Elena Verdugo, Who Lifted Latina Image on TV, Dies at 92
Elena Verdugo, who portrayed one of the first Latina professionals in a television series in the United States and in doing so was credited with inspiring Hispanic women to strive for greater self-respect, died on May 30 in Los Angeles. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by the actress Sharon Gless, a friend, with whom Ms. Verdugo appeared on “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” the ABC prime-time dramatic series that ran for nearly seven years beginning in 1969.
In the show, Ms. Verdugo played Consuelo Lopez, the proficient and loyal nurse who managed the practice of Dr. Welby (Robert Young) and a younger associate, Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin).
She appeared in all 169 episodes of the show and won Emmy nominations for outstanding performance by an actress in a supporting role in 1971 and 1972.
From the outset, even before she was cast to replace Penny Santon, who played Nurse Lopez in the “Marcus Welby” pilot, Ms. Verdugo insisted that the part be redefined. “They were looking for a Mexican girl,” she told PBS in 2014. “And I said: ‘Forget it. I’m not playing maids and housekeepers.’ ”
David Victor, the show’s producer, she said, assured her that she would play “a very intelligent, well-versed character who was not going to ‘Yes, master’ the doctor, and was able to tell him to go to hell if she had to.”
Ms. Verdugo made sure the promise was kept. She scrapped the opening scene in which Nurse Lopez dutifully welcomes Dr. Welby to work with a freshly poured cup of coffee, and she elevated her onscreen role from an overtaxed secretary to a skilled nursing professional.
“She eventually created such an impression that soon she was as much a star of the series as Young and heartthrob Brolin,” Cary O’Dell wrote in “June Cleaver Was a Feminist! Reconsidering the Female Characters of Early Television” (2013). “We also learn during the series that Consuelo originally dreamed of being a doctor but, since her family couldn’t afford it, she became a nurse instead.”
Her performance was said to have motivated many women to pursue nursing careers.
“Verdugo’s visibility on the show brought with it results,” Mr. O’Dell wrote. “Over the years, according to Verdugo, many women told her they pursued a nursing career because of her. During its airing, Verdugo was also recognized by the American Society of Medical Assistants.”
Ms. Verdugo appeared in her first film when she was 5 and later starred as the proverbial “dumb blonde” secretary on the radio and television versions of “Meet Millie.”
But because she had a Hispanic surname, Hollywood mostly typecast her in horror movies and comedies as Gypsy girls, Indian maidens, Mexican peasants, harem handmaidens and South Sea islanders.
“With that name, they don’t call you up to do little American parts,” she was quoted as saying in “Women in Horror Films, 1940s” (1999) by Gregory William Mank. “They think you’re a black-eyed, dark-haired señorita — and I’m blond. So I put on my wig and tried to live up to what they thought ‘Spanish’ to be — or ‘Gypsy,’ or ‘native,’ or something.”
But she could do that for only so long, she said. “I quit the movies because I was sick and tired of playing a native girl of some kind, with a knife, and few clothes,” she told Pictorial Review in 1953.
Elena Angela Verdugo (as a little girl she insisted that her mother call her Helen, apparently to sound more “Anglo”) was born on April 20, 1925, in the central California city of Paso Robles.
She studied Terpsichore rhythmical dancing from the age of 3 and performed in her first film, “Cavalier of the West” (1931), with Harry Carey Sr. She finished high school with tutors on the 20th Century Fox studio lot.
She later played opposite Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff in Universal’s “House of Frankenstein” (1944), in which a trio of movie monsters collaborate against their makers’ enemies. She recorded “Tico-Tico” with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra and played Lou Costello’s girlfriend in the Abbott and Costello comedy “Little Giant” (1946). While filming it she met the screenwriter Charles R. Marion and married him.
They had a son, Robert, who later became an actor and director; he died in 1999. After she and Mr. Marion divorced, she married Dr. Charles R. Rosewall. He died in 2012. She is survived by a stepdaughter, two grandchildren and a great-grandson.
Ms. Verdugo’s Hollywood career included the opening theater scene in “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950), with Jose Ferrer, and a part in “Thief of Damascus” (1952), with Paul Henreid.
She was also cast in two larger romantic roles that the studios gingerly edited to appease the sensibilities of moviegoers.
In 1942, in “The Moon and Sixpence,” George Sanders played a London stockbroker who abandons his family to become a painter and bolts to Tahiti, where he falls in love with Ata, a native girl.
Two versions were filmed. In one, Devi Wani, a Javanese actress, played Ata; in the other, Ms. Verdugo played her, to accommodate audiences for whom marriage between a Polynesian and an Englishman was considered unacceptable. (The double casting enabled the studio, as The New York Times put it, to avoid “the miscegenation problem.”)
Seven years later, in “The Big Sombrero,” Ms. Verdugo played a madcap Mexican ranch owner who, with her peasant rancheros, is saved from swindlers by an American singing cowboy, played by Gene Autry. Press agents staged a publicity photograph in which the two kissed, but the scene was apparently cut from the finished film after Autry fans objected.
But the most vehement objections to the kiss were not, apparently, on ethnic grounds. Rather, Autry’s girl-shy preadolescent fan base preferred that he reserve his displays of affection for his horse.