When Erika Eleniak joined “Baywatch” for its 1989 debut, she says it was intended to do for lifeguards what other TV dramas in the ’80s and ’90s did for cops, doctors and lawyers.
“It was pretty much to take a serious look at lifeguarding,” says Eleniak, who turned 20 a week after the NBC series premiere of “Baywatch” on Sept. 22, 1989. “That was the kind of the dynamic and the idea, the concept behind the show.”
But after getting dropped by the network, going off the air for a year, and then returning to become one of the most successful syndicated series ever, “Baywatch” changed, Eleniak says, becoming more colorful, more musically oriented. There were more flights of fantasy and less earthbound reality.
“In one episode, my character was dealing with bulimia and the stress of life and relationships and this and that,” says Nicole Eggert, a regular on “Baywatch for its third and fourth seasons. “And then in the next instant, she is being attacked by a giant octopus. In a cave. Fighting for her life.
“So she couldn’t catch a break in that episode,” says Eggert, 47, laughing as she describes the episode she recently picked as her favorite for a TV Guide story on the series.
“But that’s what’s amazing about ‘Baywatch,’” she continues. “There’s a little bit of reality in there, but there’s a lot of fantasy, a lot of escape. And it’s beautiful to look at, the show is obviously gorgeous. Kind of like eye candy with some fun adventures in there.”
And as “Baywatch celebrates its 30 anniversary this year it’s never looked (or sounded) better: The first nine of 11 seasons of the series that also famously starred David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson is now on Amazon Prime in crisp new HD video remastered from the original 35 mm film, with more than 300 new songs replacing the dated music of the original soundtrack.
We recently talked with lifeguards Shauni McClain and Summer Quinn, the characters played by Eleniak and Eggert respectively, about everything from their experiences on “Baywatch,” and why it became such a global hit to those iconic red swimsuits. Here’s what we learned.
Getting the gig: Eleniak and Eggert had been acting since they were young, appearing in TV and film roles throughout the ’80s – including both having roles on the sitcom “Charles In Charge” (Eggert as a regular, Eleniak in a recurring role).
“I feel like I auditioned for ‘Baywatch’ about six times,” Eleniak says of the process that led to her appearance in the 1989 pilot and TV movie, “Panic At Malibu Pier,” and the series that followed. “You had to do a swimming audition as well; they wanted to know what your limitations might be.”
“Not a strong swimmer, though; that was the not the strong suit,” Eleniak says. “Which was always funny behind the scenes because Shauni McClain was an Olympic swimmer, a medal winner.”
Two years later, Eggert auditioned for what was intended as a spin-off series about kids at Malibu High School. “I didn’t think I was ever going to be a ‘Baywatch’ lifeguard,” she says. “I thought it was going to be sort of like ‘90210’ at the beach.”
She’d moved to Huntington Beach as a toddler and like Eleniak grew up at the beach, and soon discovered she was one of the strongest swimmers in the cast.
“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” Eggert says. “I ended up in the water a lot more than other people at times because I was a strong swimmer.”
“I live for a set,” Eggert says. “And there were so many amazing underwater sets on ‘Baywatch.’ I was just always fascinated, because you’re underwater with all this electricity, all these big lights and cameras. It’s just like being at Disneyland at the Finding Nemo, what used to be the submarine ride, where you go underwater like this fantasy land.
Eleniak said that after the disappointment of “Baywatch” leaving the air when NBC decided not to renew it in 1990 it was a thrill when a year later its producers and star Hasselhoff managed to resuscitate it.
“When the show came back it was sort of a new improved animal,” she says. “More musical and eye candy and fun. It kind of took off from there.”
The only drawback? “We shot during the winter so we were freezing a lot,” Eggert says. “We were very, very cold.”
After the beach: Eleniak says she decided to leave after the first two seasons to pursue work in film, while Eggert said she was just worn out from having acted non-stop since she was barely old enough for elementary school.
“It was kind of a great time to go because my swansong was the introduction of C.J. Parker, Pamela Anderson’s character,” Eleniak says. “And I mean, they hit the lottery. “
Eggert, who in addition to starring on “Charles In Charge” had also appeared as a recurring character on series such as “Who’s The Boss?” and “T.J. Hooker,” says she was just burnt out when she left “Baywatch” after her two seasons.
“I needed to grow up and kind of work on myself,” she says. “If I could talk to young Nicole now, I would tell her to just keep going, rest when you’re dead. But at the time, for my own happiness, I just needed to take some downtime.”
Why the world watched: As Eggert noted above, there was a great appeal in the way “Baywatch” mixed the silly with the slightly serious stories it told.
“It became that kind of pop icon Americana,” Eleniak says of the way “Baywatch” shaped the image of Southern California beach living in far-flung lands, especially in places with gloomier weather. “That’s what I think had the global appeal for folks … the beaches and sunny skies that we get enjoy most of the year here.
On dry land today: Both Eleniak and Eggert have continued to work in film and television in the years since they left “Baywatch,” and both have projects underway today.
Eleniak is developing a reality series called “Ride It Out” in which people with mental health issues such as PTSD, substance abuse and depression are helped by horses and therapists who practice equine therapy.
Eggert has started a variety of businesses outside of Hollywood, though her latest is bringing her back on camera for a CNBC reality series in which former baseball star Alex Rodriguez works with entrepreneurs like Eggert to help them bring their ideas to fruition.
Red swimsuits: The men and women who patrolled the beaches as lifeguards on “Baywatch” are still remembered for the red swimsuits they wore. For the cast, though, who spent countless days in what to be honest wasn’t regulation lifeguard wear, it was a relief when they didn’t have to see red any longer.
“It’s so interesting because after that wearing anything red became so questionable: ‘Wait a minute, I can’t wear red!’ ” Eggert says. “It was just very weird.”
Eleniak says she’s the same way. “You know, you can’t touch that,” she says. “I think once you kind of have that iconic thing, I don’t know, I think it should just be left there.”