“I was a vision in budgie smugglers”
This week marks 30 years since David Hasselhoff and his “lifeguards” ﬁrst hit the beach for a TV behemoth called Baywatch. Aussie actor Peter Phelps was one of them, and he shares his memories with Stellar.
This month marks 30 years since David Hasselhoﬀ and a squad of “lifeguards” donned tiny red swimsuits and ran – in very slow motion – along a California beach for an audience that eventually grew to a billion. One of them was Australia’s Peter Phelps, now 58, who shares his salt-sprayed memories of Baywatch’s ﬁrst season with Stellar
It was the Los Angeles winter of 1989 when cameras rolled for the ﬁrst time on the sands of Santa Monica Beach for the pilot of Baywatch. Back home, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Kylie and Jason had been married for two years on Neighbours, Cher had the number-one song with ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’, cricket legend Steve Smith was a newborn as the Aussies won the Ashes in England for the ﬁrst time since 1975, and no-one owned a mobile phone.
I had been touring the US promoting movies The Lighthorsemen and Starlight Hotel when my agent asked if I wanted to audition for the pilot of an NBC TV show about lifeguards before I returned home to Sydney. The part was an
Australian lifeguard and ironman champion. I could surf not long after I could walk and the only “real world” job I had before my ﬁrst acting gig was as a professional lifeguard in Sydney, so my research was covered. With nothing to lose – and knowing that a very small percentage of television pilots go on to become series – I said yes.
One of the scenes in my audition had me wrestling a crocodile in a pool while daring another lifeguard to do the same. There was, in fact, no pool, no croc… just a room. The crocodile was played by a pillow. Across several callbacks, I was asked to perform to an ever-increasing audience of network honchos.
The studio where I was giving my best lifeguard act was also the setting for Tara, the plantation mansion in Gone With The Wind and the very space where Clark Gable said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn…” It would become the series’ home studio. Citizen Kane, Raging Bull and E.T. had also shot there as had the TV shows I Love Lucy, Hogan’s Heroes and Batman. Knowing this made me lift my game.
I ended up getting the part and almost immediately after NBC gave the go-ahead to order a full series. The
pilot was actually a TV-movie called Baywatch: Panic At Malibu Pier, and my debut on American television screens was as upstart Aussie Trevor Cole, a vision in budgie smugglers, blond highlights and spray-on tan who said things like, “I’m on Weet-Bix boxes back home.”
I sensed what the show’s tone would be within my ﬁrst few days on set, when I noticed the camera often started on the legs and tilted up slowly to eventually reveal the actor’s head. This was only the female actors, though; male lifeguards got the traditional shot, complete with their head in the ﬁrst frame.
In one of my early scenes, I was to replicate the croc audition, but this time I was aboard the Queen Mary and a real croc was on standby instead of a pillow. The script had me dare the head of lifeguard, played by David Hasselhoff, to match my heroics. The croc wrangler, who was also my stunt double for the scene, slipped the croc into the pool. But the far-from-fearsome reptile never moved from the bottom of the pool all day, so I did my own stunt with a much more responsive rubber-dummy croc.
We needn’t have bothered since the scene never made it to air – which I was assured wasn’t because of my fake croc-wrestling work. As that ﬁrst season progressed, I got storylines with more meat on the bone and the clichéd Aussie ﬁnally morphed into a fully formed lead character.
When the show was picked up to become a series, I had become one of the county lifeguards stationed at Malibu. I still got lines like, “I’ll throw a shrimp on the barbie,” and I’d get notes from producers to include more g’days – Crocodile Dundee II had been released the previous year, so an Aussie ﬂavour was seen as a good thing. The biggest challenge for me was not the surf rescues but making those lines seem as natural
as the stunts I was doing. The Hoff actually asked for a few rescue board lessons when we kicked off. I gave him a four out of 10 because he wouldn’t get high enough up the board and rarely made it to shore with the board intact. That’s what stunt doubles are for, Dave.
Baywatch went on to become the mostwatched TV show in the world, and ran from 1989 to 1999. But the one and only
season I did was not quite as popular; it was cancelled by NBC while I was shooting a television show back home in Australia. The original producers and Hasselhoff took charge and put the show into syndication, where it grew to the point that a weekly audience of one billion people in 148 countries was tuning in.
There were episodes written for the second season that involved Trevor and fellow lifeguard Jill Riley, played by Shawn Weatherly. But they didn’t survive the transition from NBC. Jill was killed by a shark and Trevor, like the actor who played him, hung up those red budgie smugglers for good and went back to Australia. I may have missed out on the worldwide fame that David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson experienced, but the show I came back to do on that ﬁrst and last break from Baywatch earned me an AFI Best Actor Award [for G.P.]– better than any shrimp on the barbie.
“My first audition had me wrestling a fake crocodile in a swimming pool”
LIFE’S A BEACH (from top) Peter Phelps (far right) and co-stars Baywatch in 1989; with co-star Christine Elise; fellow Baywatch lifeguards (from left) Yasmine Bleeth, Pamela Anderson and Alexandra Paul; Phelps as Australian lifeguard Trevor Cole.
MAKING WAVES (clockwise from top left) Phelps patrolling the beach as Trevor Cole; Baywatch star and producer David Hasselhoff on the set; Phelps at the Locusts on the Gold Coast earlier this year; in the early ’80s, while he was starring in Aussie soap Sons And Daughters.