Estrada's Star Falls

Once at the pinnacle of stardom and power, President Joseph Estrada was pushed off the public stage Saturday in a downfall more dramatic than the plot of any of his films.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched toward the Malacanang presidential palace Saturday, forcing the former action movie star to quit and slip out a back door.

It was an ignominious end to a presidency that, when it started in 1998, Estrada called his "last and greatest performance."

Estrada rose to stardom in his early 20s, playing tough guys with a soft spot for the needy — roles that earned the hearts of the masses. In the 1970s, he won five best actor awards in the Philippines' version of the Oscars.

Born in Manila's slum district of Tondo, Estrada as a child fell into many brawls — often, he said, to defend a friend. He valued friendship deeply and used the nickname Erap — "buddy" spelled backward in the Philippine language.

He entered politics in 1969 with his election as mayor of Manila's San Juan suburb, a post he kept for 17 years.

He was elected senator in 1987, then vice president in 1992 despite a past life of boozing, gambling and womanizing — foibles that humanized and endeared him to ordinary Filipinos but disturbed the powerful Roman Catholic church. He has acknowledged fathering children with several women other than his wife.

He banked on this macho charisma and a pro-poor platform in the impoverished Asian nation of 76 million people to win the presidency with one of the largest margins in recent memory.

But former aides say he squandered his popularity and extended his carefree lifestyle into the office. He loathed work and never liked policy debates, aides said.

Businessmen complained about his management. Once on the verge of becoming another "Asian tiger," the economy lost direction.

A drinking buddy, Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson, said Estrada often held late-night alcohol sessions with his "midnight Cabinet" of friends — sometimes at the presidential palace — with liquor worth up to $1,000 a bottle.

Singson then told a more explosive tale, claiming in early October that Estrada, who never had been linked to major corruption, pocketed millions of dollars in illegal gambling payoffs and tobacco tax kickbacks.

During the impeachment trial that ensued, prosecutors accused Estrada of breaking the law "like clockwork," keeping a network of hidden bank accounts holding millions in illicit funds. They said he bought a mansion for one of his mistresses for $1.4 million while declaring only a net worth of $700,000 for the year.

The end became clear Friday, when a string of generals and Cabinet members — many of them close friends — abandoned Estrada.

"He was like a father, an elder brother, a friend, everything like that. He has been very, very good to me. It's difficult, but it has to be done," military chief Gen. Angelo Reyes said.