Sorrapong, the humble king of the Thai screen
Today’s kids might not be aware of how handsome Sorapong Chatree was some four decades ago. In fact, the only thing differentiating him from today’s definition of “beauty” is that he looked very “Thai”. His passing this week officially marked an end of an era, where “Phra-ek” (heroes) were “Thai handsome”, not “Luk-krueng” or “Korean handsome”.
Humble Sorapong was unaware of his looks. He described himself as a dark-skinned upcountry man with a big nose. “I didn’t think I looked smart like other male superstars such as Sombat Methanee,” he once said on a TV interview.
With some 550 films over five decades to his credit, Sorapong began his acting career from the bottom as a “water boy” as well as an extra. He did anything as he was asked to, from serving water on the set, holding an umbrella to protect the camera and cameraman to appearing in scenes as an extra when needed.
A native of Ayutthaya province, young Sorapong became a novice after finishing Grade 4. He left the Buddhist temple to pursue his dream soon after his friend introduced him to a few directors. Among those he met was the freshly graduated Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol who told him to come and stay at his residence (so he could be on call whenever any chance arose). At 19, he worked as an extra in a couple of Chanel 7’s TV series directed by the prince, and when he was not in a scene, he helped Chatrichalerm with other work.
Named Pittaya “Ek” Tiamswate at birth. the actor began his acting career in 1968 as an extra and in minor roles until Prince Chatrichalerm aka “Than Mui” gave him a leading role in his directorial debut, the Thai sci-fi drama “Out of the Darkness”(Mun Ma Kub Kwam Mued) in 1971. That launched him on the path to stardom and by the early 70s, he was regarded as a top male star.
He was a humble man and always thought that he would not have had any chance to succeed had superstar Mitr Chaibancha been still alive. His very first films came after Mitr plunged to his death in 1970 and he understood that Than Mui and other leading filmmakers were responsible for coming up with new leading actors.
“I’ll make him a leading actor with more Golden Dolls than any other actor,” he said in an interview, his voice shaking and tears of gratitude rolling down his face as he quoted Than Mui.
And he did get the recognition. The first Golden Doll award for best actor came from his role in “Damned Life” (1975). Later he became internationally known for his performance in the 1979 classic film “The Scar” by late director Cherd Songsri.
Prince Anusorn Mongkolkarn, the father of Than Mui, gave him the screen name – “Sorapong Chatree” – mixing his name with the Chatrichalerm of Than Mui.
He continued working with Than Mui and one of his very last prominent roles was a mentoring monk in “King Naresuan”. Tolater generations, Sorapong was known for his appearance as Chernang in “Ong-Bak 2”, which won him an award, and his voice-over as the good-hearted cowboy doll Woody in the “Toy Story films”.
In his screen lifespan of over five decades, Sorapong starred in over 550 movies and worked with most of Thai prominent directors of his time. He was a versatile actor who could master his art in all genres including action, period, Rom-Com and more. In 1983 alone, he starred in 61 films and was always paired with the top actresses of the period including JaruneeSuksawat and Naowarat Yuktanan. He was also a singer, releasing five albums and scoring a hit with “Hua Jai Mai Dai Serm Yai Lek”.
To Thai people and those who knew or worked with him, Sorapong was a very modest superstar without an ego. He continued to be humble despite his successes and fame. The prolific actor was named a National Artist of Thailand in 2008.
He also received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree in Social Science for Development from Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University.
He spent his senior years building a foundation (Luang Phor Tor Foundation) and built an attraction with beautiful gardens and landscapes in Nakhon Ratchasima, a beautiful “temple” with a large-scale Luang Phor tor. He put a lot of effort into it. “In life, don’t tell people what you want to do; just do it and let your actions speak,” he once said.
He would go there almost every weekend to inspect the place, give away free food and take photos with those dear to him.
“I’m happy here (the temple) as I’m surrounded by people who love me. I’m looking forward to the weekend,” he said in an interview held at the foundation.
Sorapong typified a “good star”, one with humility, a kind heart, uniquely good looks and endurance in the entertainment industry despite no small amount of self-doubt and the relentless waves of newcomers. Starting his film career with a number of gloomy or scary movies and often taunted about his “dark” skin, he was a bright light throughout and will be remembered that way.
Sorapong died at the age of 73 on March 10 at the Bumrungrad Hospital. He is survived by four children.
By Veena Thoopkrajae