As The Movie Version Of The Kitschy TV Series Jackknifes Into Theaters This Weekend, The Reel To Real Guys Reminisce About Interviewing Some Of The Original Stars
David Hasselhoff at the height of his fame in Southern California with a cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley. Image by Reel to Real.
By Tom Johnson and David Fantle
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
May 27, 2017 — After nearly three decades, Baywatch Lifeguard Mitch Buchannon has radically transformed from the self-described “chicken legs” physique and perfectly-teased quasi-mullet coif of David Hasselhoff to the brawny pecs and close-cropped “do” of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
New eras almost always call for new incarnations – be it Wonder Woman, King Kong or in Baywatch’s case, the “King of the Beach.” But whether the movie version of the syndicated hit TV series from the early ‘90s that made “The Hoff” a star along with Pamela Anderson, Yasmine Bleeth, and others, will need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at the box office, only time will tell.
Back in 1996, when the Baywatch TV series was burning up the Nielsen’s, we interviewed The Hoff (then 43) as he was just beginning to crack several lists of the most powerful men in the entertainment world. He was a mogul-in-the-making, but he told us it wasn’t always that way.
“I was unemployed for three years after Knight Rider, he explained. “I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t get an audition. I was booked into concert appearances – dog-and-pony shows, really – with ‘Kit,” the talking car from Knight Rider.”
The turnaround came in 1988 when The Hoff took a propitious phone call in his Portuguese hotel room. “I was watching an episode of Perry Mason on TV and thinking, ‘Why the hell am I over here making a few bucks for drinking money.” All of a sudden, I get a long-distance call from my agent, who told me that he had arranged a guest spot for me on … Perry Mason. Weird, huh?”
After returning to the U.S. and guest-starring on the highly-rated Mason episode, Hasselhoff was cast in Baywatch, a show critics often dismissed as “Babewatch.” “At first, I wasn’t really interested in doing it,” The Hoff told us. “I don’t look good in a bathing suit. I have such skinny legs. But it was a gig, so I took it.”
That gig turned into a syndicated smash and a suite of offices in Marina del Rey which is where we sat down (on the floor) with The Hoff as he spread-eagled himself on the carpet and chawed into a In-N-Out burger his wife, Catherine Bach, had just dropped off.
The production offices and adjoining soundstages were the nerve center of Baywatch – The Hoff Inc., and overseeing it all was Hasselhoff, a man driven by enough manic energy to fuel two Jim Carreys. Sprinting from scriptwriters’ meetings to a tête-à-tête with his co-producers and back again, we got caught up in The Hoff’s whirlwind.
“We move really fast around here,” he said, stoking his engine with a liberal swig from a jumbo Pepsi. “We have a helluva lot of fun, but we also live by the credo: ‘If you pout, you’re out.’”
According to The Hoff, critics of the show missed the big picture. “What might be sexist to one person could be fantastic television to another,” he said. “The thing that critics constantly forget is that it’s the beach for God’s sake! According to statistics, our biggest fans are women.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like bikini thongs and cute little behinds. But the difference in being a producer and owner of the show is that I can put a stop to gratuitous shots. Hey, I especially don’t need them ruining my close-ups, because given the choice; I know what viewers will be looking at.”
The original Baywatch lasted just one season on NBC before The Hoff and a few business associates took over all rights to the show and brought it to first-run syndication. “The motivation was the greenback,” The Hoff said. “It’s millions of dollars.”
A couple decades ago, a typical workday for The Hoff began at 4:30 a.m. reading the sports pages over a big cup of coffee in his San Fernando Valley home. “I then read scripts, look at Baywatch dailies and just power through the day,” he said. “The key for me is 20 minutes during lunch where I can just lay down and turn it off.”
From Marina del Rey it was a short drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Will Rogers State Beach where exteriors were filmed for the show. It was sultry when we arrived but the Fahrenheit wasn’t the only thing sizzling on the set – curvaceous Pamela Lee was shooting a scene as extras, individually and in small groups, mingle purposefully in the background. Reality slowly dawned on us that these California girls working for union scale were the kind you’d only find in Beach Boys lyrics … or on location during a television shoot. Yes, some could possibly have passed for the girl next door, but only if your neighbor happened to inhabit the Playboy mansion.
We had a visit scheduled with Alexandra Paul (32 then) who had played Lieutenant Stephanie Holden on the show for the past four years. (Ilfenesh Hadera assumes the role in the movie.) Paul told us the only swimming she did was on the show but it was her proclivity for lap swims that got her the Baywatch audition.
“One of the show’s producers, Greg Bonan, belonged to the same pool I swam at. He knew I could swim,” she told us. “The weird part was I almost turned down the audition. I really didn’t want to get trapped in a weekly TV series, but I thought my agent would get upset if he heard I turned the opportunity down.”
Paul said that everyone connected to the show knew it was light entertainment. “I don’t know what people expect us to wear on the beach except bathing suits,” she said. “In any case, there are some nice messages on the show. We are middle-class people, for one thing. It’s not about money. There is no greed factor here like on Dallas. David (Hasselhoff) plays a single father on the show, and a good one – there’s something positive. We get a lot of positive mail.”
However, for all the positives, there was a dark, obverse side that we noticed when we arrived on the set. It could be seen in the way the stars’ personal trailers were parked. They were set at severe angles in a kind of defensive posture. “It’s for protection against overzealous fans and the media. It’s mostly for Pamela’s benefit,” Paul said. “We have cops that walk us to the set from our trailers. But I myself have a nice balance. I don’t get mobbed; just have to sign an occasional autograph – usually at the airport.”
Bringing Baywatch full circle, The Hoff makes a sly cameo appearance in the new movie adding some continuity to the franchise and bridging the gap – even if for only a moment – between the hit TV series and its big screen spawn.
Word has it that Hasselhoff, who’s spent a large part of his latter career burlesquing his prior career in Speedos, had a blast with his walk-on role. One thing’s for sure, no one will ever need to throw him a life-preserver!
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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