From the novel "D: Based on a True Story" (2017)
by Terbo Ted. Available in paperback and ebook
"I'm a man where it counts" - Arco Polo
"Has anyone ever told you that, uh, you, uh, kind of look like Dent Filsen? But younger, like a younger Dent Filsen?"
I heard this almost every day of my adult life. I would say "I hear that all the time" or "I don't see the resemblance."
But I couldn't really complain about being compared to one of the most loved TV actors of all time. Dent Filsen was my childhood idol too.
In the early Seventies Filsen starred as Arco Polo- a half cyborg space pilot explorer- in a made for TV movie of the same name. Young Arco Polo had been a valiant young fighter defending Earth in the million alien mine battle and had destroyed 11,000 of the invading mines before being nearly killed himself by a laser strike. Badly disfigured, the young hero is given a robotic arm and legs and superhuman cyborg strength. Later, as an adult doer of good, explorer Polo travels the universe in his ship the "Time Bender," accompanied by the spacecraft's computer "Infinity Squared" and the midget sized android "DD" on a mission to "love all life." Despite a limited story, low-budget execution and badly executed acting, the made for TV movie was so well received that "The Adventures of Arco Polo" was hastily made into a weekly TV series, making Dent Filsen a household name and one of the biggest stars of his generation.
The show's formula was pretty simple. Arco Polo would be onboard the ship, having a conversation with the ship's computer Infinity Squared while DD cutely bumbled about in the background. DD's dialog was entirely in imaginary Morse Code and the letter d, so it would say things like 'd-d-dee dee dee d-d' while waving its arms in circles or spinning its head all the way around. Infinity Squared would drolly enunciate that there was some life in trouble and in need of help, after which Dent would say 'map coordinates' and while DD beeped and blurbled out variations of the letter D, Infinity Squared would plot the fastest course through the universe. Infinity Squared would first calculate the exact distance in diameter, and then plot the complete circumference to that point in spherical 3D. They would then cheat time by merging with the sphere, which would land them almost instantly at the destination, navigating a perfect 180 degree arc, making them the fastest ship in the universe. The name ARC-O was quite literally referring to the 180 degree arc across the sphere. Neat ARC-O logotype in stylized 1970s typography was prominently displayed on various places on the outside of the spacecraft.
Infinity Squared's voice was portrayed by British comedian Alouiscious Andrews III, known for his bawdy and flamboyantly gay comedy routines in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos. His trademark on stage was purring 'You Did WHAT?' in the campiest queer voice possible and striking a stiff pose. On the Arco Polo show however, Andrews spoke in a faux American or mid-Atlantic movie accent, delivered in robotic monotone cadence and lacking emotion. The dry, androgynous effect given off by Infinity Squared was a direct contrast to the Arco Polo character played by Dent Filsen who was dripping exuberant machismo and all around male TV hunk leading man swagger.
Whenever Polo would leave the ship, he would take DD the droid with him. DD's job was to carry Infinity Squared's camera, microphone and speaker so that Polo could stay in contact with the ship's computer. DD, who only had three fingers on each hand, would always forget one of the three items, so each outing Infinity Squared would be complaining that it could not see or hear or be heard, rendering the genius computer completely impotent and of limited use. All of this was played for comedic effect while DD cutely clowned and cavorted about.
Once arriving at their destination, each week the TV heroes would find a family or town or outpost or something that was in some sort of trouble and in need of their help.
Inevitably there was always a beautiful woman or farmer's daughter or damsel in distress that would somehow require the intimate attention of Filsen's character. There would be some sort of calamity that would require the use of Arco Polo's super cyborg strength to save the day. Without fail there would be a firestorm or avalanche or laser attack or otherwise terrifying disaster, where Polo would be hanging from a cliff by his robot arm while holding the young woman tight against his body with his human arm, both of them screaming in defiance of a certain impending death. The young actresses picked for this role typically had little or no previous acting credits and usually wore outrageous space costumes that covered very little skin. While these young actresses were always visually appealing, the acting was usually to a low standard and hastily executed. It was typical to catch the young women on screen blushing when standing next to Filsen, the huge TV star, with the girls awkwardly or stiffly posing near him during the various scenes.
Every episode there would be a point where someone would point out to Arco Polo that he was only half human, and Arco would deliver his trademark line and series of gestures, which were, in order: him running his human right hand back through his longish hair, then saying "I'm a man where it counts," followed by a 'chik chik' sound out of the corner of his mouth, followed by a salute where his right fist taps his heart twice, and then he would swing his right forearm and fist up and out and forward while his right elbow remains on his waist, followed by a wink with his human right eye. We used to do this all of the time on the playground as kids, never quite realizing that the extended raised fist with the elbow at the waist salute was intended to resemble a sexualized male erection.
Polo never would kill any living thing, although he would easily kill evil robots with his cyborg cannon left arm. If there was a living thing like a dragon or bear or plague of bugs threatening the victims on the show, Polo would stun the offending protagonists with his super powers and then tell the creatures in their ear with a soft voice that they were to 'love all life' and change their ways, which always seemed to do the trick and resolve the conflict. The dragon would stop attacking the village, the bears would stop their various marauding, the poisonous insect swarm would go elsewhere, and so on. It was that easy.
At the end of every episode, Polo would be back at the ship, in conversation with Infinity Squared, while DD and the beautiful young woman from this week's episode were nearby. As the dialog unfolded and drew the show to a conclusion, Polo would gently and patiently clean DD, whose robotic surface would be badly tarnished from the week's adventures. DD was gold and silver colored. Polo would always say "gold never tarnishes" but DD's silver would be blackened each week, making him look like a gold and black bumble bee and not a shiny droid. Polo would be rubbing DD with the cleaning cloth. The female lead would sit quite near, always making eye contact with Filsen, then maybe helping clean DD, the sum of which would always end up with DD powering down into his bent over pose, the hands of Polo and the actress touching, followed by long eye contact between Arco and the young woman. This was always shot with a gleaming, heavily filtered camera effect. The end scene inevitably resolved in a long slow passionate kiss and embrace that ended the show.
While the basic formula, budgets and acting on the program left all sorts things to be desired, the show did manage to be a visual treat with outstanding award winning costuming and at times, clever, inventive writing.
Arco Polo was a huge hit. I waited in anticipation each week and would stay up late on Sunday night to watch. All the kids talked about it all week at school.
Critics hated the show, which was easy to pick apart. Polo's character would be pushing some 1970s hippy era imaginary Oriental mysticism about loving all living things as if he was some wise guru, but then at the next moment he's a womanizing philanderer out to get laid, leering and smirking at the beautiful young woman in his arms. The slapstick sidekick droid- while maybe not far off from the comic relief found in Shakespeare- was pooh-pooh'd for being low class, dumbed down entertainment for the masses.
After three seasons of being one of the most popular shows on television and Filsen having now become one of the most adored celebrities in the country, Filsen wanted more money. He was also sick of the costumes. And wanted a bigger trailer. The show's writers wanted more freedom to explore beyond the narrow constructs of the show's original premise. After a walk out and delay to start the show's fourth season, The Adventures of Arco Polo returned with a poor run of shows that had the entire cast breaking character, as when Polo was a traveling magician with a cart drawn by a talking horse (Alouiscious) selling exotic elixirs to an Amish town troubled by gun toting horse thieves. Without ever reaching new contract terms, the show was cancelled early in its fourth season. As a young fan of the show I was crushed. Crushed.
After the cancellation of The Adventures of Arco Polo, Filsen went on to star in some romantic comedy films, all of which did very poorly at the box office.
In the 1980s, Filsen came back to TV as the jet setting private detective 'Denny Glock,' who would fly around the country meeting rich, beautiful women who needed to hire him to save the day. Filsen was already starting to age badly, with his tailored suits unable to hide his growing belly, his obvious fake hair and wig even seen obviously flapping up in the breeze in a few episodes, his toupee unable to hide his rapid onset of baldness. Filsen had a young female sidekick on the show. She wore her hair up, always had a pencil over her ear, wore thick glasses, carried a clipboard and squeezed into an impossibly tight skirt. The sexual tension between the two was part of what made the show interesting, exacerbated by Glock's womanizing with the different weekly female guests, who were always older and more sophisticated than Glock's female assistant. Toward the end of the second season however, Glock's character falls in love with his sidekick. All she had to do was remove her eyes glasses, let her hair down and she was immediately transformed into a sexy, voluptuous woman and they were almost immediately engaged to be married. This took place in a heavily promoted two part "To be Continued…" episode that was the most watched show on television in the United States when it first aired. The show's ratings dropped precipitously afterward and the show was abruptly cancelled.
Not long afterward there were some well publicized lawsuits against Filsen. Apparently while he was starring as Arco Polo in the 1970s, he had had sex with all but a few of the female guest actresses who appeared on the program. He would invite them back to his trailer on set to 'rehearse their lines' and get it on. For the most point the young aspiring female actresses were eager and willing to participate in these private hands-on 'rehearsals' with the famous TV star, the entire show was set up and cast that way. Literally, the casting agents were often picking from Filsen's groupies to get their guest actresses each week.
In the oncoming years Filsen had gone almost totally bald, grown quite rotund and was completely done with his television acting career. As he aged he looked like a retired porn star, in sloppy Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts and sandals, his remaining straggles of hair fuzzy and unattended. He appeared in ads as a spokesman for condoms and erectile dysfunction pills. He became widely adored on the video gaming and Sci-Fi convention tour circuit as an older man. Not having lost his winking and smirking comedic senses, audiences loved hearing his take on old films and tv shows and comic book superheroes or whatever. He'd do the Marco Polo salute with the chk chk and "I'm a man where it counts" and fist pump and crowds would go nuts. He had an endless supply of anecdotes to entertain with and he was a charming storyteller. People would stand in long lines the length of the convention center to get his autograph.
In my own career, I managed to also speak at a number of the gaming and Sci-Fi conventions, and I had actually met Filsen himself a handful of times. We had photographs taken together more than once. Dent would always call me 'sonny boy' or 'junior' and would always comment on our physical resemblance. I don't think he ever actually knew my real name.
As my life progressed, I would always seem to be able to compare and contrast my own real life experiences with never ending parallels between actor Dent Filsen or The Adventures of Arco Polo. It followed me everywhere.
From the novel "D: Based on a True Story" (2017)
by Terbo Ted. Available in paperback and ebook