On Dec 14, Noppol Gomarachun normally celebrates his birthday with his life partner, former beauty queen Preeyanuch Panpradub, and the couple would usually mark the occasion in a very understated way by going out for dinner together at some nice restaurant.
But the 60th birthday celebration of one of Thailand's most respected actors and directors is falling on a much earlier date this year _ tomorrow, in fact _ when a concert is staged in his honour at Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre, the place where it all began.
This historic cinema, now mostly used as a venue for plays and concerts, was the very first public auditorium in the Kingdom designed to screen films with soundtracks. It is consequently a nostalgic spot for so many older Bangkokians and will provide the perfect backdrop for an event simply called "60 Years: Noppol Gomarachun Concert". It's a particularly ideal setting because it will help transport the audience back to Noppol's childhood, to the time when his mother, Juree Osiri, then the best-known voice-dubber in the Thai film industry, spent many days a week working in that very location.
In those days, Thai films were still being made without soundtracks. So, for each screening, people with clear enunciation and a dramatic bent were hired by cinema owners to speak the lines of the various characters in a film. They had to voice all the dialogue live and would sit in a specially soundproofed room at the back of the cinema to do so. But few people nowadays can claim to have been practically raised in one of these glassed-in sound booths.
"Sala Chalermkrung was where I first stepped into the entertainment world," said the actor/director/producer. "My mother did voice-overs in other cinemas too, particularly around Chinatown. I virtually grew up in movie theatres."
Noppol in his newest role, as lead singer of the Mahoratuek Dontree Leela ensemble, with his partner, Preeyanuch Panpradub, on the Chinese fiddle.
Later elevated to the status of National Artist (performing arts), his mother, Juree, passed away last year. If she were still alive, tomorrow would be her 84th birthday. So the concert is also meant as a tribute to Juree, who was a legendary singer and actress, in addition to being a fundraiser for the Foundation for Senior Performing Artists' Welfare, a charity which she co-founded.
"My mother never taught me anything about acting," Noppol stated matter-of-factly. "She told me that that was the director's job. But she did emphasise the fact that acting is a profession which can provide a living but that is essentially insecure. As actors get older, they often find it harder to secure work. Then they get sick and eventually they die and are completely forgotten. I've seen that happen to so many actors ever since I was a boy."
Since he himself is just about to turn 60 _ the age at which he can officially be termed a "senior actor" _ Noppol wants to continue his mother's initiative and help veteran actors in need, a situation that occurs much more frequently than people think.
The foundation was established around a decade ago to support showbiz professionals from yesteryear who were down on their luck and is a charity that doesn't receive as much attention as it deserves.
Noppol's other main goal at the moment is to transfer the knowledge and experience he has accumulated to a younger generation of actors and directors. During his 35 years in the entertainment industry, he played roles in 30 local films and an astonishing 90 TV soap operas, directed more than 30 television dramas and had his talents recognised by 17 separate awards. His dignified bearing and appearance would be familiar to most Thais over the age of 30, especially now that his hair has turned white and statesmanlike.
Recalling his youth, Noppol said he wasn't at all interested at first in following in his mother's footsteps. He was something of a literature buff and said he fully intended to become a teacher and give classes on his favourite subject.
"When I was young, my mother encouraged _ and sometimes forced _ me to read, and she succeeded in turning me into a bookworm. The first two books that I read were stories for children, then I leapt right into the classics, starting with Si Phaendin [the novel by MR Kukrit Pramoj] and then Kerd Wang Parus [the memoir by Prince Chula Chakrabongse]," Noppol recalled.
Noppol Gomarachun with his mother, National Artist Juree Osiri.
He was sent to boarding school in England and later studied literature at Middlesex Polytechnic in north London. The eight years he spent in the UK gave him plenty of time to peruse works by the greats of English literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw and more contemporary writers. At university he also studied psychology which, he said, was later a great help in his acting career, guiding him in the analysis of characters and how to portray them.
A close friend of the family, film director Chalong Phakdeewichit, came to see Noppol on the day after his return to Bangkok for a four-month break prior to starting work for a master's degree back in the UK. Chalong asked him to try out for the male lead in Tai Fah See Kram. Noppol secured the part and, after his debut in that film, went on to appear in several television dramas, discovering in the process that he had a real calling for acting.
"In my third TV drama, Si Phaendin, I got to play Aod. Having previously read the novel, it was a joy to portray this character, who was a graduate in literature just like me. His father, Khun Prem, even asks him why he wants to study literature so much! I was able to relate to Aod on a deep level. And then I just fell in love with acting and never went back to the UK to do that master's degree." So, at the age of 25, he began acting full time.
By the age of 35, he was directing, and 10 years after that he was producing TV dramas with his own company, Pau Jin Jong.
"I still love acting and would like to keep on playing parts in TV dramas. There's always a warm working ambience on the set and you feel like you're a member of a big family.
"I get to meet good friends of mine again and learn new things from them that I can also use in my own productions," said the seasoned thespian, who played the prime minister in Nuea Mek 2, the controversial TV series which had the plug abruptly pulled on it, due to its political content, back in January this year.
"We really worked hard on making Nuea Mek 2, so this unexpected banning crushed all our efforts and our good intentions to make quality lakhon [TV drama]," Noppol lamented.
"I like acting in and directing practically every genre, except comedy," he revealed. "Pau Jin Jong has produced only one comedy and, to be frank, I found it difficult to direct actors doing gags that are supposed to get millions of TV viewers laughing."
Established in 1998, Pau Jin Jong has made 33 soap operas to date, the latest being the fantasy-drama Sarb Phra Peng, which went out on Channel 3. Theme songs from some of Noppol's past productions will be heard at tomorrow's ''60 Years'' concert, sung by actors from the original productions.
Musical accompaniment for the evening will be provided by Mahoratuek Dontree Leela, an ensemble made up entirely of Pau Jin Jong employees.
Noppol is the lead singer for this band, which is rather unique in using traditional Thai instruments to play contemporary songs. It also performs at hospitals to entertain out-patients and has been doing voluntary work of this nature for five years now. The inspiration for the band came from the illness of his long-term partner, Preeyanuch.
''She hadn't been able to walk for two years,'' Noppol recalled, ''and was confined to a wheelchair. She understood the hassle of going to hospitals and all the waiting time involved: queueing for a blood test, then to see the doctor, then to get medicine.
''I'd always be with her at the hospital. Surrounded by other patients, we could see the suffering etched on their faces. Khun Nuch [Preeyanuch] vowed to me at that time that when she got better, she would do something to help all these hospital out-patients forget about their illnesses.''
Often bringing smiles to the faces of those languishing in hospital waiting areas, performances by Mahoratuek Dontree Leela usually include theme songs from TV dramas to create a sort of time-line marking milestones in Noppol's life. And tomorrow's concert will follow a similar script, he said, but have a much grander presentation.
Nowadays, his company normally makes only one TV drama per year. In between productions his staff spend time learning and rehearsing new songs for their next hospital performance.
''As I enter my 60s, I'm looking for a better balance in my life,'' Noppol said, ''some TV jobs combined with a bit of voluntary work and then some time off to relax and go on holidays.''
The ''60 Years: Noppol Gomarachun Concert'' will kick off at 7pm tomorrow at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre on Charoen Krung Road. Tickets are available from Thai Ticket Major outlets and are priced at 1,000 and 1,500 baht. Call 02-262-3456 or visit www.thaiticketmajor.com for more details.