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Arts He's huge in Serbia: Meet Canada's Batman of the Balkans

Rob Stewart is virtually anonymous in Canada. The 48-year-old actor is unemployed and lives with his parents in Brampton, Ont. "My life here is so banal," he says, "very blue collar." Most days, he rises at 7 a.m. to get his son off to school or hockey practice. There are auditions, but jobs are scarce, he says, and only sometimes lead to guest roles on television shows, including two episodes of ReGenesis and a forthcoming gig on Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Across the Atlantic, in Serbia, however, Stewart is a cult icon turned national superhero. Fans swamp him in the streets; bars erupt when he enters; quiet meals in a restaurant are impossible. "I can't even explain it without sounding like I lack modesty," he says.

The reason? An early-nineties Canadian TV series called Tropical Heat (a.k.a. Sweating Bullets), in which Stewart starred as Nick Slaughter, a pony-tailed, hairy-chested private investigator who worked on an island, amid beautiful women in bikinis. He was embarrassed by his acting on the "cheesy show" – which he describes as "a B-version of Magnum, P.I." and which lasted for only three seasons – until he logged onto Facebook last December and found a fan group called " Tropical Heat/Nick Slaughter" with some 17,000 (mostly Serbian) followers.

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"It blew my thoughts off that [the show] had any relevance to anybody," he recalls. The discovery inspired him to revisit Slaughter in the country that had stood by him all these years. With his neighbour, artist and neophyte filmmaker Marc Vespi, and Vespi's sister, Liza, Stewart went to Serbia last month to film a documentary called Slaughter Nick for President that explores his superstar alter ego.

In Belgrade, they were met with public hysteria. A series of media scrums awaited their arrival, along with groups of fans in tropical shirts (Slaughter's wardrobe staple). Photographers snapped away and then jumped in front of the cameras themselves to get a picture with their national hero.

The anticipation in Serbia had been building since March, when it was leaked to the press that Stewart would perform with a Serbian punk band at its 20th-anniversary concert. "It broke out all over the papers that Nick Slaughter was coming to Serbia," says Stewart. "It was overwhelming."

Stewart's Serbian host, prominent political activist Srdja Popovic – whom Stewart had contacted through Facebook – says that after a national newspaper published a photo of him with Stewart, "within 15 minutes, I got 300 calls – everybody asking, 'Will you introduce me to Nick Slaughter?' and 'I want a photo with Nick Slaughter.' I couldn't live my normal life."

Popovic says "everybody in Serbia" watched the show in the 1990s: It was broadcast on four of five TV stations, competing only with nationalistic propaganda and telenovelas from South America. "No wonder Nick Slaughter appeared on the graffiti of Zarkovo [a Belgrade suburb]and later in the student protests," he says.

In November, 1996, when young people took to the streets of Serbia's cities for three months after the Milosevic regime announced dubious local-election results, Slaughter became a symbol of their oppositional politics. First, there was the graffiti in Zarkovo, which read: "Nick Slaughter, Zarkovo hails to you," a rhyme in Serbian. Then there was Nick Slaughter, Serbia Hails to You, the title of a popular (and ironic) song by the Serbian punk band Atheist Rap. From there, the slogans spread and mutated: "Every mother should be proud to have a son like Nick Slaughter," and even "Nick Slaughter for President."

These rhymes were pinned to students' shirts on political buttons, hung in the streets on protest banners, and chanted loudly in demonstrations by those who wanted change.

According to Popovic, one of the principal organizers of the mid-nineties student protests, who later co-founded the Center for Applied Non-violent Actions and Strategies, "Nick Slaughter for president means 'Anybody but Milosevic' – Milosevic was so bad that anybody would be better."

Stewart and Mark Vespi have several of their own theories about Tropical Heat's Serbian success. Among them: the fact that the show was one of few to be broadcast so widely in Serbia, due to economic sanctions; and the program's luscious tropical settings, which offered a form of escapism from the country's political and economic turmoil. As Vespi says, Tropical Heat "wasn't political, it wasn't violent. It was the lightness of the show that they needed at the time."

What baffled the filmmakers were the emotional outpourings they found during their visit – what the Serbian newspapers dubbed Slaughtermania. "These huge guys with tears in their eyes saying, 'You're my hero,'" says Stewart. "It was the emotional context for these people: what they went through in the 1990s while this became their favourite show."

Slaughter's clumsiness and Homer Simpson-like fallibility had also always appealed to the Serbian sense of humour, which is self-deprecating – a trait Stewart believes Serbs share with Canadians. Stewart and Vespi heard time and again that Serbians loved the TV character because he would always come back after being beaten down in a fight. "The most powerful alliance in the world was bombing them, and they had a dictator, but they just kept getting up every morning and trying to get through it," explains Stewart. "They responded to the goofiness of the character rather than anything heroic."

According to Popovic, "The whole hysteria and the sentiment about [Slaughter] has to do with one generation who lost the best 10 years of [their]life. During all those ugly years, we all wanted to be Nick Slaughters." The private investigator, was, after all, usually either on a beach or in a bar, always surrounded by beautiful women. "It's the ultimate Serbian dream," he adds dryly. "He is the Serbian Batman, an ideal Serbian superhero."

Stops on the documentary tour included Stewart performing with Atheist Rap, and a meeting with Canada's ambassador to Serbia, John Morrison, who saw Stewart's visit as "a unique way to build new bridges between Canada and Serbia." Together, Morrison and Stewart planted maple trees in Zarkovo, the site of the original Nick Slaughter graffiti. The trees were, predicts Popovic, "a good sign that [Stewart]will come again."

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They were also a symbol of renewal for Stewart, who describes the trip as his professional redemption. "If you look at my 25 years of acting, you can't cobble together a retrospective. There's not a lot that I've done that I've been proud of," he says.

After Tropical Heat , he quit acting, but went back to it when he needed money, appearing in shows such as Peter Benchley's Amazon and Painkiller Jane. "I used to think [ Tropical Heat]was terrible; I was embarrassed about it. But if it gave those people that comfort and emotion, it was a wonderful thing."

The doc's promo video, which premiered on July 8 at the Roma Fiction Fest in Italy, shows a warm and fuzzy image of the country. It may be redemption for Serbia, too. Says Popovic, "We're all amazed with Rob's commitment to show Canadians and others who will watch the documentary the bright face of Serbia – very unlike what people usually see about my country."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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