Question: Who starred with James Brolin (Mr. Barbra Streisand) in a medical show in the '70s? And what was the show? Jane G., Newark, Del.
Televisionary: You're thinking of late TV legend Robert Young and his hit drama Marcus Welby, M.D., which ran on ABC from September 1969 to May 1976, Jane. In it he played the eponymous, Santa Monica-based general practitioner and Brolin played the dashing Steve Kiley, a neurologist in training who assisted Welby.
Why do I call him a legend? Well, first there was the long-running Father Knows Best, in which Young was America's pa (even though years later Young himself dismissed the notion of Dad having all the answers as "just ridiculous"), and then there was Welby, in which he was America's doctor. Young had a unique "trust me" quality which was what made him a dream spokesman for Sanka decaf coffee even though he struggled with many personal demons in real life. ABC execs knew viewers wanted more of him, so they were able to coax him out of the semi-retirement he entered after Father left the air in 1963.
"You can only shovel up the rose garden so many times," Young told TV Guide after leaving behind his quiet life in a retirement community and downtime with his wife, four daughters and five grandchildren to get back into the biz. "Then either you get bored or the roses die."
Young had already turned down a dozen TV and movie proposals and a potential Father revival when Welby producers approached him about the show. So execs with Universal, which produced the series, came at him with a noon-on-Monday-to-noon-on-Friday schedule, plus other perks. "They said, 'It's 10 minutes to the Hollywood-Burbank airport. We'll have a private plane there to fly you to the Palomar airport, which is what? 10 minutes from your home. You'll be home for lunch every Friday, have the weekend in Rancho Santa Fe, and fly back Monday.' How could I resist?" the actor recalled.
He couldn't, obviously. Co-star Elena Verdugo (nurse Consuelo Lopez), on the other hand, didn't come to the role with as big a smile on her face. In fact, when her agent told her producers wanted her to read for the part, her face wore something more resembling a snarl. "They have a part in a series for a Mexican girl," he told the actress via phone one morning in 1968, "so be sure to wear a black wig." Her response: a flurry of obscenities, followed by the suggestion that he "tell them to stuff it."
What producers didn't know was that Verdugo the proud descendant of the man whose 1769 land grant from the King of Spain is where the cities of Burbank and Glendale, as well as the Universal Studios property, are now headed an organization aimed at erasing stereotypical portrayals of Mexicans from movies and TV. "I stewed at the call from my agent for a while and I decided I'd show them," she said in 1971. "I wanted them to see who they were asking to play a mamacita saying 'Si' and "Ay, ay, ay' all the time. So I phoned my agent and told him OK, I'd go to Universal for the interview. Then I put on my best Chanel suit, piled up my hair which was a very pale blonde at the time and went storming over to the studio. I really stormed, because when I got there, no one had left a pass for my car at the gate."
Problem was, Verdugo's tirade played right into the hands of the producers, who weren't after what she thought. "After I finished yelling, [executive producer] David O'Connor said, 'Fine, great, that's just what we want a nurse who isn't afraid to yell at her doctor.' I stopped in mid-yell and said, 'Nurse? No 'si, si' and 'ay, ay, ay'?' He said, 'Certainly not. You're supposed to be a dignified, well-educated woman who just happens to be Mexican-American.' I said, 'No lines like, 'You steal gold from my people'?' He said, 'Hardly.'"
Case closed. Verdugo took the part and was only asked to darken her hair a little bit.
Overall, though, it was Young's comforting presence that brought the audience back week after week. That and, perhaps, a human fascination with sickness and healing. Brolin certainly bought into that theory. "My only explanation is that grownups, like children, like to be frightened," he said of the populaity of medical dramas. "Kids go for monsters and horror creatures. Adults go for cancer and brain tumors. You would guess that people would want to turn away from life's ugliness, but a human is funny. He is the only animal that likes to scare himself."
Well, why not? Dr. Welby was there to take care of it. And he could get you off caffeine to boot.