“I was a vi­sion in budgie smug­glers”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - /contents - Writ­ten by PETER PHELPS

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.

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