Real name, Robert F. Ylagan. Actor, writer, director, producer, advertising executive, one-time TV Patrol newscaster; married to Barbara Perez; father of Anna, Gina, and Christian; son of Eustacio Ylagan, aka Tito Arevalo, composer/musical director, and Guadalupe Francisco, teacher and pre-school proprietress, grandson of Hermogenes Ylagan, acknowledged “father” of the Filipino zarzuela, a known descendant of Francisco “Balagtas” Baltazar.
The man was proud of his lineage, of his grandfather Hermogenes and his father’s siblings, and how most were—save perhaps for the two who died young—college graduates as if it was an Ylagan requirement to get schooled first before getting into the arts.
He’d recall bits and pieces from stories handed down to his generation, of how a visiting parish priest from Manila was so impressed with his Lolo Moneng’s extraordinary singing as a tiple (male soprano) in a church in Bigaa (now Balagtas), Bulacan, brought him and the entire family to Manila, where he got to be singer at the Sta. Cruz Church, appeared in zarzuelas, received a scholarship at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, and after the Spanish zarzuelistas returned to Spain during the Spanish-American war, went on to produce Filipino zarzuelas, wrote over a hundred zarzuelas, and in 1902 established the Compania Lirico-Dramatica Tagala de Gatchalian y Ilagan, also known as Compania Ilagan, the first Filipino-run zarzuela troupe in the country.
Robert’s eyes would shine brightly, a half-smile playing in his face, remembering his grandfather cuddling his five-year-old self shortly before World War II, in the old house in Sampaloc. He’d count the four lawyers in the bloodline, his father included, actor Angel Esmeralda (Jay Ilagan’s dad), Rose, and Hermogenes Jr, a radio commentator, composer and lyricist. Cesar, the philosophy graduate, was shot by a Japanese soldier in the war.
He’d talk about how music was very much a part of his life, for it wasn’t only his father and Hermogenes Jr. who wrote songs. Conrado Conde, the kuya, left the college of dentistry to do musical scores and eventually direct movies himself. Alfredo, a painter and scriptwriter, was one of the first producers of Tawag ng Tanghalan. Aunts Luz and Honor were voice culture graduates, and the pharmacist Pilar, aka Laling Talte, the comedienne, sang as well.
Then he’d go into their one medical doctor: Gerry de Leon, posthumously recognized as National Artist for Film in 1982, whose many notable works included Ang Daigdig ng Mga Api, where Robert and wife Barbara Perez won the first and yet-to-be-duplicated husband-and-wife Best Actor and Best Actress awards, in 1966. He explained an old photograph showing him seemingly distracted while he and the widely-smiling Barbara were clutching their trophies: “I wanted a family photo with Uncle Gerry, as he won Best Director and our film was Best Picture. Isipin mong tatlo kami sa isang gabi ng FAMAS?”
Interviewing him for the first time in 1975, as a newbie reporter for RPN News and Public Affairs, I asked: “What do you feel when people refer to you as a ‘serious’ actor?”
He replied: “Amused. I think all actors should be serious, whether they’re doing drama or comedy.”
The serious actor had a sense of humor. I found out, while doing a bit-role as an Igorota in Aawitan Kita’s musical dramatization of Amador Daguio’s The Wedding Dance sometime in the same year. He caught me examining his well-built muscular back and I admitted: “Inutusan nila ako sa make-up room para inspeksyunin kung talagang makinis ka, at walang an-an.”—he threw his head back laughing, revealing his not-so-pearly whites.
Not-so-pearly, from his own admission, sharing that while being cast as Andres Bonifacio to Armida Siguion-Reyna’s Gregoria de Jesus in Lakambini at ang Supremo, someone in production wasn’t so keen on him, “…kasi sungki ang mga ngipin!” Vindication came only after the first set of rushes had been viewed, when that same person gushed, “Tama si Armida, magaling nga siya, makakalimutan mo ang mga sungki niya!”
He was so much into Andres Bonifacio, that, as first president of the Screen Actors Guild under the umbrella of the Film Academy of the Philippines in 1981, he had it re-named Katipunan ng mga Artista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, with an august board of directors composed of no less than Vic Silayan as chairman, and Jaime de la Rosa, Dindo Fernando, Vic Vargas, and Tommy Abuel as members. I was saling-pusa.
The relationship with his Gregoria de Jesus somewhat soured, a few years later. Armida studied the KAPP’s incorporation papers and saw it silent on the matter of proxies, meaning, the KAPP could allow proxies for the forthcoming general election of 1983. Robert heard through the grapevine about Armida’s gathering proxies, and wanted to verify it from me, the guild secretary. I kept on avoiding his calls, each time he’d ring up my house, he’d be told “Natutulog ho.” This went on for weeks, until finally he’d had enough, and asserted: “Ilang linggo nang natutulog iyan, tingnan n’yo nga, kung humihinga pa?”
They happily made up, and really well. He defended Armida’s production of Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya, directed by Carlitos, as member of the Jess Sison MTRCB. The movie got an “R-18 rating with cuts”, he told the board, and correctly so, “Maniwala kayo sa akin. Hindi tatanggapin ni Armida ang rating na iyan.” Armida became MTRCB chair in 1998, she had him back in the agency. He was a semi-regular in Aawitan Kita that ran for 35 years on television, and in a few episodes of Aawitan Kita sa Makati, a monthly operetta-of-sorts staged at the University of Makati from 2005-2015, where kundimans, danzas and balitaws were strung with OPM material, to tell a story.
Returning to the MTRCB with Atty. Toto Villareal as chairman in 2013, Robert was generous with his story-telling and advice to younger members, except with the delicious-looking lunch sandwiches he never, as in never, shared with any of us: “Gawa ito ng asawa ko para sa akin lang.”
It was a great privilege to have known and worked with him outside of TV. In Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin (1995), he played husband to Armida and father to Maricel Soriano and Snooky Serna, a role he thought of turning down—“Minamarkahan ko ang mga linya ko, ang konti, ang iba, voice-over pa.”—until he read the script in its entirety. “Markado pala ako.”
Going into the making of Hari ng Tondo for Cinemalaya X in 2014, Carlitos and I could think of no other to play the patriarch whose sudden financial losses pushed him to bring his grandchildren to Tondo, where once there were kings: “Tuturuan ko kayo kung paanong magka-bayag!”
He won Cinemalaya’s Best Actor award, and no one was surprised.
The film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September that year, and he joined our delegation. In the hotel, he found out from the Filipina room attendant that Robert Downey Jr. was there, too. He asked for the other Robert’s room number, she said: “’Di po namin puwedeng sabihin, e.”
He shot back: “OK lang. Basta huwag mo ring sasabihin sa kanya ang room number ni Robert Arevalo, ha?”
He’s sure to be sorely missed.
By the way, his grandson Anton Villa-Ignacio, La Salle Kundirana bassist from 2014-2015, is now in the third year of his medical studies. While Robert was earlier on joyful about Anton’s going into medicine, the happiness may also have sprung from him thinking this apo could still end up doing movies, like Lolo Gerry.
It runs in the blood. Ylagan was, is, and will be.