08/15/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS BUFF LIFEGUARD MATT BRODY on Baywatch, the most popular syndicated show in television history, David Charvet frolics on the beach with voluptuous, half-naked women, cruises around in nifty speed boats and works on his tan. PBS it ain't. But it is a job to die for—which is actually what Charvet nearly accomplished last November while shooting a scene that required him to spend an hour running in and out of 55-degree surf north of Malibu. "I just started freezing," recalls Charvet, 22, a telegenic cross between Jason Priestley and Alain Delon. "I kind of lost body functions, and it got scary. They had to lift me up and throw me in the shower and have three guys hold me while I'm shivering and shaking and chipping my teeth."
Not even hypothermia, though, could cool Charvet's passion for his work. "He's the first to jump into the water and scream, 'I love this job!' " says the show's star and executive producer, David Hasselhoff. "Even when the waters are freezing, he doesn't whine or complain. He is 100 percent professional."
If Charvet's assignment is to attract women, he is certainly earning his keep. An estimated 1 billion viewers from 72 countries tune in to Bay watch each week. Judging by the show's fan mail, and the reactions Charvet engenders as he walks down the street, he is one of the main attractions. "I've seen a few girls almost faint in front of him," says prima Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson
, Charvet's former real-life sweetheart. "He's great with it. It doesn't affect him."
Well, that's not entirely true. His fame, he says, fills him with a sense of obligation. Charvet regularly visits hospitals and public schools in the Los Angeles area to talk to students about drug and alcohol abuse. Since February he has also written a Dear David column in Tiger Beat magazine, spending 4 hours a month answering letters by hand in his spare time. "Our responsibility as stars is to be sort of role models," Charvet notes. "That's our power. If I can just get my point across and hit two or three kids that really need it, I've done some good."
Once it was Charvet who needed the help. The actor, who was born and raised partly in France, is the son of Sasson Jeans founder Paul Guez, a multimillionaire who developed a drug problem and started his downward spiral when Charvet was 8. By then, his parents were already divorced (Guez had moved to New York City), and Charvet was living in Paris with his mother, Christiane, now a Beverly Hills boutique owner (he took her maiden name) and his stepdad. "I started seeing a man who was so totally great destroy himself," says Charvet, speaking of his father in the living room of his sprawling four-bedroom Beverly Hills house. "It had a huge impact on my life. I never did drugs or tried them. I had to grow up a lot quicker because I was almost taking care of my father."
One night when Charvet was 16 and living in L.A., his father called from New York City. "He said, 'David, I've hit rock bottom,' " remembers Charvet. " 'Can you pick me up at L.A. airport and take me to the hospital? I need your help.' I took him to the detox program at St. John's, and from that moment on he's been sober." He's also been successful. Guez, who has five other children from two more marriages (Christiane also remarried and has a daughter from that union), launched a new jeans company three years ago. Today, he calls his son "wonderful. My best friend."
Charvet has made an equally strong impression on Pamela Anderson
. Despite being platonic friends since their breakup less than two years ago, she still regards him as "more than anybody, the love of my life." They were already living together when, as struggling actors, both were coincidentally cast on Baywatch in 1992. She remembers Charvet predicting that their relationship would change once they began working on the same show. "And he was absolutely right," recalls Anderson. "In this business, it becomes very competitive when two actors are starting out." Still, Charvet, who doesn't have a steady girlfriend at the moment, has remained Anderson's confidant. "We had a great romance," he says, "but now she talks to me about her boyfriends. People on the set think we're faking it but we aren't."
Not that Charvet doesn't love the make-believe involved in acting. He grew up watching John Wayne films dubbed in French, and "when I first arrived in California, every time I passed by a studio and saw cameras, I had chills running up and down my body. I felt like I belonged there." While attending Santa Monica's University High, he took acting classes. In 1991 he graduated from high school and promptly landed his first acting job in a Bugle Boy jeans commercial. More important, he met Anderson at the audition. In the spring of '92, David auditioned for Baywatch and was immediately hired. "He's really grown as an actor," says Hasselhoff. "In the beginning he was the first to say, 'I've got to get my ass in acting class,' and he did. I see his future as very bright."
Movies are his next goal. Charvet hopes to follow in the sandy footsteps of Erika Eleniak, a former Baywatch beauty who costarred in Steven Seagal's Under Siege. "Give me a part in a film," says Charvet, "and I'll show you that I'm not just a heartthrob." But that's where his starry ambition ends. "My main goal in life," adds Charvet, an accomplished cook, "is to have a family and a great home. Career and money will never buy me that happiness. If it means not being in this business, then I'll leave it. So everyone better catch me before I leave!"
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL, in Los Angeles