Filipino actor Fernando Poe Jnr is the people's choice for president, yet few really know him - and those who do say he is an introvert As the image of a man with a gun flickers across the silver screen, the tense silence is shattered by a yell from the audience - 'Fernando, behind you'. Quickly, as if reacting to the warning, the man whirls around, shoots the intruder dead, and the theatre shakes with thunderous clapping. The incident is replayed countless times during showings of Fernando Poe Junior movies in the southern Philippines and it goes down well. Eid Kabalu, a fan, sums up a school of thought: It's the reason most Muslims will support 'FPJ' for the presidency. Even members of the country's biggest rebel group, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 'I believe a lot of them will go for him,' says Mr Kabalu, the rebels' 47-year-old spokesman, who admits to being a fan of Poe 'since I was a little boy'. He says it was Mr Poe's personal endorsement of his erap (friend) that enabled Joseph 'Erap' Estrada to sweep heavily Muslim Mindanao in the 1998 presidential polls. Muslims believe the Christian actor is the lone presidential candidate who could end the festering conflict there. Muslim professor Taha Basman says: 'Poe is liked by Muslims of all levels - the intellectuals, businessmen and the masses.' He is the only local actor to often portray a Muslim in movies, and always in a good light, Mr Basman explains. To Mr Kabalu and Mr Basman, Poe's most memorable movie was Muslim Magnum .357, where he portrays a Muslim police officer who regularly prays inside a mosque. To Poe, the most memorable is probably Perlas ng Silangan (Pearl of the Orient), where he, the Muslim mujahedeen, rescues the Muslim princess played by Jesusa Sonora (screen name - Susan Roces). She is his wife of 35 years. An overwhelming majority of poverty-stricken Filipinos - who popularity surveys say are likely to vote him president - continue to idolise this strong, silent, macho champion of the oppressed. The middle-class and well-to-do, on the other hand, do not share in the hero worship. To them, he is the most public, yet most mysterious candidate. Everyone knows him, yet at the same time no one really knows him. His immense popularity, however, may not be enough, to win him the presidency, which is why he is struggling to unite the political opposition behind him. The largest opposition party is split, with one faction supporting him and the other, Senator Panfilo Lacson. The two men met yesterday behind closed doors and said they agreed that only one of them would stand against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. They agreed to meet again and 'seek ways and means of unifying the opposition'. The secret meeting and the guarded release of information is typical of the 64-year-old. Little has been written about him in his 48 years of acting, perhaps because early on, one movie scribe who wrote unflatteringly was badly mauled by a member of the 'Lo Waist Gang', led by the Poe-Estrada tandem. The gang started a fad for wearing low-waist jeans and binge drinking. Movie writers have willingly shelved their scoops after Poe 'sheepishly' asked them to, saying they 'could negatively affect people close to him'. Film critic Nestor Torre said: 'Of course, we obliged.' Contrary to widespread perception that the actor 'hates' the press, Poe, in a rare moment of candour, said: 'The truth is I am scared of the press.' In 1995, he told Viva Films publicist Baby Gil, who was promoting his film, which Viva was producing: 'To this day, each time I face the press, I become cold all over. I admit that I go through a lot just to avoid them' because he feared the media's power 'to destroy a person'. If the press digs a bit, it could find dirt. Mr Poe said: 'All that's happening to Robin [Padilla] has happened to me, but in a different time.' Padilla, cinema's 'bad boy', has left a trail of broken hearts and was jailed for illegal gun possession. Poe is known to turn nasty when drunk and has had his share of discreet affairs, unlike bosom buddy Estrada who has flaunted them. Poe said: 'I like to think that I've learned from my mistakes and become a better person.' What could prove to be his political undoing, according to newspaper columnist Danilo Mariano, is that 'FPJ is a walking paradox, a popular figure who does not like being with people'. Mariano calls him 'an introvert ... visibly uncomfortable in crowds, the very resource any election campaign must have for it to have a chance of success'. Poe's half-brother Conrad has a solution - they will show FPJ movies for free. For a man eager to run for the highest post, Poe has made himself scarce in the past three weeks. Comedian-turned-Senator Vicente Sotto claims it is deliberate, to show he is not a traditional politician. But one ad executive who has seen him up close has a different insight. For one of the rare ads the actor made for beer giant San Miguel, the entire cast and crew idled on an island for three days until he was ready to shoot. 'People have to approach 'Da King' like they are approaching royalty. He's not easy to deal with. He's moody, very introverted, open only with a select group.' But even the executive felt the Fernando magic: 'Once he's there, nobody stands until he stands. You get mesmerised.' Still, columnist Mariano notes, 'he is used to producing, directing, scripting and starring his own movies ... productions over which he has complete control. But when he presents himself to the news media, he won't be able to shout 'Cut' and order 'Take two'.' Poe's generosity towards friends and strangers is legend. Actor Nino Muhlach gushes that Poe once gave 20,000 pesos to a startled scavenger whom he chanced upon on the street one night. Actress Kris Aquino says this 'generosity of spirit without asking for anything in return', would make him a good president. 'Many tried to bribe him to whisper favours into President Estrada's ear then, but he turned them down,' she said. When Estrada wanted to give dictator Ferdinand Marcos a hero's burial, 'it was FPJ who convinced him not to.' These are not the only qualities, though, demanded of a Philippine president. His critics note his lack of formal education - only eight years of schooling, after his father, famous actor Fernando Snr, died of rabies and left his wife, American national Elizabeth Kelley, and six children nearly penniless. First son Ronald Allan Kelley decided to step into father's shoes, adopting as his screen name his younger brother's name of Fernando Jnr. His first movie flopped, causing him to turn stuntman; he once wore a skirt while doubling for an actress on horseback. It was his team-up with Estrada two years later, in 1957, in the movie Lo Waist Gang, that made them famous.