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ASIA'S BEST ACTOR
by Jose A. Quirino
Philippines Free Press, May 24, 1958
Despite Family Troubles And An Unhappy Past, Romeo Vasquez, At 19, Has Zoomed To The Top Of The Acting Heap. His Story Is The Tale Of A Boy Who Had To Be A Man Before His Time.
Three years ago, Romeo Vasquez was just an unknown 16-year-old high school student going around with a bunch of juvenile delinquents. Today at 19, he is Asia's best actor. The 12-man international board of jurors that judged the various entries in the Fifth Asia Film Festival gave Vasquez the Golden Harvest award, symbol of acting perfection, for his sensitive and moving portrayal of a juvenile delinquent turned good in "Ako Ang May Sala."
It may be pure coincidence but all the 14 films in which Romeo has appeared were box office hits. One of the pictures in which he starred -- "Sino Ang May Sala?" -- was the box office topnotcher for 1957 while another film where he portrayed the title role -- "Pretty Boy" -- was one of last year's 10 top moneymakers.
Romeo's fan mail -- over 500 a week -- is probably tops in the country. Nine out of 10 phone calls received at Sampaguita Pictures, his home studio, is for the curly topped and handsome actor. Whenever this writer visits the studio, he always hears someone at the phone calling for Bobby, Romeo's nickname.
"How do you handle all those calls for Bobby?" we asked Joe Tabirara, studio timekeeper.
"Oh, we always tell the callers that Bobby is away on location," Joe grinned. "If Vasquez were to answer all those phone calls, he would have no time for pictures."
For one who is very new in show business, Romeo's appeal to the masses is nothing short of a phenomenon. Old ladies love to baby him and actually hug and kiss him in public. Women in the family way pinch his cheeks and say: "You cute boy." One matron gushed: "Bobby, how I would like my child to look like you!"
Romeo's young fans -- particularly the teen-agers -- ask all sorts of souvenirs from him -- pieces of his clothing, a lock of hair, autographed pictures. Many of his fans write love letters to him; two or three have proposed marriage. Vasquez has become a speed demon -- he drives his own Mercury car -- out of necessity. Whenever fans see him slowing down, they crowd around his car, pinch his arms and kiss him. He showed this writer several welts on his hands and arms -- mementos from adoring admirers.
Has all this adulation gone to his head? He would not be human if were not affected by this show of mass affection. But he is no prima donna. For one thing, Dr. Jose Perez, who is a second father to Romeo, never spares the rod in a manner of speaking, whenever the boy shows signs of becoming a swell head.
"I bawl him out like the dickens whenever he goes out of step," Dr. Perez told me. Studio hands love to recall how, on the day of the awards, Vasquez received a tongue-lashing from Dr. Perez because he was late for an appointment.
Those who do not know Asia's best actor personally think that he is an extremely lucky guy with nary a care. Actually, the Romeo Vasquez story is the tale of a boy who had to be a man before his time. His screen characterization of a teen-ager beset with family troubles and spurned by society in "Sino Ang May Sala?" may well be the story of his life. If he is the personification of the juvenile delinquent on the silver screen, it is because according to his admission, he was one himself not so long ago.
Vasquez, who was born Ricardo Sumilang in Tayabas, Quezon, on April 9, 1939, has not had a normal and happy family life ever since his parents -- Dominador Sumilang, a copra dealer, and Salome Alandy -- separated when he was only 12. He is the fourth child in a family of six -- two girls and four boys.
Deprived of the steadying influence of a father, Bobby went astray, fell into bad company, and frequented poolrooms instead of attending classes at San Beda College, where he underwent elementary schooling.
"I have been expelled three times from three different schools -- San Beda, San Sebastian College and the Far Eastern University -- for one reason or another," Bobby candidly admits. "As early as the elementary grades, I used to sell my books and pawn my watch and ring in order that I could have a good time with my friends. I don't know how many lies I've told my mother regarding my books. Sometimes I told her that they had been stolen; at other times I said that they had been misplaced."
The boy is visibly shaken every time he talks about his family life. He is especially fond of his mother who, at 38, looks like his elder sister. "Mother married when she was only 17," he disclosed. Abruptly disgressing from his subject, he added: "In one scene in 'Ako Ang May Sala,' where I was asked by the director to cry, the tears came fast and naturally. You see, I have only to think about the sufferings of my mother. Crying comes easy after that."
Surprisingly enough, Bobby has only kind words for his father. "We are still the best of friends," he said. "The last time I saw him -- five months ago -- he wished me all the luck in the world. He told me to make good in my career and not to fall into bad company."
Bobby ran away from home when he was 15. "My mother scolded me when she learned that I was gambling and was not paying attention to my school lessons," he recalls. "I boarded a train with three friends and went to the Bicol region. However, I had to come back when I learned that my mother was suffering a lot."
Vasquez was discovered by Director Armando Garces while playing basketball in San Juan, Rizal. Garces relates: "One day in 1956, while I was slumming in San Juan, I saw a bunch of kids tossing a ball around. I was particularly impressed by the good looks of one boy and the way he moved around. I don't know why but I immediately thought that he was the personification of the juvenile delinquent."
Garces became more expansive: "I thought that the boy would look good in pictures. I spoke with some of the kids and asked them questions about Romeo. I called for the boy and asked him his name. He seemed arrogant and when I asked him if he was angry with me said: "Excuse me, Mister, but that's the way I talk." After learning that he would like to appear in pictures, I told him to report at the Sampaguita studio. I stayed around for a while to observe his mannerisms. I was further impressed when, despite the fact that he knew I was observing him, he did not try to show off."
Bobby passed his screen test with flying colors. He was immediately cast as an extra in "Rosanna," where he earned ten pesos. After bit parts in "Lydia" and "Rhodora," he was finally introduced as Romeo Vasquez in "Miss Tilapia." Then the fan mail started coming in. The studio authorities, quick to sense Romeo's growing popularity with the teen-agers, gave him bigger and juicier roles.
By 1957, his second year in the movies, he was receiving P1,500 per picture. He zoomed to the top of the acting heap in his seventh picture -- "Sino Ang May Sala?" -- with his able portraiture of a teen-age hooligan who becomes desperate because he is ignored by both his family and society. The role was tailor-made for Bobby, who had just gone through an emotional wringer. It was no play-acting on his part -- he wanted the whole world to witness the pageant of his bleeding heart.
"I went into my part like a man possessed," he now admits. "I thought about my troubles in the past and acted like a real juvenile delinquent."
Whatever doubts lingered in the minds of critics about the acting ability of Vasquez were dispelled when he scored another dramatic triumph in "Pretty Boy," where he portrayed the title role. In this picture -- it could have been the story of his life -- he became a man before his time because his father, ably played by FAMAS awardee Van de Leon, was so ruthless toward him that he was forced to a life of crime and faced all its cruel retributions.
It was not, however, until his 13th picture, "Ako Ang May Sala" ("Thirteen is a lucky number for me!"), that Bobby achieved dramatic intensity. In this film, he kills a man through reckless imprudence and tries to atone for his crime by slaving for the family of the victim. At first, the mother and sister of the deceased refuse his services but capitulate in the end because of his eagerness to please them. In the process, Bobby, the juvenile delinquent, finds himself and wins the love of the victim's sister, portrayed by beauteous Amalia Fuentes. It was his crackerjack acting in this film that won him the Golden Harvest award as best actor.
Two of the proudest persons on award night were Director Armando Garces, the man who discovered Bobby and handled most of his pictures, and Van de Leon, his private dramatic coach. "We never doubted that the boy has what it takes to be a good actor," the two chimed. "His winning the Golden Harvest award justified our faith in him."
Garces believes that Vasquez is really serious over his acting career. "What I like best about Bobby is his eagerness to learn and his patience," Garces pointed out. "He knows his limitations, too. For example, we had to rehearse the scene in 'Ako Ang May Sala' showing him and his father (Van de Leon) having an argument for one whole day because Bobby claimed he was not ready to do the scene."
Van de Leon, Romeo's dramatic coach, says that the boy is game all the way. "In one scene in 'Pretty Boy' where I messed up his face, he never cried Uncle although I really pummelled him. That boy can really take it," Van beamed.
Vasquez himself says that his winning the Oscar means more work for him. "Before," he chuckled, "I did not attempt to analyze my performances. Now I have to watch every step because people expect a lot from me. I just cannot let my fans down."
Bobby's career is gradually helping him find his own self. "Entering the movies was the one big break I had been waiting for all these years," he intimated. "I am glad, too, that Dr. Perez and Mommy Vera are very strict with me. It would be easy to fall back into my old ways without their steadying influence."
Dr. Perez has big plans for Vasquez. This year, he will enroll the boy at his own expense at the Ateneo de Manila, where he will finish high school. "I hope the padres there will straighten him out for good," he said.
Saddling The Whirlwind
Sampaguita authorities admit that the process of transforming Vasquez into a responsible artist has not been easy. "This job of taming Romeo Vasquez is like saddling the whirlwind," one executive opined.
For one thing, Bobby, who has a lot of girls chasing after him, still leads a whale of a nightlife. "If Bobby does not watch out," a studio hand quipped, "he may find himself one of the principals in a shotgun wedding one of these days."
Bobby has learned to control his terrible temper. Occasionally, however, he still puts up his dukes when really provoked. Only recently, he and two other stars -- Carlos Salazar and Juancho Gutierrez -- figured in a fight with 20 teen-agers in Baguio. While shooting scenes for "Madaling Araw," Bobby's latest picture, several teen-age toughies approached the set and made disparaging remarks about Romeo. One busybody commented wryly: "So that is Romeo Vasquez. He looks very stupid." Vasquez became red in the face but he wanted to avoid trouble so he just grinned. Later, however, the hooligans followed Bobby and his two companions to a restaurant. The trio called for the cops, but, before the police could arrive, the roughnecks -- about 20 according to the police record -- surrounded the actors. "What else could we do but fight?" Bobby now says. Fortunately, the three actors had received judo and boxing lessons from the studio instructor and the teen-agers got the worse of the exchange.
On the subject of girls and marriage, Bobby says: "I am too concerned over my career to think about girls seriously. I'll marry only when I'm good and ready, preferably when I am 28." His dream girl "must be pretty, passionate, intelligent and, above all, understanding."
Bobby's name has been romantically linked with those of many girls, not all actresses. But the most persistent rumor says that he is going steady with Amalia Fuentes, another teen-age sensation who has been his leading lady in many pictures. Bobby just smiles when Amalia's name is mentioned. Amalia, on the other hand, told this writer when asked about the truth of the report: "It is a woman's privilege to refuse to comment on the matter."
Amalia, however, admires and respects Vasquez. "Bobby is so helpful around the set," she says. "In that scene in 'Ako Ang May Sala' where I fell into the river, I was so scared that I didn't want to go through with it. It was Bobby who convinced me that the whole thing was easy as pie."
But Bobby is by no means a perfect actor. "He has a tendency to dramatize situations which are inherently dramatic," Director Garces pointed out. "For example, in one scene in 'Madaling Araw' where Bobby portrays a Philippine Military Academy cadet, he was too emotional when reporting his own brother for a violation of the academy's honor code. I told him to relax because the situation was dramatic in itself."
Gregorio Fernandez, a director from a rival studio, on the other hand, raved over Bobby's performance in "Ako Ang May Sala." "That boy will go places," he remarked.
Vasquez now gets P4,000 for every picture, besides bonuses for every creditable performance. Not bad for a boy who has been only three years in show business. He is now shouldering all the family expenses.
Indeed, the Romeo Vasquez of today is a very far cry from the Ricardo Sumilang of three years ago. It is to his eternal credit that he has lifted himself with his own bootstraps. The good breaks are coming his way. After all the heartaches and mental anguish brought about by a broken home, Asia's best actor deserves the best.
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