazi anti-Semite.” She turned them down.
Welch has formed her own production company to develop projects and, while she and Weinfeld plan to stay in New York, they are now looking for an apartment in Los Angeles as well. Welch explained, “Although I can be emotionally hurt by things, I’m not gonna be a crybaby and wait for someone to redeem me.” And, despite her experience on “Cannery Row,” Welch remains supportive of the Hollywood film-making community.
“One of the things that I’ve worried about is that I don’t want my particular situation generalized to indict all of Hollywood. I know many, many people who I admire and respect and who are really ethical. “There are people around this town who are good film makers and good people. I think they will prevail.”