The unacknowledged son of one of America's most popular talk show hosts works in the mailroom at Philadelphia magazine.
In the couple of months since PW first contacted Pontius, the son has finally spoken to his birth father. For him, the conversation didn't go quite as he'd hoped. "I just didn't get the sense that he was really all that interested," says Pontius.
Bell has also spoken to PW several times, and though he's requested most of the interviews remain off the record, he did leave several phone messages for Pontius after that first conversation, a fact Pontius confirms. He says his son seemed "angry."
Bell himself says he was shaken up by the news that his birth children had been sexually abused. "I was horrified," says Bell. "All of this is news to me. When I did talk to Vincent, the first 80 percent of our conversation was about the abuse. I just couldn't believe it because I had the opposite information. And I think what happened to him has a lot to do with his anger."
He says he'd stayed away from his ex-wife and kids because the information he had is that they were happy without him. "I just figured everyone had gotten on with their lives," says Bell. "Until I got a phone call from [PW], the last conversation I had with my ex-wife was that she had remarried and that it would be best if I just let them be."
Pontius says he walked around for many years with a hole inside him he couldn't fill. Bell raised him until he was 3 years old, an age when a child's parents pretty much constitute their whole world.
Myrna Shure, a professor of child psychology at Drexel University and the author of Thinking Parent, Thinking Child, says that on one hand a child might be "better off" if a man capable of leaving him and never speaking to him again for 38 years is simply out of his life for good. But having Bell around the first three years of his life means that Pontius went through his most formative years with a man who suddenly disappeared.
"He suffered a loss," she says, "and in a normal divorce situation the child can be told, 'This is about Mommy and Daddy. They can't live together, but Mommy still loves you, Daddy still loves you.' But if Daddy isn't there, you can't say that. The child's going to think, 'Daddy doesn't love me, and that's why he's not coming back.'"
For Pontius, finding out who his father was led to some surreally difficult moments. He recalls receiving a phone call from his sister in 1999, telling him their father was going to be on CNN's Larry King Live. "It was the first time I ever got to see him move and talk," he says. "And I--I taped it, and I watched everything about him--his mannerisms, the sound of his voice--trying to see if I could see anything of myself in him."
Could he? "I don't know," he says. "You tell me."
Still a sci-fi fan, he was also a regular viewer of the TV show Millennium when Bell turned up on an episode playing himself. "I didn't know he was going to be on," says Pontius, "and all of a sudden there he was."
That appearance affected him in ways he can't describe. "I didn't sleep," he says. "For days. I was just ... I don't know what I was feeling. It messed me up."
Seeing the father he'd never met on a TV series he regularly watched was something he just couldn't process. He says he made his own attempts to contact Bell over the years with no success. He tried emailing him through the Coast to Coast website, and received no reply, which is perhaps not surprising given the sheer volume of emails Bell says he receives.
Then in May of last year he sent a letter to Bell at his address in Pahrump, Nev. Bell was living in Manila in the Philippines with his new wife Airyn at the time (The talk show host moved his wife to the U.S. in December) and says he never received it.
In the end, after PW contacted Bell, the talk show host immediately suggested this reporter give his son his phone number. Both say the ensuing conversation involved a lot of talk about what had happened 40 years ago; what led to the dissolution of the marriage with Toguchi; and why Bell had never made further contact with his children on his own.
"I started the conversation by saying, 'This is Sachiko's son,'" recalls Pontius of his single conversation with Bell. "I felt so disconnected by not having known Art senior, and I guess I feel liberated because not having heard from him haunted me for, like, 35 years. I saw flashes of emotion from him here and there. Maybe the first 20 minutes I sensed a little guilt, but he never apologized for leaving me, my mother and my sister."
Bell says, "I guess I wasn't ready to apologize for something I didn't know I had done. I'm not the kind of person who abandons people, and I didn't think I had abandoned them."
While the hour-long conversation between father and son hasn't led to any ongoing relationship, at least for now, Pontius calls the experience cathartic. "I'd been waiting so long to talk to him," he says, "for some kind of acknowledgement from him, and now after that one conversation I feel like I can move on with my life."
So why go public now? "Because it's the truth," says Pontius.
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