Johnny Delgado, 1948 - 2009
Juan Marasigan Feleo was born on February 29, a leap-year child, the son of director Ben Feleo and Victorina Marasigan. He had taken up banking and finance in the University of Santo Tomas; his first acting role was in his father's Sa Manlulupig, Di Ka Pasisiil (Never to invaders shall you surrender, 1967). He tried lead roles for a while (One-Man Army, same year; Machinegun Johnny and the Sexy Queen, 1970), then made the decision--a smart one, in retrospect--to shift his attention to character roles.
One remembers his anguished husband in the classic Salome (1981, directed by his wife Laurice Guillen), the shame, guilt, anger and humiliation at caring for a sexually ravenous, mentally erratic wife culminates in an act of punishment so cruel one finds oneself shrinking away from him. Delgado had that kind of fearlessness, the ability to play the role whatever it takes, unafraid to completely lose the audience' sympathy. Or rather, confident that whatever he does will only add to the character's complexity, ultimately lead to the audiences' sustained fascination.
Villains came easy to him; he had a strong, chiseled face, and a beard that framed that strength with what seemed like bestial fur, and when he stared at you with those huge eyes he gave the impression of a wild man barely in control, ready to tear into you with his hands, perhaps fangs. Yet even a cartoon portrayal like the Pinoy Grandmaster of the Japanese smuggling ring in Mike de Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will your heart beat faster? 1980) is precisely calibrated never to lose its sense of humor--when he's shot (and in a delightful touch De Leon has animated bubbles and stars popping like an unexpected belch out of the wound), he throws you a hateful glare that should shatter the camera lenses, but there's just this extra something, this slight exaggeration of gesture, that lets you know this is his King Kong moment, and he means to make the most of it. The expression, in effect, is unutterably tragic, but your reaction is hopelessly, exuberantly cathartic.
Then there's the fraternity physician in Mike De Leon's Batch '81--and here it must be noted that for a filmmaker others claim to be so bizarre and cut off from people, De Leon is able to elicit all these radically different yet rigorously naturalistic performances, even from the same actor--anyway, this physician is the very height of Socratic professionalism while examining Sid Lucero (Mark Gil). He gently touches one of Sid's bruises, chides the frat masters for beating the boy too harshly, and--oh, so casually--applies a surgical clamp on the boy's bluish skin.
More clamps follow; Sid's skin and face are visibly turning red from the pain (this is a very difficult scene to watch), and all the while Delgado's soothing, calm, professional voice drones on, and on, spinning the scene quietly into nightmare.
Late in life Delgado played more dramatic roles--the first to grab attention was his award-winning performance as the moody brother in Guillen's Tanging Yaman (2000), an otherwise feel-good, somewhat fuzzy family reunion of a movie; whatever edge or sense of genuine pain found in the film came from his ever-unsettling, never-lazy performance. In Guillen's underrated Santa Santita (2004), he helps write the script, plays the relatively small role of Fr. Tony and, in a scene where he's required to do nothing more than sit and listen to Angelica Panganiban, walks away with the scene tucked snugly in his pocket. As the family patriarch in Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2007), he is again an unreservedly hateful presence, a tyrant whose will is never defied, much less questioned, by his three daughters.
Delgado's dead, and I suppose it's a truism to say that doesn't mean he's completely dead, that he lives on in his performances, preserved (more or less) on celluloid and in our memories--but calling the idea a truism and repeating it for the nth time doesn't make it any less true. He was a wonderful actor, by all accounts a wonderful man, he had a wonderful run of performances, and while we love and remember him he will never die.