MANILA, Philippines – On the set of “Alay kay Da King,” a new TV special on the life and times of Action King Fernando Poe Jr., segment host and “Star for All Seasons” Vilma Santos reminisces about her favorite leading man. But, in the middle of a heartfelt spiel, she’s interrupted by a passing ambulance, an airplane … and a tricycle. Since the production is using live sound, such incidental noises can grate on some people’s nerves. Not Ate Vi’s. The Batangas governor jests: “Maybe Ron (FPJ’s nickname) is toying with us.”
That’s a seldom-seen side of Da King, she later tells Inquirer Entertainment in an exclusive interview. “He’s a jester.” Paired in three movies (1974’s “Batya’t Palo-Palo,” 1976’s “Bato sa Buhangin” and 1996’s “Ikaw ang Mahal Ko”), they shared an uncommon friendship that withstood the test of time … and, she recalls candidly, political intrigues.
Although she’s recovering from an illness, she turned up at the studio in Parañaque, a day after the Manila Peninsula debacle, to tape the TV special, to be aired Dec. 9 on ABS-CBN. The TV special was put together by the Kapamilya network, Asian Eye Productions and the Poe family to premiere a 38-minute music video that was edited by Da King shortly before his passing three years ago. The music video is composed of choice scenes from his 200 or so movies—including those with favorite leading ladies, from Charito Solis to Sharon Cuneta, and favorite co-actors, from Van de Leon to Lito Anzures. Da King’s pet cause, Mowelfund, is the project’s main beneficiary. Highlight of the music video is a scene from “Batya’t Palo-Palo”—which Ate Vi considers “unforgettable.”
What’s it like shooting this TV special? I miss Ron. I really miss Ron. When I saw his pictures on the set, I told everyone: It’s as if he never left us. He’s still here; we just don’t see him.
How did it feel when you saw the wedding scene from your first movie together? Memories! I started reminiscing instantly. I want to ask Ate Susan (Roces, FPJ’s wife) nga for DVD copies of our three movies. I was only 21 when we made “Batya.” Ninety percent of the movie was shot in Hacienda Luisita (Tarlac) where we stayed for two months. He taught me how to swim in the hacienda’s swimming pool. We were with (co-star) Lorna Tolentino then. I admit that I didn’t know how to swim when I did “Dyesebel.” But the most memorable scene [from “Batya”] was the ending, where I ran after him, while he was aboard a train.
What did you call him again? Ron.
What did he call you? Vi! But I call Ate Susan, Ate Susan.
What was the real Ronnie Poe like? Oh my God! It’s true what [the special’s] script says: He was the quiet type. Very sensitive and the most generous man I ever met in the entire industry. Please allow me to generalize. Among all my leading men, no one’s like him. It’s true that if you were his leading lady, he’d treat you like a queen. He’d give you everything you needed and wanted, just to make you feel comfortable. However, he extended the same respect and care to the staff. One time, I craved balut. He bought balut not only for me, but for the entire crew. The mambabalut ran out of balut so Ron asked him to call his vendor friends. Ron treated everyone on the set equally. That’s why he’s the most respected actor in the industry, along with Dolphy. It’s a well-earned respect. You cannot buy that respect. You have to work for it. He was not an overnight success. He started as a stuntman, as an extra. He started from scratch.
That was something you shared? Yah! And we both joined politics. When I first ran as mayor [of Lipa in 1998], Ron was among the few people I sought, for advice. He told me one thing: “You can do it. You have the character for politics. But can you give up your earnings as an actress?” (Laughs.) The next time we saw each other was at the wedding of Aga Muhlach and Charlene Gonzalez in Baguio two years later. I was then running for a second term, so he teased me: “I thought you didn’t want to run?” Then, two years later, we saw each other again at the Metro Manila Film Fest parade, we both had entries then (hers, “Dekada ‘70;” his, “Ang Alamat ng Lawin”). It was my turn to tease him: “I heard you’re running?” I asked if he was really considering it and he told me that he’d rather not, but that he couldn’t ignore the public clamor. Unfortunately, we ended up in different political parties when he ran for president in 2004 (she’s with the administration; he was an oppositionist). We were even pitted against each other. There was a rumor that I didn’t allow him to campaign in Lipa. But our friendship went beyond politics.
Did you get to talk to him after that? Yah. But we only talked about our friendship. The only time politics was mentioned was when he congratulated me on my work as mayor. He never mentioned the controversies. But that’s Ron. He was a class act. That’s why I have such high respect for him.
What’s the secret of the FPJ charm? It was in his character. He was very malambing (affectionate). When in the mood, he was also a comedian. Very caring.
Why does the masa love him so? That’s the magic of Ronnie Poe. I’m also an actor; my life is the masa, but that’s something I can’t explain.
Was it because he was makatao (pro-people), matulungin (helpful) and mapagkumbaba (humble)? Was it because he made movies that told the stories of the masses? He also gave importance to the principles and struggles of our Muslim brothers. That’s why he’s still well-loved in Mindanao. There’s this famous story. His movie (“Eseng ng Tondo”) was playing in a [Quiapo] moviehouse. In the scene, he was about to be shot by his enemy (played by Chuck Perez). An audience member shouted: “Duck!” Then, someone shot at his enemy on the movie screen!
What were the lessons you picked up from him? That, in spite of your fame and achievements, you should keep your feet on the ground and continue to help those who have less in life.
After doing this special, how did your perception of FPJ change? It just confirmed what I already knew. I really meant every word I said in the spiels. Even if the world turned upside down, no one can replace him. Like I said at the end of my spiel “Long live Ron!” – Bayani San Diego Jr., Inquirer, 12 02 2007