Sunni Welles, a TV actor, musician and performer who later accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, died on Monday in Downey, Calif., after a battle with lung cancer, her son, Shaun O’Banion, confirmed to Variety. She was 72.
Welles was born Nancy Kay Rihl in Caracas, Venezuela, and moved to the United States with her family when she was three years old. She became a child actor at the age of 10 and appeared in “Leave It to Beaver” and “My Three Sons.” Welles started going by her stage name as a teenager, taking it from her nickname “Sunshine,” as she was known by friends and family, and the surname of television writer Halsted Welles, who was a surrogate father to her.
During her career in the entertainment industry, Welles became friends with Elvis Presley while she toured the world as a singer and dancer. She later married singer and actor John O’Banion, and they had one son before divorcing a few years later.
In 2015, Welles accused Cosby of sexually assaulting her when she was 17 after meeting him on set of the TV series “I Spy” in the mid 1960s. In a statement released in March 2015 through her lawyer, Gloria Allred, Welles claimed that Cosby took her to a jazz club, where she ordered a Coke. Welles said that she didn’t remember leaving the club, and she later woke up in an apartment naked and alone, feeling as if she had had sex. After calling Cosby and asking what happened, Welles claimed he said she drank champagne and he took her to the apartment to sleep it off. Afterwards, she alleged Cosby took her to the Magic Castle club, where she drank a Coke and woke up naked and alone in the same apartment. Welles claimed she never heard from him again.
Welles was one of some 60 women who came forward and accused Cosby of sexual assault, rape, drugging and other sexual misconduct crimes. Her accusation was one of the earliest claims against Cosby, dating back to the 1960s. After being convicted of sexual assault in 2018, Cosby’s conviction was overturned in June 2021 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and he was released from prison.
In 1979, Welles moved to Nevada to perform as a principal dancer with the Folies Bergère musical variety show in Las Vegas. In the late 1990s, she retired from acting and performed as a jazz soloist with her band Shiver in California. She eventually settled down in Santa Monica, Calif., where she worked as a spiritual medium, author, speaker and sheltered foster animals until she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Welles is survived by her son, writer and film producer, Shaun O’Banion, and his partner, Petra Hejduková; grandson Indiana; brother Larry Rihl; and half-siblings Vivian Harris, Cindy Kashdin, Gene Rihl, Frank Rihl and Alan Rihl. No funeral services are planned, but friends and family are encouraged to make a donation to RAINN, the nation’s largest support organization for survivors of sexual violence.