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SYFY WIRE obituary

Joan Weldon, ‘Them!’ star who battled giant atomic ants, dies at 90

By Benjamin Bullard
Joan Weldon in THEM

One of early science fiction’s most memorable faces is gone with the passing of actor Joan Weldon, the star of classic creature feature Them! 

Weldon reportedly passed on Feb. 11 at the age of 90, according to a recent announcement from her family (as first reported by Deadline). She enjoyed a lengthy career as a classically trained stage actor both before and after her iconic star turn in Them! But it was Warner Bros. Pictures’ 1954 popcorn flick about nuclear giant ants run amok that forever cemented the actor's connection to sci-fi film history. 

THEM star Joan Weldon

In the groundbreaking movie, Weldon played researcher Dr. Pat Medford, working alongside her scientist father, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), to help the U.S. government get a handle on a deadly outbreak of enormous ants following their irradiated mutation from atomic testing at the Alamogordo, New Mexico nuclear facility.

Regarded as one of the first “big bug” films in the nuclear-obsessed era of postwar speculative science fiction, Them! is still regarded by fans and movie buffs as a pioneer of the genre. Its black-and-white special effects may appear dated compared with the modern CG spectacles that fans have come to take for granted. But Them! innovated a number of then-novel ideas in the budding sci-fi monster-verse, including location-based set pieces (like the fiery final ant battle backdropped by Los Angeles’ water works), character development to advance the story, and, with Weldon, the portrayal of a woman in a key, plot-defining role.

In addition to helping launch an entire black-and-white movie era of nuclear-fueled sci-fi movie scares, Them! also burrowed deep into the long-term pop culture zeitgeist. From big-screen homages in blockbusters like Eight Legged Freaks and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, to the deep-diving, ant-incinerating “Those!” side quest in Bethesda’s Fallout 3, the spectacle of atomically atrocious big insects remains a staple of sci-fi imagination — as well as an instantly recognizable touchstone of entertainment history.

Weldon's Warner Bros. Pictures deal landed her in six movies for the studio: The System, The Grace Moore Story, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Command, Riding Shotgun, and Them! All six of Weldon’s Warner Bros. films were made between 1953 and 1954. Them! garnered Academy Awards recognition with its 1955 Oscar nomination in the Special Effects category, though the statue ultimately went to another sci-fi classic: Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Born Joan Louise Podell in San Francisco in 1930, Weldon began stage acting at age 16, and would go on to take leading roles in numerous theater productions including The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, The Merry Widow, Oklahoma, and many more. Her big-screen career reached its peak with Them!, though she also appeared in TV projects throughout the 1950s — including a guest turn as a key character in an early episode of CBS’ original Perry Mason series (opposite guest star Barbara Eden) in 1957. She returned to the stage for the rest of her acting career, focusing exclusively on live theatrical performances from the 1960s until her retirement in 1980.

Weldon was married for 56 years and is survived by her husband, Dr. David L. Podell Jr., one daughter (Melissa), one stepdaughter (Claudia), and three grandchildren. She passed away "peacefully at her home" in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, according to her family's obituary announcement.

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