MANILA -- When Spanky Manikan passed away on the morning of Sunday, January 14, the news was met with hardly any fanfare. Except for the brief online write-ups, the stage, film and TV actor’s demise did not come with a media frenzy around it.
He would have preferred it that way.
Throughout his life and long career as a well-regarded thespian, Manikan totally shunned the average star’s perception of what being an actor is about. While upstarts and even the more established ones craved the spotlight, he walked away from it.
As his manager Ed Instrella succinctly puts it, “Hindi siya showbiz. Kapag dinala mo siya sa party, aalis kaagad.”
But Manikan loved working with people who shared his passion for acting. He preferred gatherings in small groups over large crowds.
And he enjoyed bantering with colleagues and mentoring younger actors, among them one of the biggest megastars today, Coco Martin. The two worked together in the ABS-CBN soaps "Ikaw Lamang" and "Ang Probinsyano."
“Love niya si Coco kasi ang ganda ng respetong binibigay sa kanya nito,” reveals Instrella. Martin was one of the very first to send flowers to the two-day wake held at the St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori chapel in Magallanes.
Spanky Manikan is probably an alien name to the generation that admires Martin. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Manikan was the toast of theater, nabbing lead roles in plays like "Joe Hill" and "Kabesang Tales." He started appearing in plays for the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and soon performed for Dulaang UP, Bulwagang Gantimpala, and CCP’s Tanghalang Pilipino.
Manikan was one of the first theater-trained actors to cross over into the more mainstream worlds of film and television. To audiences who grew up in what is considered the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema (from the 1970s to the early-1980s), they would remember him in Lino Brocka’s "Bona" and "Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag."
But the actor is most indelible as the conflicted small-time director longing for that one big break in the Ishmael Bernal classic "Himala." As Orly, he was the conscience of the Ricky Lee-penned narrative, cutting a figure that struck one as a no-nonsense, highly intelligent man, armed with a handheld movie camera, with thin-slit eyes hidden behind omnipresent glasses.
Tanghalang Pilipino artistic director Nanding Josef recalls that during their early days in PETA, Manikan would come to the old Rajah Sulayman Theater in Fort Santiago sporting a barong, having come straight from law school. He would eventually imbibe the dress code of the PETA flock—old shirts and worn-out jeans.
“Kami sa PETA, mukha kaming mahihirap,” says Josef.
Manikan would marry a theater actress named Wanda Medina. Josef and the then-young couple would share an apartment, with the Manikans occupying a room on the second floor.
Then tragedy struck. Within a year of their marriage, Medina became pregnant but was afflicted with peritonitis. She died together with her unborn child. The usually glib Manikan was suddenly rendered quiet and devastated.
Despite his grief, it was the actor who took on the job of consoling his friend Josef who was very close to Medina. “During the wake, while I was looking at the coffin,” remembers Josef, “may biglang umakbay sa akin from behind, si Spanky and he was telling me, “Kaya mo ‘yan.’”
In memory of Medina, one corner of the Rajah Sulayman Theater was named Wanda’s Wing. Josef shares: “Even when Spanky was doing plays na for other groups, dumadalaw pa rin siya sa Fort Santiago, unannounced, and we would find him seated by Wanda’s Wing.”
“You’re my greatest love, Pangga!”
Love found Manikan again when he met a young PETA trainee by the name of Susan Africa, who joined the group straight out of the Bb. Pilipinas pageant. That time, Instrella was head of PETA’s production managers. ”Yung grupo nina Susan na kinuha kong trainees mga sosyalin.”
Manikan, who was years older, was Africa’s first love. Their union would be blessed with three children: Eli, Mika, and Miguel. “Susan is more in charge of the kids kasi si Spanky, may tendency to be more lenient,” Instrella says.
Manikan was a devoted husband to Africa, and to his kids he was a father, brother, and friend rolled into one. Mika, a graduate of the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, is a budding filmmaker. Miguel has expressed interest in acting.
When Manikan loved, he loved deeply, as those close to him attest. Be they friends, co-actors, or the wife he left behind with his passing. Even when he had already built a new life with Africa, Josef offers, Manikan never removed his first wedding band. “I talked to Susan about it and she told me she understood it. ‘Mahal niya 'yung tao eh so bakit ko pipilitin?’ Susan is the prefect woman for Spanky.”
When Manikan was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017, Africa took care of him patiently, even foregoing TV work so she could look after her spouse.
At the necrological mass for Manikan, the soft-spoken Africa—most remembered as the martyr mother of a young Judy Ann Santos in the TV series "Mara Clara"—would become effusive for a change. In her eulogy, she shared that before her husband breathed his last, he told her, ‘Pangga, you’re the greatest love of my life.’”
A sterling body of work
When Ed Instrella joined PETA in the early ‘80s, Manikan was already a prominent name in theater. “I would watch him from a distance. Ang tingin ko sa kanya artist na hindi puwede sa bola-bolahan. Straight-talking, which he is.”
The actor was picky with assignments, his foremost considerations being the strength of the material and the actors he would be working with. “Kapag sinabi niyang ayaw niya, wala nang arguments,” adds Instrella who would later help Manikan secure noteworthy projects.
On the set, the actor would not tolerate unprofessionalism and people who did not make good on their word. “Kapag ‘nasunog’ siya, ayaw na n’yang mag-work du’n.”
When Instrella vouched for a project, Spanky trusted the manager’s good judgment. “Even when he was still doing something else, he did 'Alienasyon,' because I told him that he should do it.”
In "Alienasyon," Arnel Mardoquio’s elegiac film about old age and sad remembrances, Spanky got to work with the actress Tessie Tomas for the third time. They had done "A Dangerous Life" for HBO in 1988, followed by the Judy Ann Santos indie vehicle, "Ploning," in 2008.
“It (Alienasyon) was one of his last films and I’m happy that he got to play a lead role in that film again,” recalls Tomas. “Spanky was very collaborative, a team player and welcomed suggestions. The director allowed us to improvise and we all had so much fun collaborating with Spanky. His adlibs were always on point because he was such an intelligent actor.”
Unlike most character actors who reach old age, Manikan actually became more visible in his twilight years, clinching the occasional meaty role in indie projects (he was also in CinemaOne Originals’s "Piding" in 2016), plus guest roles and extended appearances on primetime television. After "Ang Probinsiyano," he was last seen in the Tagalog adaptation of the Koreanovela "My Love from the Star," which he had to leave in July because of failing health.
Despite the acting gigs, however, medical expenses still drained the family savings, which would bring his select friends in the industry—Ronnie Lazaro and Joel Torre among them—to stage a fundraiser for Manikan in August.
With the unheralded but prodigiously gifted actor’s passing at 75 (he was also blessed with a tenor’s voice, though marred by years of chainsmoking), his manager Instrella could only wish Manikan had that much more opportunities to have showcased his brilliance.
Never mind the fame; he never cared much for that anyway. “Kung tutuusin mo,” says Instrella, “sa industry natin, wala talaga ‘yung roles for them eh. We don’t really develop materials for senior actors. Yun ang tragedy ng mga mahuhusay na artista eh, na gustung-gusto nilang umarte, na magbigay, pero wala ‘yung opportunity to do it.”