When ABC first offered her a role on a upcoming prime-time television show about a warm family practitioner who still made house calls, Elena Verdugo could see where it was all headed.
"They were looking for a Mexican girl," she recalled. "And I said, 'Forget it. I'm not playing maids and housekeepers.' You know, that's all that they were showing."
But Consuelo Lopez on "Marcus Welby, M.D." was a level-headed, no-nonsense nurse and Verdugo jumped at the chance to play the character, slowly retrofitting it into what was one of the first portrayals of a professional Latina in a prime-time television series.
After the first season, she opted to eliminate an opening scene that showed her dutifully serving Dr. Welby a cup of coffee when he strolled into the office. And as time went on, she pushed for her role to more closely resemble the hands-on, front-line work of a skilled nurse, rather than a multi-tasking secretary.
"She was as American as apple pie," she said of her character in an interview with PBS. "But she had this Mexican — a little bit of fire — beneath it all."
The show lasted seven seasons and capped a decades-long career for Verdugo that began when she was a teen.
A descendant of early-day Los Angeles settlers, Verdugo died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 92.
Verdugo signed a contract when she was just 15 with 20th Century Fox and attended school in the studio classrooms. She was featured alongside Gene Autry in "The Big Sombrero," a film about a singing cowboy who is hired as a ranch foreman and then finds himself fighting for the rights of the rancheros. She also appeared opposite Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff in the horror film "House of Frankenstein," a monster fest in which Frankenstein, Count Dracula and the Wolf Man team up to seek revenge on their creators' many collective enemies.
She achieved broader fame in the television version of the CBS radio comedy "Meet Millie" in 1952, and took over the radio role the following year. She told The Times that she earned $300 a week, and worked nearly year-round.
The television show lasted four seasons and opened a pathway for other movies and television roles — a singer in the musical comedy "Panama Sal," a widowed sister in "The New Phil Silvers Show," an employee in the complaint department at an L.A. department store in "Many Happy Returns."
Playing alongside Robert Young and James Brolin, her role as Nurse Lopez was her longest-running character and brought her squarely into America's living rooms. She was twice nominated for an Emmy for the role.
Born April 20, 1925, in Paso Robles, Verdugo was very much a daughter of Los Angeles. Her ancestors, she said, once held the Spanish land grant for more than 36,000 acres of grass lands, a region then known as Rancho San Rafael and now by the lineup of cities that sprouted up on the acreage — Burbank, Glendale, Montrose, La Canada Flintridge.
Verdugo donated the land deeds and other artifacts from the ranch land to the Glendale Public Library in 1994. The property itself long ago slipped from the family's hands, though the family name is firmly stamped in the area on street signs, city pageants and entire subdivisions.
"Too bad they weren't such good businessmen," she joked in an interview with the Daily News.
Actress Sharon Gless, who was part of the "Marcus Welby, M.D." cast until landing starring roles on dramas such as "Cagney & Lacey" and "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," said Verdugo was defined by her unbridled sense of humor.
"She is probably the most innately funny person I've ever met."
Gless said she first met Verdugo when she was 14, after the actress found a red wallet the young girl had lost. Gless said she reminded Verdugo of that chance meeting years later when they were reunited on the "Marcus Welby" set.
Gless said they remained friends for life, chatting by phone every Sunday.
Pam Smith said her stepmother was as casual and nonchalant in discussing her Hollywood career or impressive ancestry as someone recounting old high school memories.
"I'd take her to lunch and she'd say, 'Oh, that street's named for my mother' or that's named for whomever. Or we'd be watching television and an ad would come on, like a Depends ad or something, and she'd say 'Oh I remember that person.'
"She was just a very fun person to be around."
Verdugo is survived by her stepdaughter; two grandchildren, Jessie and Maggie; and a great-grandson, Duncan. She was preceded in death by a son, Richard, and her husband, Charles Rosewall. An earlier marriage to screenwriter Charles Marion ended in divorce.