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Story by Matthew Brunwasser, PRI's "The World"
The campy detective show "Sweating Bullets" was on TV in the U.S. from 1991 to 1993. While many in America may barely recall the show, in Serbia it spawned a political icon for a generation.
The star of the show, Rob Stewart, recently discovered that when he looked up his character on Facebook. Now he's making a documentary about his enduring fame in one corner of the world.
"Sweating Bullets" is about a private detective named Nick Slaughter who drinks beer at a waterfront bar, beds women, and solves a crime every week. Outside North America the show was known as "Tropical Heat," and it was the only foreign program available on Serbian TV when Serbia was under an embargo in the early 1990s.
Dushan Popovic was a teenager at the time. "You know, on the television, you saw only horrible pictures, you see images from the war, you see patriotical garbage and stuff. And then you switch the channel, and you have 'Tropical Paradise,' and the cool guy with a ponytail and the Hawaiian shirts running around."
Dushan’s father, rock journalist Petsa Popovic, wasn't thrilled about his son cutting class to come home and watch "Tropical Heat." But it was a dark time when Serbia was cut off from the world. Popovic says the character taught his son's generation how to fight evil with positive energy and humor.
"Nick Slaughter, he bridged that lost connection with Western civilization. Unbelievable, but yes. In that unlogical period of our history a lot of miracles happened, one of that miracle is Nick Slaughter."
To understand how Nick Slaughter landed a leading role as modern Serbian political icon, you have to go back to 1997 when students took to the streets to protest what they saw as electoral fraud by then President Slobodan Milosevic.
The Serbian punk band Atheist Rap wrote a song in honor of Nick Slaughter, the students’ favorite candidate for president of Serbia. The song is called "Sloteru Niche, Serbia ti kliche," or "Nick Slaughter, Serbia Salutes You." It became an anthem of the peaceful protestors who braved police beatings.
Years after Slobodan Milosevic was ousted, Nick Slaughter still enjoys a special place in the hearts of Serbs. So when Rob Stewart, the actor who played Nick Slaughter, visited Serbia this summer, people went crazy. Stewart appeared on a popular late night Serbian TV show, and was interviewed for an hour.
Rob Stewart doesn’t get that kind of adulation back in the West. He’s now 47, living with his parents in Brampton, Ontario. I recently reached him by phone there. He told me that when he discovered his 17,000 mostly Serbian fans on Facebook, it didn’t take long to decide to make a film about the phenomenon.
"The whole idea that interested us was how oblivious I was to this, how non-famous I am here. So you wake up one morning, you type your name in a web search and suddenly you realize, you’re a political icon or a cultural icon somewhere in a foreign country. It is a very strange feeling."
Serbian humor has a strong sense of irony, so Serbs could easily ridicule the poor quality of the show. But Stewart says he was caught off guard by the sincerity of their love for Nick Slaughter.
"When I got there, I realized how emotional they were about that show, about that character, about the context at the time in their lives, you know, when they sort of took him for a hero."
Stewart says he never really cared much for the show, even when he was doing it. His experience in Serbia gave him something he never expected: A sense of redemption.
"It’s not just the fantasy of fame, it’s the fantasy of actually being important to a culture. Like, that’s a very strange thing. That’s really tough for me to wrap my head around."
Stewart's film is due out in the spring. Watch a preview:
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