Susan Roces, Queen of Philippine Movies, dies at 80

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at May 20 2022 10:47 PM | Updated as of May 21 2022 10:40 AM

Susan Roces ABS-CBN
Susan Roces’ showbiz career spanned 70 years. Instagram: @sengracepoe / ABS-CBN

MANILA (UPDATED) - Philippine film icon Susan Roces, whose career spanned 70 years and who had remained active until recently, has passed away. She was 80.

Roces, who would have turned 81 in July 28, died on Friday evening, her daughter Sen. Grace Poe confirmed in a family statement to ABS-CBN News.

The statement read: “With great sadness, we announce the loss of our beloved Jesusa Sonora Poe, whom many of you know as Susan Roces. She passed away peacefully on a Friday evening, May 20, 2022, surrounded by love and warmth, with her daughter Grace, her nephews Joseph and Jeffrey and many of her family and close friends.

“She lived life fully and gracefully. Remember her in her beauty, warmth and kindness. She is now with the Lord and her beloved Ronnie — FPJ. We will miss her sorely but we celebrate a life well lived. Susan Roces — daughter, mother, grandmother, a true Filipina and a national treasure.”

Roces had been widowed after the 2004 passing of her husband and fellow screen veteran Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ). The incumbent senator is their lone daughter.

Dubbed the “Queen of Philippines Movies,” Roces rose to fame in the ‘50s and went on to become the foremost leading lady of local cinema.

As a screen veteran, she remained visible on screen, most recently as the well-loved Lola Flora in the long-running primetime series “FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano.”

Roces had been appearing in the ABS-CBN program until early 2022. The actress’ part in the TV adaptation of FPJ’s 1996 film had been one of Roces’ many ways of paying tribute to her husband.

“When I fall in love, it will be forever,” Roces quoted the popular line in the Joni James song to a friend, when she married FPJ on December 25, 1968. She stayed true to what she said.

FPJ was Roces’ first and only boyfriend, before he became her husband. Though she was wooed by men from all fields, Roces only had eyes for one man. After the action king died in 2004, Roces remained single up to the time of her death.

Born in 1941 to a French-American mother and to a Filipino father of Spanish-Chinese descent, Roces was a member of one of the country’s biggest clans, the Locsin family of Negros Occidental. Their ancestor was Wo Sin Lok, a peddler from Xiamen, who had himself baptized into the Catholic church as Agustin Locsin. He later married Cecilia Sayson of Molo, Iloilo.

Roces was the second among four children – all girls – of Dr. Jesus Sonora and Purificacion Levy. Eldest sister was Bennett, third is Teresita, while youngest is Rosemarie, also an actress and mother of Sheryl Cruz.

At dawn on December 16, 1968, the start of the first simbang gabi of the Christmas season, Roces eloped with FPJ. They went to Bulacan to marry in civil rites. 

On Christmas day, a grand wedding took place at Santuario de San Jose in Greenhills, San Juan. Roces was radiant in her Pitoy Moreno gown. Among the principal sponsors of their wedding were former President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos, Senator and Mrs. Soc Rodrigo, lawyer Espiridion Laxa and Azucena Vera Perez. 

“Ang Daigdig Ko’y Ikaw,” the theme song of their first film of the same title in 1965, was played by a band in the church. The king and queen of Philippine movies exchanged marriage vows five years after they first met at the Champagne Room of the Manila Hotel. At 3 p.m. the same Christmas Day, the couple flew to Japan, where they spent a two-week honeymoon.

Roces and FPJ’s adopted daughter, Grace, became the chairman of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, before becoming a senator, and at one time, like her father, a presidential aspirant.

Roces started her acting career as a child actress back in 1952, when she was cast in a supporting role in Jose Nepomuceno’s “Mga Bituin ng Kinabukasan.” She was only 10 years old at that time. However, because of school, she had to stop to continue her studies.

Four years later, in 1956, she had an introductory role opposite Romeo Vasquez in Mar S. Torres’ “Miss Tilapia,” starring Gloria Romero. That same year, Roces was given her boldfaced name on the big screen when she played the title role in Octavio Silos’ “Boksingera,” where she was paired with Luis Gonzales.

One of Roces’ most memorable screen appearances was when she did Tony Cayado’s “Amy, Susie and Tessie” (1960), with Amalia Fuentes and Tessie Agana. They were paired with Juancho Gutierrez, Romeo Vasquez and Jose Mari Gonzalez.

Roces also did Celso Ad Castillo’s original “Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara” (1974), which was remade by director Chito S. Rono in 1995, with Lorna Tolentino, Dawn Zulueta, Antoinette Taus, Amy Austria and Tonton Gutierrez.

As early as 1966, Roces had been consistently nominated for best actress in the FAMAS Awards starting with “Ana Roberta.” She won the FAMAS best actress award twice – in Celso Ad. Castillo’s “Maligno” (1977) and Lino Brocka’s “Gumising Ka, Maruja” (1978). In 2017, Roces was the recipient of the FAMAS Lifetime Achievement Award.

Her many other successful films earned for her the title, “Queen of Philippine Movies,” with FPJ, of course, as the “King of Philippine Movies.”

In 2003, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP). Back in 1959, she was the recipient of the Dr. Cirio Santiago Memorial Award.

Roces also had the experience to bankroll her movies – Armando Herrera’s “Florinda” (1973), where she played the title role and “Maligno,” where she also played the lead – and used her real name, Jesusa Sonora Poe, in the credits as producer.

Roces stopped making movies in 2003. She last appeared on the big screen in in director Erik Matti’s “Mano Po 2: My Home.” On TV, Roces was a main cast member of “John en Shirley,” an ABS-CBN sitcom starring Dolphy and Maricel Soriano, that took off from “John en Marsha.” However, “John en Shirley” ran only until 2007.

From the calm personality that everybody knew she was, Roces allowed the public to witness her brazen side, when she expressed her disgust over the controversial 2004 presidential elections results, where FPJ lost to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Roces became a key figure in the move calling for the resignation of Arroyo in June 2005, amid charges of cheating in the presidential elections. In a fiery speech, Roces claimed, "The gravest thing you have ever done is you have stolen the presidency not once, but twice!"

Following the death of FPJ in December 2004 at the age of 65, Roces became a rallying point for the political opposition in the Philippines. She proved she could fight her oppressors in a good-natured way and still not lose her faith in God.

While everyone thought Roces was already into semi-retirement since her appearances became few and far between, her acting career had a second wind in 2015, when she accepted the role of Lola Flora in “FPJ’s Ang Probinsiyano,” starring Coco Martin. Roces’ last appearance in the Kapamilya series was early this year. — with a report from Mario Dumaual, ABS-CBN News

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