Even before Hollywood’s “Spiderman” came into the Filipino consciousness, the pinoy folks way back the early 60’s were already swooning over their screen superheroes, the likes of Gagamba, Captain Karate, and of course, Palos. But what makes the three characters so distinguishable is the fact that they were portrayed by just one actor—the dashing six-foot nino bonito of the silver screen, Bernard Bonnin.
Unlike other successful film franchise like Darna, Dyesebel and Captain Barbel that have seen several remakes but were portrayed by different movie stars, Palos was played only by Bernard Bonnin, not once, not twice, but an astounding eight times starting with “Alyas Palos” in 1962.
“When you talk about Bernard Bonnin, you remember Palos,” said the man who put the word Palos in the Tagalog lexicon. “Alyas Palos” made Bernard Bonnin a household name. He (Palos) is similar to James Bond, a mercenary with an excellent skill in opening state-of-the art vaults. He defined my showbiz career. Because of Palos, the ‘pretty boy’ became an action star.”
Bernard Bonnin hails from Negros. At 14, he came to Manila to study high school in San Beda. While studying, he excelled so well in sports. He was an all-around athlete. (Father Remy Monteverde, who later tapped him to do movies for Regal Films, was a fellow athlete.)
“I was the fastest runner in San Beda,” recalled Bernard. “I was unbeatable. My physical built has something to do with it. “Ang binti ko, maliit yung sa ilalim. Parang sa kabayo, matulin tumakbo.”
With his sheer good looks, a career in entertainment industry seemed inevitable. Bernard is lucky to have inherited the fine genes of his father, Juan S. Bonnin, a pure Spaniard from Palma de Mallorca. His mother is Lina Sayco from Negros. Bernard is second to the youngest in a brood of four boys and four girls. His father came to the Philippines when he was sixteen. “Adbenturero talaga”, said Bernard.
At 14, he was already five feet and seven inches tall, and it was hard not to notice his handsome profile. Soon, the high –school athlete found his way to the doors of film studios. “I was discovered by Archie ‘Boy’ Lacson, a TV personality, and Tommy Abeto, one of the couturiers during the time. They introduced me to film producers,” Bernard said.
To his surprise, he passed all the studio auditions. “I passed all the screen tests with flying colors”, recalled Bernard. “But I chose LVN because the studio had a need for a new leading man. I felt that I have a better chance in LVN because Sampaguita Pictures have so many good looking actors already. Sa LVN, hindi ko na inabutan sina Leopoldo Salcedo and Jaime dela Rosa. I was the youngest. Inabutan ko pa si Nestor de Villa. It was in 1959”.
However, his seemingly smooth transition from that of a school athlete to an aspiring actor, had to hurdle one major setback—his inability to speak tagalog. “I came from Negros and I only spoke English and very little tagalog”, he said.
But nothing ever fazed Donya Sisang de Leon, the LVN matriarch, who saw a special spark in the dashing young man. Bernard’s difficulty in speaking the dialect was taken cared of by a tagalog coach provided by the lady producer. “Joseph de Cordova, a very fine character actor, was my tagalog tutor. It was so hard but I tried my best. May pa-ingles- ingles pa ‘ko sa pelikula. Before every take, I and Joseph would rehearse under a tree. It was so difficult because all my lines were literally memorized. But after a year, I could speak fluent tagalog already”, according to Bernard.
It must be his destiny to be in showbusiness because Lady Luck immediately blessed him with fame. Bernard was introduced in his very first movie, ”Ay Pepita” starring Nenita Javier and Mario Montenegro. “There was no role for me but they re-wrote the script and included me as Nenita’s brother. My partner was Milagros Naval”, he said.
The viewing public didn’t pose a problem either. He was readily welcomed by fans, based only on his good looks. “In fact, others would even describe me as beautiful. So, after a couple of co-starring roles, I was made a leading man”, said Bernard.
However, good looks alone couldn’t ensure long-time success. Thanks to his background as a school athlete, he was ready for the next big step in his film outing. “I think Palos was my ninth movie,” Bernard said. ”I did it after “Jimmy Boy,” an action film. Donya Sisang probably saw my potential as an action star and she assigned me to do Alyas Palos.” The rest is, of course, history.
During his prime, Bernard did 16 movies per year. “Left and right ang mga pelikula ko. I avoided being typecast as Palos by appearing in as many movies”, he said.
Aside from Palos, Bernard also immortalized the Gagamba character. “I made four movies based on Gagamba. Before Spiderman came out, meron na akong “Bakas ng Gagamba.” It was directed by Virgilio Redondo.” Soon, Bernard was the toast of movies that celebrated superheroes. And always, his athletic agility came to good use. For example, in doing “Captain Karate,” he went through a rigorous karate training.
Bernard feels he owes so much from the Palos character, he had it copyrighted in 1974. “Palos made me, and I felt I have to protect the franchise,” he confirmed.
Looking back, he claimed that he would have been a pilot had he not joined showbusiness. But he harbors no regrets.
“I didn’t like acting at first,” he said. But as soon as he developed an interest in the craft, there was no turning back. “When I felt that I already love this profession, I talked to my father and I said, ‘Dad, ito na ang gusto ko”. So, there flew his ambition to fly planes.
Today, he can only look back at his career, with profound gratitude. “Nagpapasalamat ako, na nakilala ako. Naging bantog ako at well respected. Meron din akong scandals pero hindi masama. Yung pinaninindigan ko lang ang pagkatao ko.”
The rumor mill is indeed ripe of his many exploits off the screen —the real battles he fought in defense of his principles. “I will not allow any body to step over me. Up to this time, no actor can claim, na natupi nila ako” he said.
“I am very sincere. I’m the type of man who will put himself in harm’s way to defend a friend. However, I won’t also allow anyone to do something to me that isn’t right.”
Respect is foremost in his list. Being respectful is a trait that was ingrained in him by his forebears. “Sabi ng parents ko, basta, ‘I respect you. You respect me. You’re okay”.
Bonnin has done a hundred and fifty films as a leading man, and thirty more, as the nemesis of the lead character. Among his films are: Masikip sa Dibdib (2004), Ako ang Lalagot sa Hininga Mo (1999), Code Name: Bomba (1998), Seth Corteza (1996), Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang (1990), Ibabaon Kita sa Lupa (1990), Buy One, Take One (1988) opposite Susan Roces, Tatlong Patak ng Dugo ni Adan (1980), Women in Cages (1971), The Arizona Kid (1971), Bart Salamanca (1968), Target: Captain Karate (1968), Walang Duwag na Bisaya (1965) , Sandata at Pangako with Fernando Poe Jr and Charito Solis (1961) and Mga Anak ni Waray (1959) .
“I’m already fulfilled. I had a great career. And I have a loving wife, Digna, who is taking good care of me. But there’s a saying that ‘once an actor, always an actor.’ So, I still welcome offers as long as the role suits me”, said Bernard.
Bonnin, who just acquired his citizenship as both Filipino and Spaniard, is contemplating to give living in Spain a try. While he is happy living in the country, he is also tempted to discover the land of his father. “I love the Philippines,” he said, “but I would also like to know more about my roots in Spain.”
Bernard has five children—beauty queen turned actress Charlene Gonzales; erstwhile actor Richard Bonnin, who will be coming back to the country to pursue his studies; Gabby, who is doing well in Australia; Vincent, who is in London; and 17 year-old France, who is also bound for London to study mass communication. (For comments, send e-mail to email@example.com)