Here was the pitch: take two middle-aged, uh, wash-ups (Knight Rider‘s David Hasselhoff and ex-Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson), cast them in a show that required them to do little more than run around in bathing trunks, then hope they could stay afloat in Nielsen’s choppy waters. Talk about making a splash. Who knew the TV show would become the most watched in the world? Certainly not the NBC brass who aired the series debut of the lifeguard drama Baywatch on Sept. 22, 1989 — only to cancel it after a single season.
The formula was simple: Surround Hasselhoff and Stevenson with babes (i.e., former Miss Universe Shawn Weatherly and Playboy Playmate Erika Eleniak) getting jiggly with it while saving swimmers in distress. The critics were less than kind, the ratings weren’t much sunnier, and NBC declined to renew.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the prime-time drowning pool: Hasselhoff, creator Greg Bonann, and two other producers bought Baywatch‘s rights once the show was sold into domestic syndication — where it could succeed with less ratings pressure on a lower budget — as well as to overseas markets where the program had been a quiet success in its original run. Before long, more than one billion people in 144 countries were tuning in to ogle a scantily clad Pamela Anderson and a bevy of Maxim-worthy cover girls (Yasmine Bleeth and Gena Lee Nolin among them). ”There are a lot of girls on Baywatch, and I’m sorry, but there’s a major audience for that,” said Hasselhoff in 1994, defending the show’s bounce-per-ounce ratio. ”They’re not naked, and they’re not having sex on the beach.”
The Baywatch franchise expanded through the ’90s to include spin-offs (Baywatch Nights and Baywatch Hawaii), a pay-per-view special, and beach-themed products, but such proliferation never could have happened without the hunky-but-slightly-chunky Hasselhoff, who finally hung up his flippers last year (he still exec-produces the show). In fact, the world’s ”most watched TV star,” according to The Guinness Book of World Records, first said no to donning the red trunks. ”I turned it down flat,” Hasselhoff said of the Mitch Buchannon role during Baywatch‘s fateful NBC campaign. ”I figured if it was a hit and ran five seasons, I’d come out of it a guy of 42 who talked to cars and then hung out at the beach. I’d never have a serious acting career.”
Hey, there’s still time. Hasselhoff opens on Broadway Oct. 31 in Jekyll & Hyde, inheriting the lead role from another 1980s guilty pleasure, Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach.
Time Capsule: Sept. 22, 1989
At the movies, Steven Soderbergh’s Sundance prizewinner sex, lies and videotape ushers in the era of modern independent film. In music, the lip-synchers of Milli Vanilli top the Billboard album chart with the ironically titled Girl You Know It’s True. On TV, Bob Saget, John Stamos, and the Olsen twins return for the third-season premiere of ABC’s Full House. And in the news, reeling from the winds of Hugo, the worst hurricane to strike the U.S. in 20 years, seven South Carolina counties are declared federal disaster areas.