Hangin' in for the Ride

updated 10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 01:00AM

ALL EYES ARE ON DAVID HASSELHOFF and Jeremy Jackson, the 13-year-old actor who plays his son, Hobie, on Baywatch. Strolling across the beach, the two are deep into a heart-to-heart over Hobie's latest indiscretion: throwing a wild bash while Dad was away. On cue a bikini-clad extra frolicking nearby makes a beeline across their path as the camera ogles her impressive chest.

Yep, it's quintessential Baywatch, exactly the mix of family-oriented story-telling and hypertoned beach goddesses that has made it the most-watched show on the planet Earth. The five-year-old series about a group of Los Angeles lifeguards is now viewed regularly by some 1 billion people in 140 countries, making it America's No. 1 TV export. Its 100th episode will be a Christmas story called "Silent Night," and a new spinoff series, Baywatch Nights, also starring Hasselhoff, begins filming in February. All of which has made Hasselhoff, Baywatch's star and executive producer, a 6'4", 185-lb. force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

"This thing has become so big," Hasselhoff says gleefully. "It's really funny because all those guys who wouldn't talk to me before come over to me now. When I go to a party, I'm turning to see what they're looking at. My wife has to tell me they're looking at me!"

What they're seeing, he hopes, is not just a hunk in trunks, but an actor, a producer, a singer (phenomenally popular in Germany and Austria, where his five albums have gone gold), a stage performer, and, say the people around him, a Nice Guy. "The bottom line is that David is one of the hardest-working people I know," says director Chuck Russell (The Mask), a longtime friend. "He's kept his nose to the grindstone over the years and has done the best work he could."

Go ahead, make fun of Baywatch. Call it Babewatch or Brawatch—many TV critics certainly have. Hasselhoff, 42, who rose to fame as a frequently bare-chested doctor on the soap opera The Young and the Restless (1975-82), then shared billing with a talking car in Knight Rider (1982-86), has heard them all. "The people who still make fun of the show are unaware of what it's about," he says. "We're devoted to action, not violence. Romance, not sex. And issues, but not too heavy."

When Baywatch premiered in 1989 on NBC, it had a hefty $1.4 million budget per episode. The network axed the show after one season. A year and a half later, when Hasselhoff helped resurrect it in syndication, the show cost only $860,000 per. How did he and his longtime business associates manage? "We all decided to do five jobs," he says. "For some strange nutcase reason, we absolutely love it. We're all just stressed-out workaholic freaks."

They also cut back on some of the expensive action sequences, using as filler lingering shots of near-naked women. When that became a tedious joke and fodder for Howard Stern, Hasselhoff concluded it was time to cover up. "I went in and said, 'If I see one more gratuitous shot of a woman's body, I'm quitting,' " Hasselhoff claims without a trace of irony. "We've changed from about 50 percent girls on the beach to 70 percent stories. I think the show should be emotional story lines, morals, real-life heroes. And that's what we're doing. We want to be Hill Street Blues meets 911 meets Little House on the Prairie meets Highway to Heaven."

In essence, Hasselhoff is trying to make a show the whole family can watch, including his own. The only son in a family of five kids, he was born in Baltimore but lived in various places as a child. He remains close to his parents—Joe, a retired executive for Brink's, and Dolores, a homemaker, live in Monrovia, Calif.—and to his four sisters. He decided to become an actor after seeing a production of Rumpelstiltskin at age 7. "David was a gregarious guy, even when he was little," says his father. "He'd find telephone poles and talk to them." His parents were encouraging, signing him up for voice, acting and dancing lessons.

After brief stints at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pontiac, Mich., and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Hasselhoffs big break came in 1975 with the role of studly Dr. Snapper Foster on Y&R, though a debilitating case of stage fright nearly cost him his chance. Seeking a cure, he read The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, a self-help book by Joseph Murphy. "When they'd say, 'Five, four, three, two, one [before shooting],' I'd hate those numbers," Hasselhoff says. "But the book showed me how to learn to love them. I'd say, 'Five—you're great!; four—no problem!; three—you know your lines!; two—you got the part!; one—just have fun!' In two weeks every nerve was gone, and I became the most popular guy on the series and the highest-paid guy on CBS soaps."

It is this kind of positive thinking that has recently seen Hasselhoff through such travails as the earthquake last January that caused $350,000 worth of damage to the four-bedroom, four-bathroom house he shares in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with his wife, actress Pamela Bach, and their two daughters, Taylor Ann, 4, and Hayley Amber, 2. "I jumped up and was knocked down," he says, remembering the night it all happened. "I was totally bewildered." Only the glow from a small flashing emergency light allowed the family to escape to safety as water from broken pipes sloshed through some rooms and the house crumbled around them. "Everything in the house was broken, but still we're lucky," he says after six months spent making repairs. "We basically have a new and safer house now." It is the same ability to roll with fate's punches that got Hasselhoff through the disappointment when his big pay-per-view concert last June in Atlantic City, which was supposed to jump-start his American singing career, coincided with the night that O.J. Simpson made his foray down the freeway in the white Ford Bronco. "I would have done well," says Hasselhoff. "But I was outrun."

Given the buffeting he has taken and survived, it's no surprise that Hasselhoff thinks he can handle both Baywatch and Baywatch Nights, which will begin airing late next year. "David has the energy of five race horses," says Pamela, 31, to whom he has been married since 1989. (Hasselhoff was previously married to soap star Catherine Hickland, now on Loving.) "He wakes up ready to attack the day." In Nights, he will reprise his Baywatch role, but with a more sophisticated James Bondish demeanor. Translation: He'll swap his trunks for Armani. "I'm a little nervous about it," he says. "But Baywatch's distributors came to me with this wheelbarrow of money and said, 'Do you want this wheelbarrow?' I said, 'I do, but...' 'Do you want this wheelbarrow or not?' So I took it—now all my kids are set. Then I thought, okay, now I need another David Hasselhoff."

One more may not be enough. In addition to his Baywatch duties, Hasselhoff is trying to build his music, movie and stage careers simultaneously. Not content with singing to legions in lederhosen, he will be working on a new U.S. album, and this season he may be singing the Baywatch theme song that starts each show. Hasselhoff recently completed filming Avalanche, a TV movie airing on Fox early next month, in which he plays a deranged diamond smuggler. And he is set to return to the stage—he hasn't been on one since the 70s—for an eight-week run early next year in Los Angeles with the theatrical version of the cult film hit The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He intends to play Dr. Frank-n-Furter, a transvestite who belts out the show's finale, "I'm Going Home."

Hasselhoff is hoping there'll be time enough for all this in the months to come. Right now, though, he's late for work on Baywatch—which, given his dual roles, can quickly become an expensive problem. "Are we about done?" he asks politely, finishing an interview by car phone as he tools down the Pacific Coast Highway in his black Mercedes 300SE convertible toward Santa Monica. "I'm 15 minutes late here, and since I'm the producer, I'm going to have to fire myself."

DAN SANTOW
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles and MARY HUZINEC in Atlantic City

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