More than week after Mario O’Hara’s passing on June 26 due to leukemia, friends and former colleagues poured out their memories of the acclaimed director’s colorful career in media and the performing arts industry.
One of them is Felix “Nonon” Padilla, founding artistic director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Tanghalang Pilipino, who wrote a eulogy about his “level-headed,” “down-to- earth,” “gym rat” friend.
He recounts his first meeting with Mario during the early days of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), and how he transitioned from working in theater to radio, television, and finally to cinema, where he found his true passion in directing films.
"I met Mario in the early days of PETA when his good friend Lino Brocka cast him in a production, at Fort Santiago, of Agapito Joaquin’s Bubungan Lata.
"He was paired off with a young actress called Cecilia Bulaong. It was a one-act play, short but intense drama about domestic violence.
"CB, with those sparkling round eyes, gave an ‘over-the-top’ performance as the battered wife.
"I say ‘over-the-top’ because she was so young then, and still a virgin. As an actress, I mean!
"Mario, playing the spoiled-rotten husband, reciprocated with equal intensity.
"Their eyes would meet and fireworks happened. The more they searched for each other’s face for reaction, the heat increased to combustion.
"Here were two neophyte actors who were always giving their all, spilling their guts and bursting veins to the enormous enjoyment of the audience, which mainly consisted of instant hakot of park strollers, begged and cajoled, or physically pulled to watch performances at the Rajah Sulayman Theater.
"When Martial Law was declared, Cecile Guidote made a lifetime decision to put her artistic vocation on the back burner, and opted for a life in politics and exile.
"Lino, Lily Mendoza (now Mrs. O'Boyle), CB, and the other members of PETA, including myself, re-organized ourselves to start PETA anew.
"I was elected Artistic Director of the Kalinangan Ensemble. Our first season of 1973-74 was Carlo Goldoni’s Alitan Sa Venetia, with Lily and Mario as the romantic leads; and with a cast that included Mitch (Maya) Valdes, Melvi Pacubas, Mon Puno, Spanky Manikan, Rolly Papasin, Dante Balois, Lorli Villanueva, Ivy Cosio, Joe Gruta and Ernie Zarate.
"The next play I directed was Paul Dumol’s Cabesang Tales, which had previously won the CCP Literary contest.
"Again, I cast Mario in the lead role. And it was this play that defined Mario as an actor.
"Cabesang Tales was a talky play, much like Bernard Shaw’s scripts, full of arguments and debates. Paul had organized the scenes as a series of fairly short episodes—Brechtian in structure and didactic in form.
"Orlando Nadres was cast as Tata Selo. The lines were kilometric speeches. I agonized over the length, worried it would bore everyone to death. But the playwriting proved exceptional.
"As a director, I used the full extent of the space, shifting scenes from one space to the next, or jumping to the upper rampart of the wall, back to the side parts, giving a heady, cinematic rhythm to the production.
"Both Mario and Dandy Nadres gave thrillingly involved performances as they argued endlessly over the pursuit of a land case involving the question of ownership of farmlands leased from the Friars.
"Mario had an extraordinary vocal equipment that resonated throughout the Rajah Sulayman.
"His voice was so powerful, it was fit for Epidaurus, the Greek theater of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
"His performance was Promethean, transforming an ordinary, naïve peasant, into titanic proportion, and magnifying the theme of justice into mythic realm.
"The success of Cabesang Tales sealed our artistic relationship for life. Over four decades, Mario and I have been part of a creative team.
"Many productions followed after Cabesang Tales, subject to Mario’s schedule as he traversed jobs from radio, TV, and making movies.
"I will say that Mario’s real love as a creative artist was the cinema.
"But for economic reasons, radio and television sustained him for many years.
"It was the radio that trained him as an actor and writer.
"As actor he would voice multiple characters in a series of soap operas that was transmitted every single day of the year.
"He wrote, directed and acted out the voices of his characters.
"Experience and expediency taught him quickly how to effectively tell a story, how to stretch moments and create suspense by withdrawing information, and subverting audience expectation.
"Mario was never classically trained in literature or the other arts.
"It was his practical experience in the radio that formed the foundation of his artistry. And a wonderful storyteller he turned out to be.
"I must declare that Mario was the untold secret behind Lino Brocka’s success.
"As early as Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, he was the friend who came to the rescue.
"Lino had sales-talked many friends to invest in a movie corporation which he called Cinemanila Foundation.
"When the likes of Christian Monsod, Raul Roco and others gave him the go signal and the requisite finances to start production of Tinimbang, Lino Brocka found himself in a corner with a writer’s block.
"He had boasted to all that he intended to write the script of Tinimbang Ka.
"It was Mario who, level-headed as always, offered at the last minute to write the script for him. They sat down over lunch, so Mario could get the details of the narrative.
"In two weeks time, Mario delivered the script that proved to become Lino’s seminal masterpiece in Philippine Cinema.
"A string of scripts followed that kept Lino supplied with dramatic material.
"Insiang began as a radio script by Mely Tagasa, then transformed by Mario into a TV script, and finally made into a movie.
"Mario’s passion was to direct movies and he did many, indeed.
"But the industry cowered from his uncompromising ways.
"Mario ended with less and less producers willing to bankroll his projects.
"Mario’s down-to-earth personality always kept him at bay from despair and depression.
"If the movie industry recoiled to become moribund, Mario moved on to another world of creativity.
"That is when he would make it known to me or other theater groups that he was willing to act in plays again.
"In casting, I had always relied on Mario as first choice, and always breathed a sigh of relief when he readily accepted.
"He was a humble soul. He had few demands.
"Jojo Casim, our production manager in Tanghalang Pilipino, e-mailed me to reminisce how easy it was to work with Mario.
"He never gave us any ego problems. He was a team player, who was so keenly aware of the actor’s art of give-and-take.
"Mario always gave more of himself than he took, scaling down his performance to accommodate a fellow actor’s insecurity or inadequacy.
"In building the Actors’ Company for Tanghalang Pilipino, I decided to cast him with the bagets, as in Julius Caesar.
"He blended right away with the company. Except that during some performances, when he’d get carried away, his strong powerful voice made the rest look inevitably like sissies or theater sluts.
"But they learned from his professional ways, his generosity of spirit, his civility, his dedication and discipline.
"Mario was a joy to direct, because during rehearsals, as one progressed discussing character and content, he would try out many acting options, nuancing his lines and reactions, and discovering many creative moments that other actors would only discover on the sixteenth or the last performance of the run.
"Once he knew the mold of the character, he was free to play with the quirks of the character, plunging into the core of drama, generating life in the play, making the role organic, always recognizably human, and totally original.
"The clarity of his diction, the resonance of his voice, his wide spectrum of emotion, put him among the select few of Filipino thespians like Vic Silayan and Jose Mari Avellana.
"He is among the royal titans. I have long called him Sir Mario O’Hara.
"Except for his family and close friends, few knew that Mario was not Filipino.
"He was born an American after the war in 1946 (Journalists! Please take note, he was 66, not 68).
"He had a blue American passport, pristine, unused, and totally virginal.
"Mario always feigned aerophobia and never travelled anywhere, not even to Cebu or Mindanao by plane.
"Though his name and blood claimed him as American, his soul was pure Pinoy.
"The center of his life and the source of his strength was the O’Hara compound in Bangkal, Pasay, with a special affection and devotion to Doña Basilisa, whom everyone in the family calls Mamang, his mother and the matriarch of the O’Hara family, and who at 91, is still a lovely spring chick.
"He was the family marshall, who ordered his forty-year-old nephews or nieces home at his proscribed curfew, if he spotted them at the corner drinking or smoking with their barkadas.
"He was the director of the family Noche Buena entertainment that was de rigeur for all nephews and nieces to attend and follow his strict scheduled rehearsals and vocal practice, one week before Christmas.
"Bangkal has been the source of so many stories for Mario. It was also his acting source for character study.
"When I asked him how he approached the character of Mephistopheles in PETA’s otherwise forgettable production of Faust (O’Hara was the only standout), he told me with a grin on his lips that he based it on the neighborhood thug who was a policeman in Bangkal.
"Mario was a gym rat all his life, exercising to death, swimming infinite number of laps, lifting weights, sweating off fat to build muscle.
"He had incredible stamina that no one could beat.
"Even in drinking, he could down 14 pitchers of beer, and still walk home straight, while the rest of his barkada had long crawled under the table.
"In his later years, he shifted to walking as a form of exercise.
"Every afternoon, he would undertake a pedestrian odyssey, starting from Bangkal all the way down to Roxas Boulevard, to CCP, to Luneta, to Quiapo, to Rizal Avenue, to Divisoria, onwards to Del Pan, to Port Area, and back to Roxas Boulevard, till he reached back home in Pasay.
"Frank Rivera one day was foolish enough to accept Mario’s invitation to accompany him in his walkathon.
"When they reached Rizal Avenue, Frank begged Mario for them to take a taxi home (showing his wallet that the taxi was on him).
"Mario walked on undisturbed without missing a step. After that, Frank says he slept for three days out of sheer exhaustion.
"If Nick Joaquin had Intramuros as his crater of inspiration, Mario had Bangkal and Metro Manila as his.
"I once asked him why he took the route he took, and he answered me simply, 'It is when I walk that I get inspiration to write—from seeing all sorts of people.'
"Babae sa Breakwater is a case in point.
"There was a taong grasa along Roxas Boulevard that he passed everyday. Curious and intrigued, he stopped one day to talk to her.
"That interview transformed into his late cinematic masterpiece, shown in Cannes several years back, a festival he chose to ignore despite an all-expense paid invitation.
"His marathon paseos did give him stamina.
"When he called for me to visit him in San Juan de Dios Hospital (a most unusual request from Mario), I encountered the same robust-looking Mario.
"He had not lost weight. He had his usual heft. Only his complexion was slightly sallow and jaundiced.
"'He had been depressed,' Peewee, his sister-in-law, said.
"He had had a heart attack that kept him in the ICU for two weeks. Only through a battery of tests did his doctors discover his malignant leukemia.
"And so, I was given a face mask to enter the room, for his immune system was already seriously compromised.
"After the usual bantering, we came to the heart of the matter and talked of grave matters. He wanted to be cremated.
"I kidded him, protesting that I have not done my Hamlet yet. I will need a Yorick.
"With a glint in his eye, he answered, ‘Pwede ka naman gumamit ng prop!’
"‘Di pwede, Mario, kailangan pa kita. Kailangan si Yorick, full acting pa rin!’
"He could not laugh his usual guffaw but I did make my friend smile.
"He looked at his nephew, Heber, and said, ‘Tignan mo kaming matatanda, pwede naming pag-usapan ang kamatayan na walang iyakan.'
"Mario never cried, and I am sure today, he will still scoff at it, despite death’s discourtesy in plucking him hastily from our midst.
"In many of our productions, like North Diversion Road or Ulilang Tahanan, I wanted Mario to shed quiet tears at the end of the drama.
"He would give me a pitiful look and exclaim, ‘'Yan ang hindi ko magawa. (Long pause.) I-fe-fake ko na lang. Magtiwala ka, buong audience hahagulgol!'
"And true to his word, my dear friend proved to be a certified ham. Wonderful and effective beyond belief!
"We have both served the same creative and poetic muse for more than four decades. And I am pained to know that I will miss him dearly.
"Although theater is all about fakery and illusion, we both believed that through our humble offerings and libations, we have brought some light and hope upon this blighted land of ours.
"As farewell, let me end with a prayer for the Good Lord to receive Mario into His Light.
"Receive him, Lord, and graciously accept his broken soul and make him whole again in your long-cherished embrace.
"At sa aking huling yakap, let me quote the Roman Poet, Ovid, who was the inspiration of so many Renaissance poets and artists, including Shakespeare.
"In all creation, trust me
There is no death—no death, but only change
And innovation; what we men call birth
Is but a different new beginning; death
Is but to cease to be the same…
"You have now grown wings, my friend!
"Fly home, Sir Mario O’Hara!