Elena Verdugo, who played Lou’s girlfriend in Little Giant (1946) and later gained fame as the proficient and loyal nurse Consuelo Lopez TV’s Marcus Welby, M.D., died May 30 in Los Angeles at the age of 92.
Born on April 20, 1925, in Paso Robles, Calif., Elena was a descendant of Jose Maria Verdugo, a Spanish army officer who in 1784 was granted grazing rights to a 36,000-acre area that included much of what is now North Hollywood, Universal City, Glendale and Burbank. The property slipped from the family’s hands long ago, though the family name is firmly stamped in the area on street signs and subdivisions. Verdugo donated the land deeds and other artifacts to the Glendale Public Library in 1994.
Elena 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 lot. She appeared in Down Argentine Way (1940) with Betty Grable, and played a native girl in Dorothy Lamour’s Rainbow Island (1944). “With [my] name, they don’t call you up to do little American parts,” she told Greg Mank. “They think you’re a blackeyed, 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,” At age 19 she appeared as a gypsy girl who falls in love with Lon Chaney, Jr., in House of Frankenstein (1945).
She cheerfully recalled working on Little Giant with Bud and Lou. “[Abbott and Costello] seemed to be having fun,” she recalled, “but they were always gambling, playing cards or betting on something.” Happily, she did not have to wear a black wig in the role of country girl Martha Hill. While making the film she met Charles R. Marion, then a writer for the team’s radio show, and they wed. Marion later worked on the Bowery Boys films.
Elena was featured alongside Gene Autry in The Big Sombrero (1949). A publicity shot was released in which the two kissed, but the scene never made the finished film after Autry’s girl-shy preadolescent fan base preferred that he reserve his affection for his horse.
Verdugo achieved broader fame in the television version of the CBS radio comedy “Meet Millie” in 1952, and took over the TV role the following year. She told The Los Angeles Times that she earned $300 a week, and worked nearly year-round. The television show lasted four seasons and opened a pathway to other roles. She played a singer in the musical comedy Panama Sal; a widowed sister in The New Phil Silvers Show; and an employee in the complaint department at a department store in Many Happy Returns.
In 1969 she was cast as nurse Consuelo Lopez opposite Robert Young on Marcus Welby, M.D. From the outset, Elena 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.’ ” But Consuelo Lopez was a level-headed, no-nonsense nurse—one of the first portrayals of a professional Latina in a prime-time television series. She elevated her onscreen role from an overtaxed secretary to a skilled nursing professional.
She appeared in all seven seasons of the show and was twice nominated for Emmys for outstanding performance by an actress in a supporting role.
Elena’s marriage to Charles Marion ended in divorce in 1956. They had a son, Robert, who later became an actor and director; hedied in 1999. She married Dr. Charles R. Rosewall in 1972; he died in 2012. Elena is survived by a stepdaughter and two grandchildren.•