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Mario O’Hara: First an actor, second a writer, and lastly a director

MANILA – The much-loved and respected Mario Herrero O’Hara — who breezed through the limitations of and thrived in the media of radio, television, film, and theater long before the word “multi-media” was invented — once described himself as “first an actor, second a writer, and lastly a director”.

In his death, however, his colleagues in the broadcast, film, and theater communities will remember fondly his body of innovative works on stage and the movies, most especially his close and constant creative collaboration with director Lino O. Brocka, who was proclaimed a national artist in 1997, and the legendary actress Nora Aunor.

Aunor, who won her first Urian Award in a film by O’Hara, is said to have the distinction of having appeared in the most number of films either written and/or directed by the late director, who died on June 26 of cardiac arrest as a complication of acute leukemia at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Pasay City. He was 66.

Unknown to many, O’Hara disliked his English subjects both in high school and university days. But he was grateful to his English teachers in Padre Zamora Southeastern College in Pasay City for introducing him to English literature.

Born in Zamboanga City on April 20, 1946, his mother Basilisa Herrero, and his father, the one-time UP Dramatic Club member Jaime O’Hara, moved their family to a middle-class Pasay City neighborhood which shared walls with tough and chaotic inner communities in the district.

The brash neighborhood was where O’Hara grew up, interacted with its inhabitants, and found many of his inspirations and characters in his works, which were patently marked by searing, ruthless realities of everyday living.

O’Hara’s mother had Spanish lineage while his father was of Irish-American ancestry. In 1963, the then 17-year-old O’Hara ditched his chemical engineering studies at the Adamson University. He found his 3rd year college academic load too burdensome to focus on while at the same time doing radio dramas at the Manila Broadcasting Corp. and DZRH.

He worked in radio stations and television channels 2 and 11 from 1963 to 1970. O’Hara directed episodes or installments of television series “Lovingly Yours, Helen,” “Flordeluna,” and “Alitaptap sa Gabing Madilim.”

He met Brocka, who was seven years his senior, at the Manila Broadcasting Corp. in 1968. Soon, Brocka pitched to O’Hara the job of “series announcer” for his new television series, “Balintataw.”

This initial cooperation paved the way for decades of warm friendship and artistic alliance between the then two neophytes. It would also lead O’Hara to movies and theater, as an actor, writer, and director.

O’Hara joined the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) in 1969, further
solidifying his association and teamwork with Brocka. He acted various roles for stage
plays mounted by PETA, Dulaang UP, Tanghalang Pilipino, and other theater groups.

Among his major roles in stage plays were: “Kabesang Tales,” (1975), “Panunuluyan,” “Noli
Me Tangere,” “El Filibusterismo,” “Laruang Kariton,” “Mac Malicsi,” “TNT,” “On North
Diversion Road,” “Flores Para Los Muertos,” “Kudeta,” (2008), “Tatlong Mariya,” (2010),
and “American Hwangap” (2010).

He won the Best Lead Actor prize at the 3rd Philstage Gawad Buhay Awards for “American Hwangap.”

O'Hara in a publicity photo for 'American Hwangap.

 

Venturing into film production, Brocka established the CineManila film outfit together with
close associates, and directed “Tinimbang Ka, Ngunit Kulang” starring O’Hara and the iconic Lolita Rodriguez top billing the cast in its first production released in 1974.

A 17-year-old Christopher de Leon was featured and introduced in the movie, a love story
between a leper (O’Hara as “Bertong Ketong”) and an insane woman (Rodriguez). Scripted by O’Hara, “Tinimbang Ka, Ngunit Kulang” was an instant box office hit.

With Lolita Rodriguez in 'Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang'.

 

In his long productive partnership with Brocka, O’Hara’s strong background in radio
program production was immensely useful, notably in music cueing. O’Hara had once
confided that the celebrated Brocka had perpetual problems with cueing his music in a
scene.

Brocka’s failure in a film project launched O’Hara’s directorial debut. CineManila’s second
offering “Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa” (1974), directed by Brocka, was a box office catastrophe,
prompting him step aside momentarily and give O’Hara a chance to direct his first
film, “Mortal” (1975).

Sadly, “Mortal,” a psychological drama about a a man sent to jail for murdering
his wife which O’Hara also wrote, was also a miserable flop.

O’Hara’s big break and chance to redeem himself from this commercial disaster came also courtesy of Brocka, who passed up a chance to do another movie with Aunor and instead tossed the project to O’Hara.

“Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” (1976) started taking shape when Aunor approached
O’Hara and requested him to come up with a movie that would have her, De Leon, and an
upcoming Bembol Roco in the lead roles.

For “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” O’Hara revisited the script for an old television series, “Hilda”, set in the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. It was a daring move because the script was sympathetic to the innocent Japanese soldiers sent to the Philippines, who were portrayed by O’Hara as victims of war, too.

Among the scripts he had written for films which were directed by Brocka were: “Cadena
de Amor” (1971), “Tinimbang Ka, Ngunit Kulang” (1974), “Insiang” (1976), and “Hayop sa
Hayop” (1978).

He also wrote the scripts for “Bakit Bughaw ang Langit” (1981), “Bulaklak sa City Jail”
(1984), “Bagong Hari” (1984), “The Fatima Buen Story” (1994), “Sisa” (1999), “Babae Sa
Breakwater” (2003), which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight
in 2003 and awarded the title as one of Urian’s Best Film of the Decade, and “Ang Paglilitis
ni Andres Bonifacio” for Cinemalaya Film Festival 2010’s Director’s Showcase.

Among his awards were Metro Manila Film Festival’s (MMFF) Best Screenplay
for “Rubia Servios in 1978; MMFF Best Director for “Bulaklak sa City Jail” in
1984; and MMFF Best Director and MMFF Best Actor for “Halimaw” in 1986.

He acted in films such as “Santiago” (1970), “Tubog sa Ginto” (1971), “Stardoom”
(1972), “Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa” (1974), and “Gumising Ka, Maruja” (1978).

O’Hara also showed his brilliance as a playwright when he won the first prize in the
Sarswela category of the Centennial Literary Prize in 1998 for his work “Palasyo ni
Valentin.”

From Oct. 10 to 21, this year, a musical written by O’Hara for Tanghalang Pilipino
called “Stageshow” will be mounted at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang
Aurelio V. Tolentino.

In his last major written work for stage, O’Hara wrote a poignant and
emotionally charged play which sheds light on the plight of a small group of dedicated
Filipino artists as their careers ebb.

“Their slow-fade into obscurity is wonderfully paralleled with the dying days of what used
to be the most popular, but now forgotten Philippine theater form, the stageshow. And in
doing so, the play touches on the reality that torch-bearers of any culture are its artists and
the tendency to discard the old for the new often comes at the expense and irreparable cost of losing our soul,” the Tanghalang Pilipino said of O’Hara’s “Stageshow.”

O’Hara’s musical is one of the official entries to the National Theater Festival to be held
November 2012.

It will be directed by Chris Millado, CCP vice president and artistic director, with musical
direction by Jeffrey Hernandez, choreography by Denisa Reyes, set design by Leeroy New, costume design by Brenda Fajardo, and lighting design by Katsch Catoy.

(A tribute to O’Hara will be held on Friday, June 29 at 7:30pm at the Magallanes Memorial Chapel 2 in Makati, where his ashes can be viewed on June 28 and 29 until midnight only.)

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