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Casting for 'Tonight Show' Skit Has Political Twist

March 12, 1986|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

When the writers on "The Tonight Show" decided to put together a Mighty Carson Art Players skit featuring an actor portraying deposed Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, they were going for broad political satire. But this time, there was a subtle irony that even Johnny Carson's staff had missed.

Dr. Ramon Sison, a pathologist for Kaiser Hospital in Panorama City, who works as a character actor on the side, is cast in the role of Marcos in the skit scheduled to air tonight. In real life, he is also the brother of Jose Maria Sison, former leader of the Philippines Communist Party, who was freed last week by the new Aquino government after spending more than eight years in prison.

"You're giving me all kinds of information I don't want," Jan Schwartz, production assistant for "The Tonight Show," said, sounding exasperated. "I don't know anything about him. We got this fellow through a casting agency. . . . It's just a bit."

Sison, 56, thinks it's all pretty funny. So does his brother. When Ramon told Jose Maria about his scheduled role over the phone, "he just laughed."

An outgoing, cheerful man, Sison on Tuesday sat at a microscope in a medical office decorated with photos from movie scenes showing him with such actors as Gregory Peck in "MacArthur" and Peter O'Toole in "My Favorite Year." He discussed how he and his brother have remained close while taking different paths.

The Sison brothers and their seven siblings were children of privilege. The family's considerable wealth was derived from old Spanish land grants. But little brother Jose Maria--"Joe Ma" to family and friends--was always given to romantic notions.

"My mother says he's the laziest of us, but here he is the leader of a great peasant movement," Sison said with a grin. "She always says my father must be turning over in his grave."

Ramon, nine years older than Joe Ma, said his brother "was impressed at a very early age that people were being oppressed by big landowners, such as my father, which was true."

Sought by the Marcos regime, the communist leader went into hiding from 1968 until his arrest in 1977. He spent most of his sentence in a tiny cell, writing essays and poetry. Ramon said that his brother now may make a speaking tour of the United States.

While Joe Ma pursued his radical calling, Ramon had moved into the mainstream of American life. Although he had dabbled in show business in the Philippines, Sison figured that was behind him after he came here in the 1950s to study medicine. But after moving to Beverly Hills in 1969, Sison found himself in the company of celebrities. Once, a show business friend mentioned that the makers of "MacArthur" were looking for a Filipino actor to portray a medical assistant.

"I said, 'Hey! I'm the guy!' . . . So there I am, my first job in Hollywood doing a scene with Gregory Peck. If that doesn't make a person nervous. . . ."

Ramon Sison also stayed politically active. Although a Republican, he was a supporter of former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who appointed him to the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance in 1976. He also worked in the Reagan presidential campaigns. He also was quietly involved in the anti-Marcos movement. Among other things, he penned anti-Marcos political cartoons under a pseudonym for the San Francisco-based Philippine News. "I guess I can talk about that now," he said.

On Tuesday morning, Sison said he still did not know the precise plot of the skit. All he knew, he said, was that it would involve the Cole Porter tune, "Friendship," and he suspected that maybe Carson would wear his Reagan wig and sing along with him.

Not so, said Schwartz: "Mr. Carson is definitely not in the skit. I can tell you that. . . . Watch the show and find out."

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