Colleagues paid their final respects to director-actor-activist Behn Cervantes, who passed away after a valiant battle with diabetes on Thursday morning.
They fondly remember Cervantes as a classmate, colleague, costar and comrade.
Actress Boots Anson-Roa recalled: “Behn was my classmate in Argumentation and Debate and cothespian in the UP Dramatic Club at the University of the Philippines in Diliman in the 1960s. He was passion and commitment personified. He was uncompromising in his dedication to his craft, art and principles as an activist and educator.”
Roa said she would miss her friend’s wit the most: “He made us laugh with his trademark acerbic and pungent humor. Bravo, Behn!”
Actress Hilda Koronel, who was in the cast of Cervantes’ only movie “Sakada,” agreed: “Behn was always funny even though he looked serious. He was very helpful and kind. Of course, he could also be mataray (feisty) if needed.”
Koronel, who is now based in the United States, recounted that the shoot of “Sakada” in 1976 was nerve-wracking. “We all got scared. It was the height of martial law and the government called our attention because our movie tackled a controversial issue.”
“Sakada” exposed the exploitation of farm workers in the sugar industry.
‘Art of script throwing’
Said Ces Quesada, his student and later fellow faculty member in the speech and drama department of UP Diliman: “I was known as Behn’s baby. I once caught him in the middle of rehearsals. He was in a foul mood because an actor kept making the same mistake. Parts of the mangled script were already on the floor.
Behn made the art of script throwing an Olympic sport. I sat beside him to share my merienda of cornik and whispered to him: ‘Behn, it’s not worth it.’ He looked at me and, with an impish smile, said: ‘You are right. It’s not worth it.’ He then threw the bag of cornik at the actor.”
Scriptwriter-actress Bibeth Orteza has a favorite anecdote on Cervantes the teacher: “One day, Behn gave an essay-exam on Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.’ One of his students, Willy Inong (who would later reinvent himself as disc jockey Hillbilly Willy), hadn’t read the play. So he began his piece, thus: ‘So there I am, while ‘Waiting for Godeaux.’ Willy assumed the name was French.”
What transpired next was classic Cervantes: “By chance, Willy’s bluebook was the first that Behn picked up. Behn got so furious that he ripped and threw all the bluebooks in the trash. But while he was tearing the test papers to bits, he remembered the spelling of ‘Godeaux.’ Behn later told me: ‘Heaven help me, I found myself laughing at the effrontery.’”
Chanda Romero, costar in Eddie Romero’s “Aguila,” related: “The feared and fearless Behn was crumbling because of his Tagalog lines. He took tranquilizer but it didn’t work. On the seventh take, I gently but firmly squeezed his leg, as if to tell him to relax. Then he was OK.”
Chris Millado, vice president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, described Cervantes as a gourmand. “He loved his food and was quite picky. If it’s a rave, he’d exclaim, after savoring his first spoonful: ‘I believe in God!’”
Angeli Bayani credited Cervantes for discovering her as an actress. “He once challenged us: ‘How can you stand up for your country when you can’t even stand up to your parents.’”
Bayani, who was a college freshman in UP Diliman then, thought it was too much to ask of kids like her. “It took years before I understood what he meant. As an iskolar ng bayan, we all had a responsibility to serve the people who sent us to school.”
Briccio Santos, chair of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, pointed out: “He is admired for being articulate and progressive … for his brilliant mind. He utilized his art and creativity to serve society.”
Said Inquirer’s Rito Asilo of Cervantes, who contributed articles to the paper’s Saturday Special section: “The first few times that I met Behn, his scathing honesty made me uncomfortable. But as I got to know him better, I learned to enjoy his quick wit, candor and no-holds-barred opinions. He was generous with praise, too. He was passionately loyal to his close circle of friends, which includes (my editor) Nestor U. Torre.”
Said character actress Vangie Labalan, who acted with Cervantes in the play “Private Parts,” directed by Elwood Perez in 2005: “He was renowned for his temper, but during rehearsals, he was patient and cool even if I missed my cue.”
Perez looked back: “In the 1960s, when Behn was already a leading stage luminary and I was still a wannabe playwright, he shared his lodging with me and two other friends when we attended a summer theater workshop in Baguio. I will forever owe him a debt of gratitude for that enlightening experience.”
His sister Lengleng Cervantes told the Inquirer: “We were planning a celebration for his 75th birth anniversary on Aug. 26, but God brought him to a happier place. I lost a brother, but (heaven) gained a soul.”