Rob Stewart was a famous actor for 16 years before he realized it. He was an unemployed writer/director $6,000 in debt when he started going on auditions in his late 20s, hoping to land a role that might fund his other projects. In 1990, he tried out for a new show called "Sweating Bullets," what he calls "a B-version Magnum, P.I." about a Don Juan detective named Nick Slaughter who solves local crimes in the fictional Florida beach town of Key Mariah.
Stewart, who couldn't afford a haircut at the time and had a "lion mane of hair," showed up in a tank top and jeans and had what he calls a "very bad audition."
"I accidentally went out drinking the night before," Stewart, now 50, says on the phone from the Calgary set of "Heartland," a Canadian drama about life on a horse ranch.
His tryout was so bad that when producer Peter Locke and writer/creator Sam Egan watched his tape, they almost immediately began fast-forwarding. Then Locke's wife walked by and Stewart caught her eye. "That's your guy," she said.
After landing the job, the first thing Stewart did was ask for an advance to get a haircut. Locke said no. Instead, he pulled his new star's hair back in a ponytail and dressed him in a permanently unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt to show off his chest hair. Nick Slaughter was born.
Though Slaughter never failed to solve the crime -- from petty theft to murder -- and bed the dame, his approach was nowhere near as smooth as Tom Magnum's. Stewart hammed up the one-liners the show's writers served up each week, delivering them in a "lazy Canadian version of Groucho Marx." "Bullets" aired for three seasons in Canada and in the United States as part of CBS' Crimetime After Primetime.
And that would have been that. But in the summer of 1992, following Yugoslavia's breakup under Slobodan Milosevic, "Bullets" aired in Serbia and the series, known abroad as "Tropical Heat," took on a second life. The U.N. had just imposed sanctions on Serbia, isolating the newly landlocked country and shrinking its economy.
Robert Nemecek, the programming director for a then-new local television channel called TV Politika, was looking for a "positive, sunny and colorful" series to buoy the spirits of Serbs who could no longer summer on the Croatian coast. He wanted "Baywatch," the most popular beach-set series at the time, but it was too expensive. That's when "Tropical Heat" landed on his desk.
"First of all, it was the light entertainment needed for an audience bombarded with pictures of war," Nemecek said via email. "Second, it was Rob's face -- he had the face of a Serbian!"
An embargo prohibited large companies from making new deals with Serbian programmers, but independent distributors had free rein. Between 1993 and 1997, "Heat" aired on three other channels besides TV Politika: 3K (1994-1995), TV Novi Sad (1993-1994) and, after the embargo ended, TV Pink (1996-1997). Thanks to contracts signed before Yugoslavia's split, shows such as "Twin Peaks" and "Beverly Hills 90210," along with pirated satellite series such as "Melrose Place," "The X-Files" and "L.A. Law," continued to air as well. But "Tropical Heat" was up to the competition. The series was a hit, and Stewart a star.
Milos Djuricic, an actor from Belgrade who recently co-starred with John Cusack in "The Raven," was eight when "Tropical Heat" first aired in his native country.
In the new documentary "Slaughter Nick for President," which explores the show's unlikely popularity in Serbia, Djuricic tells Stewart the show was one of the reasons he got into acting, "not because of very good production or very good acting, but [because] at that time I wanted to be in that paradise." The farthest he could travel in the '90s was his grandmother's village, but he didn't need a visa or a passport to get to Key Mariah.
For many Serbs, the appeal of the show was purely escapist. But eventually the series' second life took a strange turn: Nick Slaughter became a hero, of sorts, to the anti-Milosevic movement. On Nov. 17, 1996, mass protests broke out in the country in response to Milosevic's attempt to manipulate local elections. The protests took place throughout Serbia but were at their most concentrated in Belgrade where, in the suburb of Zarkovo, sometime in the mid-'90s, a young graffiti artist had written a Serbian rhyme that means, "Nick Slaughter, Zarkovo hails you."
According to Marc Vespi, director of "Slaughter Nick for President," this graffiti (which survives to this day) inspired student protesters with "the idea of running Nick Slaughter for president." Soon rhyming slogans like "Slotera Nika, za predsednika" ("Nick Slaughter for president") and "Svakoj majci treba da je dika, koja ima sina k'o Slotera Nika" ("Every mother should be proud to have a son like Nick Slaughter") started showing up on protesters' banners and badges.
"It was a kind of mock-campaign, the message of which was, even a fictitious TV detective would make a better president than Milosevic," said Vespi via email. "It was like 'Anybody but Bush' a few years ago. It was an expression of frustration with the leadership that the political system was providing."
Djuricic, the actor, notes that humor was the protesters' weapon of choice during their three-month peaceful protest against Milosevic. "That was the weapon the regime couldn't fight," he says in "Slaughter Nick." "We knew that it was our joke and they didn't understand what our joke meant."
Timofejev Aleksandar, general manager and editor-in-chief of Belgrade's radio and TV broadcaster Studio B, covered the demonstrations as a young journalist for the independent radio station B92. He says the Nick Slaughter slogans and numerous other "humorous" tactics were used to oppose the bleak conditions in which citizens were forced to protest.
"Those were demonstrations during the autumn and winter when it was very cold here in Belgrade -- it was minus 10 or minus 20 degrees," Aleksandar said on the phone from Serbia. "Every day people were on the street and a lot of them needed to have some kind of levity."
In February 1997, Milosevic bowed to the opposition. That same year, "Tropical Heat" ended its run on Serbian television. Locke's company went bankrupt in 2001, but Serbians never forgot Nick Slaughter. In 2008, fans created a Facebook fan page, "Tropical Heat/Nick Slaughter," and its ranks eventually swelled to over 20,000 members, most of them Serbs.
Two months after the page was established, Nick Slaughter himself stumbled upon it. At the time, Stewart, again unemployed and living with his son and parents, had joined Facebook to communicate with his wife, a cinematographer working in Mexico. One night he searched "Tropical Heat" to see if it was airing internationally and might send some residuals his way. That's when he landed on the fan site. He wrote the administrator and got an email back detailing how Nick Slaughter became a Milosevic-era meme. "I'm famous in Serbia!" Stewart told his neighbor. Six months later, Stewart and his neighbor (filmmaker Marc Vespi) were on a plane to the Balkans.
"Slaughter Nick for President," which had its world premiere at Toronto's North by Northeast festival earlier this month, documents their June 2009 trip to Belgrade and Novi Sad where they encountered what the local press called Slaughtermania. Crowds of Hawaiian-shirted fans, front-page news coverage and autograph seekers of all ages with "Tropical Heat" DVDs greeted Stewart over the course of two weeks.
"Here, you're like some kind of god -- anything is possible if Nick Slaughter is somewhere in it," one female fan tells Stewart in the film. As a baby, her father played her the "Tropical Heat" theme song, "Anyway the Wind Blows," to quiet her cries.
In between documentary interviews, Stewart taped a suspect local TV ad for computer equipment, flashed his chest on a Serbian game show, planted a maple tree in Zarkovo (where "the first seed of the Nick for President phenomenon was planted," says Stewart in the film), and attended movie premieres and fashion shows. But, for Stewart, the highlight of his visit was a performance at the To Be Punk Festival with Atheist Rap, a Serbian punk band that in 1998 released the song "Slaughteru Nietzsche."
In the documentary, Stewart can be seen smiling broadly as the band sings: "You bring us a better tomorrow/ You make peace between nations and people/ Slaughter Nick, Serbia salutes you!"