As a Feisty Detective, Latin Beauty Saundra Santiago Adds Spice to Miami Vice

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Imagine torrid love scenes with Don Johnson. Think of his lips—full and pouty. Picture your hands running up and down his muscular back. (Ignore the fact that you'd suffer chafe marks from his raw silk blazer, or that his feet probably smell from not wearing socks.) Saundra Santiago, Miami Vice's raven-haired no-nonsense Detective Gina Calabrese, has passionately puckered with one of the show's resident sex symbols and, she says, the boy is truth in advertising. "Don's a good kisser," reports the 29-year-old beauty. "He loves women."

Santiago used to be one of the chosen, but strictly in a professional sense. In the show's first year she was romantically linked to Johnson's Sonny Crockett character. Or, as they say in superhip Vice lingo, they were "there" for each other. These days the scripts call for more of a "brother and sister kind of affection," giving Johnson time to leave his lip prints on luscious guest stars.

Dispite the loss of romantic fringe benefits, Santiago is the picture of contentment, as she munches on a chocolate croissant in the living room of her rented town house in Miami's artsy Coconut Grove section. Her small but pivotal portrayal in the hit series has energized her career. She recently completed a three-week run in the stage musical I Love My Wife in Miami (Johnson sent a dozen roses on opening night). Vice has been nice. "I'm constantly amazed by the attention we get," she says, sipping Cuban coffee. "Don and Philip eat up all that. I get shell-shocked."

Each of the players brings something different to the set. There is Santiago and her pranks. She recently flashed Edward James (Lieutenant Castillo) Olmos and says, "The color of his face is something I will never forget." There is Philip Michael Thomas and his mirror. "Philip is in love with himself," she observes. "I don't think that's such a negative thing. People misunderstand him." Then there is Johnson and his charm and temperament. "Boy, does he tell it like it is," says Santiago. "Not like me. I hold it in and then blow up." Though the temptation to be overly friendly is there—"Don and I do flirt a lot"—Santiago says flatly, "It's not a good idea to date a co-worker." If she can't make an exception this time, then this is a woman of immovable principles.

But then she was raised with solid values. Born in the Bronx to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, Santiago lived a sheltered Catholic girlhood. "I was raised a certain way," she says. That way was straitlaced. It didn't change when her father, a foreman in a New Jersey confections factory, moved his wife, daughter and son to Miami in 1970, where Saundra attended South Dade High School. There she was a cheerleader, homecoming queen and student-body president. She later enrolled at the University of Miami with plans to teach the handicapped. Acting never crossed her mind. "Can you imagine a Catholic girl wanting to become an actress?" says Santiago. "My mother would have had a heart attack.... The casting couch and all." In her sophomore year, however, she spotted a notice for tryouts for a stage production of West Side Story, one of her favorite childhood movies. She didn't get a part, but the auditions whetted her appetite for more, and eventually she became a star on campus. "I was no Meryl Streep but I got good reviews," she says.

After graduating in 1979 with a degree in drama, Santiago sought more theatrical training and enrolled in a two-year acting studies program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "All I remember about those two years was crying," she says. Her professors said her shoulders slumped and her accent grated. On probation in speech and voice most of the time, she finally won her degree and zoomed to New York.

Things promptly got worse. She found an agent easily enough, but her living arrangements were pathetic. For a while she shared a five-bedroom, downtown Manhattan loft with seven people, including a French male dancer who wore her makeup, an American ballerina who collected dead flowers and a Russian dancer who never paid rent. Her repertoire of housing horror stories only increased when she moved uptown with a girlfriend. They arrived home one night to find that their stairway had been removed by a work crew renovating the restaurant next door.

Good things were starting to happen, though. In her 1983 Broadway debut, she earned glowing reviews in a revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. Then she met casting director Bonnie Timmerman, who proposed her for Miami Vice and later for the 1984 film Beat Street. Her personal life heated up as well. While working as a singing waitress in Manhattan, she fell in love and lived with fellow waiter (and struggling actor) Merwan Mehta, the son of maestro Zubin Mehta. "He was serious, wonderful, quiet, unassuming, and I was sure he would be the father of my children someday," she says. But he ended the relationship last fall, after three and a half years. "I think he had lived under his father's fame all those years," reflects Santiago. With the success of Miami Vice, "we'd walk into a room and everyone knew me. It was the same problem all over again and he couldn't take it." For a while she became cautious with men. "I don't want to be disappointed again," she says. "I'm a great sufferer." Late last year, she encountered comic Paul (a.k.a. Pablo) Rodriguez, 29. "He came up and proposed to me," says Santiago of their first meeting. They dated for a while, but now "we're just friends."

For the moment life is wonderful. So wonderful that she recently returned from her first trip to Europe and is considering buying an apartment in New York. She can also enjoy impulsive purchases such as a $40 designer bed for her Shih Tzu, Prince. As a volunteer worker with the Miami police department, she often gives speeches at area schools, and Johnson calls her a "great role model for the Latin community." Yet she remembers the early days of Miami Wee when she, Johnson and Thomas would occasionally rap after the wrap at a nearby restaurant. "We can't even go out now," she says wistfully. Maybe things were more fun when Miami Wee was just a series, and the guys—Johnson and Thomas—just her pals.

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