For those who are following the careers of Filipino-Americans who have made a name in Hollywood, Dr. Ramon Sison may well be remembered as among the ranks of versatile Filipinos who have made their mark not only as Asian character actors in Hollywood, but also as professionals in the so-called land of milk and honey.
BY D. L. MONDELO
(Amsterdam, The Netherlands) – For Filipinos back in the Philippines, the name Dr. Ramon Canlas Sison may not, perhaps, immediately ring a bell. But try recalling one of the earlier TV ads of Macdonald’s where Dr. Sison played the father of Sharon Cuneta.
For those who are following the careers of Filipino-Americans who have made a name in Hollywood, Dr. Sison may well be remembered as among the ranks of versatile Filipinos who have made their mark not only as Asian character actors in Hollywood, but also as professionals in the so-called land of milk and honey.
Dr. Sison passed away last Jan. 7 in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California at the age of 80 after succumbing to lung cancer. A native of Cabugao, Ilocus Sur, he was born Aug.7, 1928 to an influential political clan in the region.
Dr. Sison may probably be best remembered for portraying the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos who sang side by side with another actor impersonating the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in one of the best episodes of the popular TV show The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1986.
Dr. Sison had a string of memorable appearances as a character actor in several American movies, and popular TV series, among them the Oscar-nominee My Favorite Year with Peter O-Toole (1982), Untold Stories of the ER (2005), One Last Ride (2003), Rage (1995), The Independent (2000), Will and Grace (1999), Against All Odds (1992), Backstairs at the Whitehouse (1979), and MacArthur (1977).
According to his biography posted at the Internet Movie Data Base (described as the “biggest, best, most award-winning movie site on the planet”), Dr. Sison showed dancing and musical talents at an early age.
“His parents, Florentina and Salustiano Sison, conservative landowners with substantial landholdings, encouraged him to become a doctor but discouraged him from the uncertainties of pursuing a musical or showbiz career. He followed his parents’ advice. However, he could not refuse when offered a role in a movie and later opportunities to play the piano and act in radio and television programs while attending the University of the Philippines pre-med and medical school in Manila. After obtaining his medical degree in 1955 he went to Georgetown University for post-doctoral specialization,” his biography stated.
“Shortly after moving west to Beverly Hills, California, with no intention of pursuing an acting career in Hollywood, he found himself one day in 1976 playing the role of medical officer opposite Gregory Peck in a hospital scene of “MacArthur”.” Since then Dr. Sison had appeared in a number of movies, TV series and stage productions in Hollywood. He may not have reached Hollywood’s apex, but he was there and had an enjoyable time.
Dr. Sison also had a successful medical career as a pathologist, and for six years served as member of the California Medical Board upon appointment by then California Gov. Jerry Brown. He shares his passion for medicine with his wife, Rosario Fernandez Sison, their three children and their spouses, who are all practicing physicians.
Though not really involved in mainstream politics, Dr. Sison was an active and respected community leader in Southern California. He carries the name of a family prominent in Philippine politics since the 19th century.
Dr. Sison is the eldest brother of Prof. Jose Maria (Joma) Sison, internationally known poet, teacher and revolutionary, founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), chairperson of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS), and is the most prominent Filipino political exile in Europe. Another brother, Paquito Sison, was kidnapped and murdered during the early years of the Marcos dictatorship.
“My earliest pleasant recollection of him was that he could play very well several musical instruments, including the piano, the violin, guitar, the trumpet and harmonica. He would impress everyone in our parlor or in family gatherings by playing one instrument after another or a combination of two or three instruments. We used to call him the one-man orchestra. He was also well known for his drawings and carvings. He would display these things on the table of our father,” Joma says of his brother who is 10 years older than he, and whom they fondly call “Mang Ramoning”.
According to Joma in a warm tribute he wrote upong learning about “Mang Ramoning’s” passing, when Dr. Sison visited the Philippines and The Netherlands, he would narrate to Joma how he succeeded with his professional medical practice in the Mid-West and earned enough to buy a house in Beverly Hills, invest in a restaurant, a beach house in Malibu and other properties.
“He became an official of the Kaiser hospital system. He was happy to have been appointed by then Governor Jerry Brown to the California medical board of examiners. He was also thrilled about being a doctors’ doctor in the US army medical corps and reaching the rank of full colonel,” relates Joma.
But what seemed to be far more exciting to Dr. Sison, Joma says, than his medical accomplishments was his becoming a Hollywood actor in a number of major films.
“That is not surprising at all to me. He was fond of associating with showbiz people even while he was in Manila. I recall Rosa Rosal and other movie actors coming to our apartment in Manila to practice some music with him. I recall that it was a sensation in the family and in our hometown when he appeared in a Filipino film as a trumpeteer.”
Joma says further: “I think that Mang Ramoning was far more accomplished as a musician than as a movie actor or as a stage actor. His playing of the piano and the violin was of concert quality in jazz or in classical music. He associated and jammed with the best Filipino musicians of his generation. He was a close friend of the conductor and violinist Redentor Romero. As far as I know, he was never a soloist in any classical concert but he was often part of a symphony orchestra, usually playing a string instrument.”
Joma says he considers “Mang Ramoning’s” visits to him during the early 80s when he was still in prison as among the most important. Joma was imprisoned by the Marcos fascist dictatorship. During his first visit, Dr. Sison told Joma about the good situation of his children who were abroad. His visit also served to breach Joma’s solitary confinement.
“Before visiting me, he had a brief fruitless talk with Marcos arranged by a relative who was a police general. This relative told Mang Ramoning that I actually had no problem if I agreed to accept a government position. I responded by saying that I would outlast and outlive Marcos,” Joma wrote.
Dr. Sison took the lead in the family in accepting and pursuing the offer of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a case against Ferdinand E. Marcos and others for human rights violations, particularly for Joma’s torture and for the disappearance of their brother, Paquito. Together with other individual and class plaintiffs, the Sisons won the case against Marcos in the US judicial system. But unfortunately, the Philippine government has prevented up to now the indemnification of the victims of human rights violations and has misappropriated the money from the Swiss bank accounts of Marcos.
Despite living ideologies apart, Joma and Dr. Sison got along very well.
“We loved each other as blood brothers. I was proud of him as he was proud of me.We respected each other as members of a family that values intellectual and professional achievement. We also respected each other’s ideas and views on important Philippine and international issues. We often concurred because he was open-minded and progressive even if he was not a Marxist like me. He showed concern for my children and to Julie and me when I was in prison and whenever I was in danger in the Philippines and abroad. We are quite alike in having a sense of humor and in enjoying whatever main or subsidiary work we do,” Joma endearingly concludes. (Bulatlat.com)