Yul Servo at the crossroads
Amadís Ma. Guerrero (The Philippine Star) - December 7, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Young John Marvin C. Nieto — Jon-Jon to friends — grew up in Binondo, Manila, the second eldest in a large family of four boys and four girls. The father, Martin Romano, graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in architecture but decided to become a tailor instead, for this business promised to be more lucrative.

Later the family went into billboard advertising and became even more well-off, although John modestly estimates they were just “slightly above middle” income.

Jon-Jon faithfully attended classes but was not really studious. He appeared in school- and church-based plays (in the district of San Nicolas), and for some reason the boy (myopic even then) was often cast as an old man. He loved movies and his idols were action stars Lito Lapid and Ramon Revilla.

He graduated from the Philippine College of Criminology and was all set to become a policeman until fate, in the form of an uncle, Willy Cruz, intervened. The uncle, an engineer who knew some actors and directors, saw his nephew’s potential to become a professional actor.

And so they “stalked” the director Maryo J. de los Reyes, who always seemed to be in a hurry and would just wave at them from his Pajero. Eventually, however, De los Reyes saw something in this persistent young man and his uncle (who was an acquaintance). And thus one fine day he called up the Nieto tailoring shop. Jon-Jon answered the phone.

Si direk Maryo J. ito. Andyan ba si John Nieto?”

Ako nga po, direk.

“Gusto mo bang maging artista?”


And thus was born Yul Servo the actor. Yul, because Yul Brynner was De los Reyes’ favorite actor and Servo the name of the head waiter in the restaurant which the director frequented, Alex III. At first Nieto (a surname the director found “too common”) wanted to be known as Ador Papa (in tribute to a prominent swimmer then), but soon agreed to his screen name.

He began his career in theater. De los Reyes made him undergo intensive workshops at PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) and Gantimpala Theater. His most memorable role was as the lead actor of Mass, the Tanghalang Pilipino adaptation of National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s novel. Here, Servo played Pepe Samson, a provinciano who journeys to Manila, becomes involved with colorful and shady characters, and finally joins the underground.

“Doon ako natutong mag-iyak,” he recalls.

A parallel career in films yielded greater results, and he became an indie icon. He has won a slew of Best Actor awards here and abroad, for his work in such films as Batang West Side, Laman, Naglalayag, Torotot, Brutos and Ilusyon.

Servo became a household word when he was cast against the great Nora Aunor in Naglalayag, playing a taxi driver having an affair with a judge (played by Aunor).

Today Servo, 32, with a body “that must have been sculpted by Michaelangelo” (as a besotted media colleague once put it) is at the crossroads, on the threshold of a promising political career. He is a councilor of the 3rd District of Manila (Binondo, Santa Cruz and Quiapo). And he has been busy of late with projects that have a humanitarian component, like medical and dental missions, reaching out to out-of-school youth, and tapping the artistic potential of street kids (who will, in turn, teach other children). But he does not intend to turn his back on showbiz and the arts yet, for “acting is my first love.”

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