Born as Santos Edward Ortega in New York City, New York to Rafael and Isabella Ortega. His father, of Spanish origin, was born in Venezuela and his mother Isabella Corbett was from Dublin, Ireland. His father is believed to have been a cigar maker who found himself in New York City by 1890. He studied to be a priest for two years in the Christian Brothers' Seminary at Pocantico Hills, N.Y., before he decided that he was not fitted to be a clergyman. (What's On the Air Dec 1930)
He began his acting career at 17
on the stage in the theater in "an extravaganza" at the old
Hippodrome Theater. Soon after that he
toured with a singing group, but soon found himself back in the City
trying for rotes on Broadway. Santos married Evelyn Fairbank, a 27 year
old widow, in New York City on Dec 30, 1923.
Of course in OTR an actor's career was incomplete without an infusion of "soap" and Ortega's was no exception: In "Myrt and Marge". (CBS-Radio 1931-47) the sudsy tale of two showgirls, the older trying to help the newcomer become acclimated to the world of show biz. Oddly enough the title roles were portrayed by real-life mother and daughter Myrtle Vail and Donna Damerel Fick.
Along came "The Robert Burns Panatela Program" a comedy/variety (CBS-Radio 1932-33) which starred George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen. Although very much married, George and Gracie played "singles" on this show with Gracie setting George up in humorous situations of her making. Frank Knight and Santos Ortega were the show's announcers. Then on CBS-Radio in 1933-34 there was the comedy show "The White Owl Program" (more sponsoring cigars - perhaps that's how George got so attached to them!) a follow-up to the Panatela Show and also starring Burns and Allen. Again Knight and Ortega were the announcers.
"Big Sister" (CBS-Radio 1936-52) tales of events in the lives of the "Evans sisters" Here Ortega was cast as Dr. Duncan Carvell.
In another soap "The Man I Married" (NBC-Radio 1939-41 to CBS-Radio 1941-42) Van Heflin starred as the impoverished Adam Waring, a disinherited millionaire's son who, with his wife, tries to make a new life in a small town. Santos also had a running role that of Phineas Grant.
In "Ellery Queen"
the well-done crime drama series the young
Hugh Marlowe was the original
sophisticated Ellery who helps solve crimes, without pay, saying that the
work involved is merely research for the popular mystery books he writes. He
is, in fact, helping his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD, a
role originated by Santos Ortega (1939-47). He
had recently left his role "Lee Kirby"on the series Myrt and Marge
to take up the new character.
And in the "Big Sister" spin-off "Bright Horizon" (CBS-Radio 1941-45) Ortega was a regular cast member in the story of a bitter singer who pretends to be a warm-hearted idealistic man. Ortega was also narrator of "Green Valley U.S.A." (CBS-Radio 1942-44) which features tales of happenings in the lives of the inhabitants of a small country town.
Four actors starred in the title role of the mystery series "Bulldog Drummond"(Mutual 1941-47 and again in 1953-54). The first was George Coulouris, the second was Santos Ortega (1942-43), the third Ned Wever and the fourth Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Each portrayed his own version of the dashing Englishman (now "working in the U.S.A.") Capt. Hugh Drummond nicknamed Bulldog for his doggedness in tracking down criminals.
Many do remember his title role in "The Adventures of Nero Wolfe" (mystery) (NBC-Blue to ABC-Radio 1943-44 and Mutual 1945-46). J.B. Williams briefly played the part of Wolfe when the series was first broadcast on the New England Network in mid-1943. When it moved to ABC-Radio later in 1943 Ortega took over the role. Ortega was ably assisted by John Gibson as "his assistant, Archie". Creator of the characters, Rex Stout, thought the actors were fine but the plots were not. None of Stout's material was used ABC-Radio's chief script-writer wrote most of the scripts that Stout refused to even listen to. Stout, however, received royalties for the use of his characters (Wolfe, Archie, and Inspector Cramer). Nero Wolfe did not return to ABC-Radio after 1944 due to business disagreements. Ortega played the overweight, cranky, orchid-loving (10,000 of them on his roof) gourmet who never leaves his home, the epitome of an armchair detective to a tee. Assistant Archie does all the leg-work and brings the clues to his boss who proceeds to solve the mystery. Nero Wolfe had his own chef and someone to baby his orchids all 10,000 of them! Ortega's signature on the program was his opening each show with a wheeze.
From 1944-46 he was one of four to play famed attorney "Perry Mason" for CBS-Radio (1941-55). There was more gun-shootin' than court action on radio than on the eventual television series starring Raymond Burr.
More "criminal fare" again where Ortega was a regular cast member included "Crooked Square" (anthology - Mutual 1945)
After the Ellery Queen series ended did there come a change of character? - Yes! Santos now addressed himself to the role of "Charlie Chan" in a mystery series which started on NBC-Blue (went to Mutual, to NBC-Red, to ABC-Radio and back to Mutual 1932-48 inclusive) Ortega was the third actor to portray the beloved Oriental detective on radio (1947-48) , he was preceded by Walter Connally and Ed Begley and followed by the fourth William Rees. The radio audiences adored the delightful Chan, his wise sayings and the way he solved crimes all over the world aided and abetted by "#1 son Lee" (there were 14 Chan offspring in all).
In 1947 "The Shadow" (CBS-Radio to NBC-Radio to Mutual 1930-54) made use of Ortega's fine talent as one of six actors who played Commissioner Weston in this long-running mystery series. Ted De Corsia being one of the other six. Orson Welles at the tender age of twenty-two was the original "Shadow". The somewhat spoiled wealthy playboy & world-traveler who is amazingly proficient with his two revolvers (always with him) and who has the "power to cloud men's minds" through a form of hypnotism thus rendering himself invisible to them. He covers his face because it was damaged when he was "doing spy work for the United States" during World War I. "The Shadow" also known as Lamont Cranston works with police commissioner Weston to root out crime in the big city. Since the character did not appear regularly, Ortega was able to continue his other radio roles without much difficulty or conflict.
Along the way there was a game show "Who-Dun-It"
for CBS-Radio in 1948... wherein a mystery was shown on stage and one of
audience members who could name the culprit won $100.00 Bob Dixon hosted and
Ortega was Inspector Slade.
Ortega also starred in the title role in the superbly written crime drama "The Affairs of Peter Salem" (Mutual 1949-53) about a small-town detective who used his wits to thwart big-city lawbreakers.
Ortega had the title role in the daily crime drama "Hannibal Cobb" (ABC-Radio 1950-51) playing a private detective who gets involved in his clients' private lives. There was simultaneously a television version of this series starring Chuck Webster. Not much is known about the radio series.
In "City Hospital" (CBS-Radio 1951-58) he had the lead role of Dr. Barton Crane, the medical director of a big city hospital and his concern for and involvement in the lives of the patients. The radio version eventually became a television series. Ortega, however, seemed to gravitate towards crime series.
The coming of television did startle Santos somewhat as
we learn from this newspaper clip "Two veterans of 20 years of radio acting,
Michael Fitzmaurice and Santos Ortega, explained their mistrust of
television the other day with the simple universal word - money. They are
making a very good and very easy living in radio. Now this is seriously
threatened says Mr.Fitzmaurice. Ortega is as sour on television as
Fitzmaurice but differs with him on one point. He thinks radio actors should
get into television for experience in case radio just vanishes some day." (Article: Many Radio Stars Wish Video Wasn't Invested
by John Crosby - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sep 25, 1949).
On TV he was hired for a single shot as William 'Grandpa' Hughes in the
soap opera "As The World Turns" and the over-all reaction was so
good he was handed the part permanently, a role he held for 20 years
(1956-76).. "ATWT" was #1 in soaps for
20 years (1958-78).Ortega as Grandpa and veteran
actress Helen Wagner (50 years in the same role!) were performing in a scene
on a live set when they were interrupted (unbeknownst to them) by a bulletin
announcing that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. They finished their
scene and left the set and it was then that they heard the dreadful news.
Almost immediately Walter Cronkite came on with a permanent interruption. It
was a day the actors would never forget. "ATWT" was the first
daytime 1/2 hour soap. It accumulated 42 Daytime Emmy Awards. Another cast
member Don Hastings has played Dr. Bob Hughes for 45 years. Some of the
soap's graduates include Marisa Tomei, Meg Ryan, Cicely Tyson and the
marvelously-voiced James Earl Jones.
Santos Ortega was one of the stalwarts of Old Time Radio. Where his career is concerned there can never be any doubt about either his talent or his versatility.
Page first published on Oct 21. 2013
Latest update May 29. 2016
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