Welch died Wednesday morning following a brief illness, her manager Steve Sauer confirmed to USA TODAY.
Welch’s career spanned 50 years, 30 films and 50 TV series and appearances. She won a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical for her role in “The Three Musketeers” in 1975, and was nominated for a Globe in the 1987 TV movie “Right to Die.”
The star was born Jo Raquel Tejada on Sept. 5, 1940, in Chicago to a Bolivian father and American mother. As a child, her family moved to San Diego, where she learned ballet and competed in beauty pageants. She studied performing arts at San Diego State College, and worked as both a weather forecaster and model before landing her first film roles in 1964’s “A House Is Not a Home” and the Elvis Presley musical “Roustabout.”
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Early in her career, Welch said Hollywood higher-ups pushed her to change her name to “Debbie.” But the actress refused, and always remained proud of her Hispanic heritage.
“People didn’t like my name and they said it was too ethnic, too difficult to pronounce, too exotic,” Welch told The Associated Press in 2015. “They wanted to change it and I was not happy at all. I did really feel like Raquel.”
In the late ’60s, Welch became a sex symbol thanks to movies such as “Bedazzled,” “The Biggest Bundle of Them All” and Frank Sinatra crime comedy “Lady in Cement.” She also starred in the X-rated “Myra Breckinridge” in 1970, but had no regrets about playing racier roles starting out.
“I am not a fool,” Welch told the Los Angeles Times in a 2010 interview. “I realized when I came along, I wasn’t Meryl Streep who had been put into a bikini. I was somebody that got rocketed into the spotlight and superstardom overnight. I knew this was going to give me an opportunity and I should make the best of it.”
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Welch’s breakout came with a pair of bombshell roles in 1966: “Fantastic Voyage,” a sci-fi adventure about a submarine crew who get shrunk down and injected into a scientist’s bloodstream, and “One Million Years B.C.,” set in a prehistoric world where cavemen and dinosaurs co-exist. Despite only having three lines in the latter, the film spawned a best-selling poster of Welch clad in a fur bikini.
Playboy crowned her the “most desired woman” of the 1970s, despite never being completely naked in the magazine. In 2013, she graced the No. 2 spot on Men’s Health’s “Hottest Women of All Time” list.
Welch’s last role was Rosa in the 2017 TV drama “Date My Dad,” co-starring Audrey Smallman and Barry Watson, according to her IMDB page. She also appeared that same year in big-screen comedy “How to Be a Latin Lover,” playing a widowed billionaire whom Eugenio Derbez attempts to seduce.
“I always wanted to be an actress because I wanted to entertain,” Welch told entertainment site BackstageOL in 2017. “Comedy seems to fit that kind of a need in me. I like to entertain people.”
Throughout her career, Welch made memorable appearances in TV series such as “Mork & Mindy,” “The Muppet Show,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “Seinfeld.” In addition to her screen work, Welch appeared on Broadway twice and also had a successful line of wigs.
“I believe that most women recognize there is an art to femininity,” Welch told Wigs.com in 2011. “I’m always interested in talking to that woman and helping her practice that art. Let’s face it: Your hair is such an important part of how you present yourself as a woman. Why not utilize the advantage of wigs?”
Welch was married four times throughout her life. She is survived by her two children, son Damon Welch and daughter Tahnee Welch, with first husband James Welch.
Contributing: The Associated Press