Elena Verdugo, who had a prolific film career before focusing on TV and eventually earning two Emmy noms for her work on Marcus Welby, M.D., died Tuesday in Los Angeles. Her longtime friend, actress Sharon Gless, shared the news on social media:
A California native, Verdugo landed her first film acting role at age 5 in 1931. By her mid-teens, she was appearing in multiple movies a year, including four in 1949 and a half-dozen three years later.
Among her dozens of credits from the era were appearing opposite Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal horror films House of Frankenstein (1944, left) and The Frozen Ghost (1945) along with the 1952 adventure tale Thief of Damascus.
Like many big-screen actors of the era, she segued to the burgeoning TV world, starting with roles on such shows as Dangerous Assignment and General Electric Theater. Her first series-regular role was starring in CBS radio-transferred comedy Meet Millie in 1952. The show wasn’t a big hit but lasted four seasons and established Verdugo as a small-screen presence. She also played the character on radio for nearly two years starting in 1953.
After guesting on such classic series as The Red Skelton Hour, Route 66 and 77 Sunset Strip, she co-starred on the short-lived 1963 Western Redigo and appeared on The New Phil Silvers Show the following year. She continued to work in TV through the 1960s before landing the role for which she’s best remembered.
Starring Father Knows Best alum Robert Young, Marcus Welby, M.D., was an out-of-the-box smash, finishing its 1969-70 rookie run in the primetime top 10. The following year, it became the first ABC series to finish a season No. 1 in primetime, shoving aside such classics as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Gunsmoke. For the series’ entire seven-season run Verdugo played Consuelo Lopez, a nurse and office assistant to Young’s dedicated and kindly Santa Monica general practitioner. The supporting role earned Verdugo back-to-back Emmy noms in 1971 and 1972. The show, also starring James Brolin, ended in 1976 after nearly 170 episodes.
Verdugo was skeptical about the role at first, assuming that ABC wanted a stock Latina character. “They were looking for a Mexican girl,” she told PBS in an interview. “And I said, ‘Forget it! I’m not playing maids and housekeepers.’ You know that was all they were showing.”
Verdugo worked only sporadically after Marcus Welby, with her last acting credit being the 1985 telepic Suburban Beat with Dee Wallace and Shelley Fabares.