He owned the “premier leading man” tag for decades, boasts one of the most impressive filmographies around, and has a truly noteworthy array of acting awards. There’s no other actor in the firmament of local actors quite like Christopher de Leon who’s been gracing screens big and small for the last 48 years—and is still happily working.
Being the son of actors Gil de Leon and Lilia Dizon, the guy seemed destined for the spotlight from the beginning. But was it really just the privilege of a surname that got him thru the front door of stardom?
De Leon shared his journey in the movies recently in an interview with ABS-CBN Film Restoration head Leo Katigbak in an episode of Sagip Pelikula Spotlight (the actor’s got quite a number of films that have been restored by the Kapamilya film restoration outfit). And to hear him say it, it was more a matter of being at the right place at the right time.
Sometime in 1974, back when he was still driving for his older sister Pinky de Leon, Christopher had already been spotted by the great Orlando Nadres on the set of “Lupang Hinirang,” Pinky’s movie with Dante Rivero, Hilda Koronel, and Walter Navarro. Nadres, known more as a theater actor and playwright, was directing the film and offered the handsome chauffeur a bit role—except the young man declined immediately. “I’m the shy type. No, please I cannot,” he recalled telling the director. “I won’t be able to do it.”
But it still turned out to be a memorable visit. De Leon remembered being starstruck seeing Navarro and Koronel. “They had this certain aura that intimidates you,” the actor told Sagip Pelikula Spotlight.
It was in driving his sister to shoots that the young chaperone would find out about Lino Brocka auditioning roles for the drama “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang.” When De Leon consulted his father about trying his luck, the veteran LVN actor outright told his son, “Audition for this. This is going to be something really important.”
Brocka was then looking for four male talents and one of them will be the film’s lead. “There were plenty of us auditioning, taking up lessons, and they taught us how to read scripts and all that,” de Leon recalled. The ones who were chosen were Mario O’Hara, Bey Vito, Joseph Sytangco, and De Leon. “If I get the Cesar Blanco Jr. part, well and good,” he thought to himself then. “If I become just one of the guys, good pa rin sa akin.”
He did secure the lead role, of course, and “Tinimbang” would do very well in the box-office and would later become a landmark film. It won for De Leon his very first acting award—the FAMAS Best Actor honor of 1975. The movie earned a total of six recognitions from the same award-giving body, including Best Picture, Best Director (Brocka), and Best Actress (Lolita Rodriguez).
“Tinimbang…” opened doors to more acting projects. One of the movies De Leon did the following year was “Banaue: Stairway to the Sky,” which was helmed by Gerardo de Leon whom the actor fondly calls Manong Gerry. It was in the same film where he would meet a prospective favorite leading lady and his future wife: Nora Aunor.
“[Manong Gerry] was already kind of old then, but he was a fun guy to work with,” said Christopher. The shoot was in Bontoc, Mountain Province and they were going to do the movie’s famed “buttocks scene.” “Christopher, pwede ka bang tumalon diyan sa ilog?” the actor recalled in the interview, repeating the older de Leon’s words and imitating his hoarse voice. “Alisin mo ang bahag mo tapos tumalon ka diyan sa ilog.”
The weather was cold and the water freezing. “[Since my role was an Igorot] I was just wearing my bahag. The last thing I wanted to take off was my bahag,” Christopher said laughing. “But I just have to say yes to the master.” Gerry De Leon would become a National Artist in 1982.
Boyet also shared a conversation he had with the director. “Christopher, totoo bang pinakasalan mo si Nora? Totoo ba?” Gerry asked.
“Manong, oo e.”
The director quickly put on a happy face. “Very good. Kikita ang pelikula natin,” he said. Banaue would become one of Gerry de Leon’s last films. He passed away in 1981.
Another Christopher de Leon role that would become iconic was Nicolas Ocampo or Kulas in the 1976 period drama “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kami Ngayon?” directed by Eddie Romero. Kulas is a naïve, gullible, but kindhearted probinsyano whose simple ambition in life is to travel.
One of the things that endeared Kulas to audiences was the character’s charming Lagueño accent. The idea to adopt an accent was providential, said de Leon. “We were filming ‘Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos’ [with Nora Aunor and Bembol Roco] in Majayjay [Laguna] when ‘Ganito Kami Noon…’ was offered to me,” he recalled. Since he already got to immerse himself among Laguna’s locals, the actor asked Romero if he can adopt the Lagueño accent for Kulas in “Ganito Kami Noon...” and the director approved.
De Leon’s outstanding performance in the film did not escape the attention of the Famas Awards and the Metro Manila Film Festival jury, both of which gave him the Best Actor Award.
How de Leon was able to get the plum parts very early on was partly because he underwent formal training in acting. This was upon the recommendation of his father. “I had to go through the works,” Boyet shared, saying he took up voice lessons, lessons in tap dancing, mime, horseback riding, fencing, and kung fu. “The voice lesson is very important. It’s a must for actors,” he said. “It’s how you throw your loud voice. You have to use your diaphragm and all that.”
Theater likewise honed his acting chops. Older fans will remember him playing the lead in “Godspell” when it was staged by Philippine Educational Theater Assocaition (PETA).
The great directors
De Leon earned his stature in Philippine entertainment because of the many great directors he’s worked with over the years.
“I’ve been very fortunate as an actor to be able to work with all of them,” he said.
He described Lino Brocka as an actor's director. Since Boyet was a newbie when they worked together in “Tinimbang,” Brocka had to teach him in detail how to do the scenes and convey the emotions needed. “He would tell me where to look and how to look at a certain situation—to use the eyes.”
From Ishmael Bernal, his director in the domestic drama “Relasyon”, he learned to “be alive in the scenes.” Bernal insisted on the use of different senses. “All functions of your body should be moving, including your brain,” de Leon recalled Bernal telling him.
Eddie Romero—who was also his director in the fantasy film set in prehistoric Philippines entitled “Kamakalawa”—trained De Leon to follow his instincts when it came to acting. Gerry de Leon, meanwhile, taught him a technique he continues to use even up to this day. “If you look at someone—say, your leading lady—look at both of her eyes. Look at her lips. Look at her nose. Look at her skin. Her eyebrows,” he recalled. “Don’t just look at her statically.”
Eddie Garcia, his director in “Imortal,” was a perfectionist. “It was like working with a general. Everything had to be on time. Perfect outfits, perfect lines, perfect everything. You have to be perfect in everything that you do. What's fun about him was after work, he’d ask, [imitating Garcia’s signature drawl] ‘Would you like to have a couple of cold beers?’”
With Laurice Guillen, his director in the drama “Kasal,” which also starred Hilda Koronel and Jay Ilagan, he had a very collaborative work relationship. They would discuss the background of the character but Guillen would also give instructions on what he should do. “We trusted each other and it worked,” he says. “There were times papagalitan ka niya. And when she gets mad, wow, she gets mad!”
The leading man
One of Boyet’s rare talents is being able to spark chemistry with any actress he gets paired with. And he’s been paired with quite a range of personalities: from Nora Aunor to Vilma Santos, Gloria Diaz to Hilda Koronel, Sharon Cuneta to Alice Dixson and, of course, Sandy Andolong.
The guy remembered being smack in the middle of the Nora and Vilma rivalry when he became the latter’s screen partner in the 1975 romance drama “Tag-Ulan sa Tag-Araw,” directed by Celso Ad. Castillo. “During that time, I was married already to Nora Aunor and I accepted a Vilma Santos movie,” Boyet recalled. “Back then, [the fans] were like fanatics and that was intriguing for me.”
It was his wife, Sandy, who would later tell him what really made him a good leading man. “I'm an actor who gives what is needed,” said Boyet, rephrasing Sandy’s words. “I’m not the actor who steals the scene. [If you need to shine in that scene] I'm going to help you shine.”
This quality is something he developed, he added, from playing a lot of team sports like basketball and baseball. “The whole scene should work as [the work of a] team,” he said, with special mention of the films he did with an ensemble cast like “Dekada 70” and “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”
It’s no surprise that after over four decades his services as an actor is still sought after, and younger stars still gush when talking about how honored they are to work opposite him. “Siyempre,” they would say, “si Christopher de Leon yan.”