In the September of 1989, a show about a group of lifeguards patrolling the beaches of Los Angeles first hit TV screens in America.
Sun, sea and (ever-shrinking) swimsuits, Baywatch was the series that would go on to become the biggest of its era, beaming the California dream into millions of living rooms around the world.
For more than a decade, we tuned in to follow the exploits of a group of impossibly gorgeous swimmers; heroes who saved lives, dealt with often absurd but wildly entertaining personal dramas, and remained flawless as they did it.
Still spawning spin-offs some 30 years after it first aired – most recently the 2017 film starring The Rock and Zac Efron – it made huge stars of cast members such as David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.
Now, Baywatch: The Documentary is set to be released, delving into what it was like to be part of a TV phenomenon.
“As a kid growing up in the ’90s, being in high school in the ’90s, Baywatch was sort of an escapism for me,” director Matt Felker tells Sky News.
A fan who grew up with the series, he now wants to tell its story, properly, he says, for the first time.
“Baywatch was a show, but it was also… it was selling an image, it was selling a lifestyle. And it kind of was one of the first brands to do that, and now everyone is selling an image, everyone is selling a lifestyle, from TV to social media.”
Speaking to Sky News on Zoom, Felker is joined by Gena Lee Nolin, who played Neely Capshaw, the woman who would become Mrs Mitch Buchannon, and Jeremy Jackson, who played Mitch’s son, Hobie. Everyone’s favourite lifeguard mentor, Buchannon, of course, was played by Hasselhoff from the very first episode.
“It changed my life,” says Nolin, who joined the cast in 1995, playing Capshaw for three years. “We’d go to London or wherever, around the world, and people would literally be pulling at us, you know.
“It was alluring. It was like this, just picturesque dream of slow-motion and beautiful women and men. It was definitely a phenomenon.”
The series transcended its TV slot. Parodied in everything from The Simpsons to The Muppets, it was also a bonding point for Joey and Chandler in Friends, thanks to Chandler’s love of Yasmine Bleeth. Any UK student of a certain age will have danced to theme song I’m Always There – “Some people stand in the darkness” the opening line guaranteed to fill the floor to close the night. And despite the fact the show he is best known for finished almost 20 years ago, Hasselhoff is still an instantly recognisable TV star.
Coping with fame – and losing it
Jackson, who is open on social media about personal struggles and mental health problems, and has spent time in rehab and jail, says the fame – and seeing it disappear – was hard to cope with.
“They say the higher you are, the further you have to fall, you know? So the height of Baywatch [you had] fans waiting at the airport, ripping your clothes off, trying to cut your hair. Number one albums and singles and opening up concerts, all this insane fame. And then it’s over. This time in the world, everybody had eyes on you, and then it’s over.”
Jackson, who joined the cast as a child, says he doesn’t blame the show for his subsequent struggles.
“I’m not the way I am because of Baywatch, I was on Baywatch because of the way I am,” he says.
“I had already done over 60 commercials by the time I got Baywatch, from six years old to 10 years old. I was very comfortable being on sets, very comfortable being around adults and showing up to do a good job… I lived and breathed it before I even knew it was a job.
“So when the cool stuff started happening for me at that time, it was just… this is how I live. What’s next? Yeah! Music? Let’s do it. Autograph signings? No problem.
“I wanted to have that Michael Jackson fame… get off the aeroplane, if there wasn’t a thousand girls I was like, what’s wrong? What am I not doing good enough? If I didn’t get the cover of the magazine and somebody else [did], I was like, I better step my game up. What do I need to do? Maybe I need to get some muscles or something, show a little more skin.”
“When the show stopped… I got pretty heavy into kind of ego and in my own world, always looking for more, the next big thing. I got a little big for my britches, I turned down a lot of really big movie roles and separated myself from the industry, thinking that the offers would always come and I was too good for a lot of stuff.
“I was sick of the tan beach boy. You know, I wanted to get into some meatier stuff. [But] when you go from everybody wanting to take pictures with you to people saying, well, you take a picture and they’re handing you your camera and it’s for them and their friends… it’s a big paradigm shift.”
Getting a “normal” job was difficult, he says. “Wondering if people were going to judge me or think I was a failure because now I’m not on TV… That’s a lot of weird stuff to deal with. ‘Why aren’t you driving a Lamborghini?’ ‘Why aren’t you rich?’ ‘Why do you work here?’ [There’s] a lot of humility that comes with that and a strange growth process that needed to be taken and taken very seriously because, you know, life is sink or swim, really, regardless of… if you’re on the number one TV show or you’ve got to just pay your bills.
“I went through a funky transition period that wasn’t exactly comfortable, we’ll put it that way. But I found a way to make it work. Still here.”
In a separate Zoom call, Erika Eleniak, who starred as Shauni McClain from the first episode until 1992 – and was also a child star, having appeared in ET when she was younger – tells Sky News she found the fame, while “par for the course”, difficult to deal with.
“I think there might be some people in this world that really love it and eat it up with a spoon…
“It’s important [to be] humble and grateful and kind. I can’t stand when I see celebrities who are not kind to fans. But it’s not comfortable. I don’t think any attention… you know, you could be at a birthday party, your own birthday party, and your family and friends are there, and when everyone’s singing Happy Birthday to you, you shrink a little.
“I think that kind of attention all focused on one person is uncomfortable. So then you just multiply that times a thousand.”
Wardrobe worries: ‘Actors are literally the most insecure people on the planet’
With Baywatch, there was the added pressure of being on camera, and scrutinised, wearing very little.
“I never set out to be an actress,” says Nolin. “When I moved to LA, I was going to college. I got on a game show, The Price Is Right, and I was showing Tupperware and microwave ovens. And then suddenly a casting director from Baywatch saw me in a bathing suit and before I know it, I mean, I was face to face with David Hasselhoff.”
She continues: “I mean truly, when I say this, I didn’t really know I was good-looking. I self-doubted myself the entire time I was on the show. And now looking back at almost 50, I wish that I would have appreciated that time and really enjoyed the interaction I had with David [more]…
“It was a great time, but yet I’d go home and I was so hard on myself. You know, I wasn’t skinny enough, I wasn’t pretty enough – and I was 22 years old.”
Eleniak, who calls herself one of “the OG” Baywatchers, alongside Hasselhoff, was a teenager when she joined the cast for the first series. The swimming costumes were less skimpy then, she says. When the show became syndicated, “the necklines plunged” and the “bums got smaller”.
Despite her Baywatch-ready looks, she says she was always self-conscious.
“I promise you, if you were to put on a bathing suit right now and go out in front of a huge cast and crew, that’s exactly how I felt,” she says. “Hundred percent, honestly, the same as you would feel. It’s awkward. You know, you’re super insecure. For me, [I was] always worrying what’s showing, is anything hanging out?
“As an actor, you don’t want your mind on anything but the work at hand… the last thing I want to be thinking about is, you know, is anything coming out of my bathing suit? Or if I walk five feet, the bum of my suit is going straight up…” she laughs. “You know, those things. So all of that was there, and not easy.
“Actors are literally the most insecure people on the planet. I mean, I’m speaking for myself, but most that I know, and it’s because you’re constantly scrutinised. I think there’s a misconception that people think, yeah, because you’re putting yourself out there, of course you must be a confident person. It’s not that way, it really isn’t.”
Dealing with typecasting and ageism: ‘How many people look the same as when they were 22?’
After Baywatch, many of the actors found themselves typecast.
“To be slotted, you know, to look a certain way, and then when it’s over, to get another job,” says Nolin. “You know, are they going to take you seriously? Are you stereotyped? I mean, is it over? You know, a lot of us were fortunate to go on to other shows. But, I mean… it was difficult.”
Eleniak says Baywatch hindered her career in the US, but helped it elsewhere.
“Domestically, it was hard… What’s happening for me domestically is literally, I’m going up for a role, I studied, I worked really hard, I got great opportunities, and often I would go in and they would ask me my last job and I would say Baywatch, and I would be asked to leave. That’s no joke, I’m being very serious.
“I felt very caught between a rock and a hard place, because I love the show… but I really wanted to spread my wings. I didn’t want to play Shauni McClain forever.
“Internationally, have I made shows overseas or had the opportunities to go overseas and work? Yes, because of Baywatch. One hundred percent… I lived in Canada for a long time and so all of that kind of notoriety a hundred percent helped me and afforded me the opportunity to go elsewhere and work.
“So it’s a yes and no. Domestically it made things very hard, but internationally it was wonderful.”
Felker says he wants to show the depth to the programme’s stars and the series itself. Many of the actors were victims of their time and the show’s aesthetic, he says.
“I think now in television, a lot of these actors that are in their 40s and 50s are getting resurgences because there’s a lot more programming, they’re familiar faces, streamers take chances,” he says. “Whereas the Baywatch generation, it’s like, ‘oh they’re 45, they’re done’. They’re not, you know. A lot of these actors are still acting and some of them have totally moved on with their lives and are doing other things.
“People assume if you’re not consistently on TV and not consistently working, that you’re like some sort of failed entity. [But] a lot of these people just said, ‘I did this, I was super famous and I’m done with this and I want to do other things’.
“People don’t realise how young these people were when they were on the show. When you’re a kid, if the person’s 23 and you’re 16, they seem real old, but they’re not. These were kids. Jeremy was a child on the show.
“So these people are beamed into your television at 22 years old, you know, looking 22 years old, not having to really work on their appearance, are pretty much blessed with what they look like. And if they take a hiatus, they come back in their late 40s and 50s, then people are like, ‘oh, she looks like sh*t’ or ‘he looks terrible’ or this or that.
“Anyone in life – unless you’re Jennifer Lopez – how many people actually look the same as you did when you were 22? I mean, it’s not reality. People hold this bar for these people that isn’t realistic. People are like, ‘poor, rich, famous person’ – I get it, but it’s still f***ed up.”
Felker likens the impact of the show to that of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Instagram stars today.
“Baywatch is pretty much social media influencers before social media,” he says. “It bookended the decade… and that’s an entire decade of a show that pretty much formulated what the look was of that decade, what was sexy, what was hot and what people loved.”
Working with The Hoff: ‘It was meant to be’
Listening to the cast members speak, it sounds like Hasselhoff was very much a mentor figure on set.
“David Hasselhoff is just fun,” says Eleniak. “The energy when David was around was always super light-hearted, he was a big prankster so he used to do practical jokes on everyone all the time.”
Nolin describes him as “like my brother”, while for Jackson, who grew up watching Knightrider, being picked for the role by the Hoff himself was a dream come true.
“I grew up without a dad so being able to spend summers with this guy who was the epitome of cool, was other-worldly,” says Jackson. “He definitely altered the course of my life and shined very, very bright.
“He was really more like a big brother on the set though. So, you know, playing jokes, baring his bum when we were doing scenes, trying to get you to mess up.”
Jackson says it is “absolutely true” that he beat stars including Leonardo DiCaprio to the role of Hobie.
“I was actually back then a pretty heavy threat to those kids. You know, I was getting a lot of jobs. So [Hasselhoff] did pick me and, you know, I was very, very close to the role. I grew up with a single parent, near the beach. I already was body-boarding, I was already very comfortable in the ocean.”
Plus, he says, he was small for his age, and Hasselhoff needed someone he could easily throw over his shoulders.
“You know, it was meant to be,” he says. “I lucked out in that way.”
The legacy of Baywatch
“The word zeitgeist just keeps coming to my head, like this iconic, magical thing that happened that literally no one could predict,” says Eleniak.
Baywatch was a show about beautiful people, yes, but also about a group of lifesavers, she points out. There are countless dramas about detectives and doctors, but Baywatch has never been replicated.
“When I went into this show, it was for a serious look at lifeguarding,” Eleniak says. “We’ve had a lot of cop shows, a lot of ER dramas, you know, hospitals and doctor shows, lawyer shows. There were no, and there’s still not, any lifeguard shows.
“It was and it obviously is truly a very serious business. You’re talking about, how many lives are you responsible for on the beach? It’s not a joke, it’s very serious. That’s what I feel like our first year getting established was about, and then the second year, which was our first year of syndication, everything started to change and shift.”
Would Eleniak up for a Baywatch return?
“I would, but I don’t think I’d be wearing a red bathing suit again,” she laughs. “Or a purple one, or any colour, quite frankly. It would depend on a lot of things, it would depend on the story, that would be huge. The story and the writing would be huge. It would have to make sense. But, yeah.”
If you want a marker of how big Baywatch still is, says Jackson, look to its famous fans. “Brad Pitt’s gone on record saying Baywatch was his favourite show.”
Nolin nods: “I heard that.”
(Brad, if you’re reading this, how about adding those famous red shorts to that Oscar on your CV?)
What is it about the show that still appeals, decades later?
“It was light-hearted and fun,” says Eleniak. “I think that appeals to us all the time, really. Whether we slap a red bathing suit on or put something else on it these days, I think we like light-hearted and I think we need light-hearted. I think that’s why it will always stand the test of time.”
“There is nothing like Baywatch,” says Nolin. “And there’s a lot in this documentary that spills the beans.”
Baywatch: The Documentary is due for release in 2021