Gregory Bonann was a lifeguard at Will Rogers State Beach in 1977 when he helped two children who were caught in a riptide. That rescue would ultimately change his life – and the face of television, setting the stage for the eventual “Baywatch” juggernaut.
Now, with the new feature adaptation of “Baywatch” in theaters this weekend, it’s time to revisit the unusual story of how the lifeguard show made it on the air – ultimately producing 242 episodes before ending its run in 2001.
It all started because it turns out Bonnan had saved the children of Stu Erwin, an executive at MTM – the independent production company behind series like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” and run by legendary exec Grant Tinker.
While visiting MTM’s offices in Studio City, Bonann pitched Erwin on a drama about lifeguards. The company passed, but Bonann took the opportunity to learn all about the TV biz.
“Stu took me under his wing, and coached me through the whole process,” Bonann told us in 2005, for the book “Boffo.” “Over the course of the next year, I honed my pitch.”
Bonann turned his attention to making films about the Olympics — but he didn’t give up his dream of a lifeguard TV show. Then came a bit of serendipity: Bonann’s sister married a writer named Doug Schwartz. Schwartz and his writing partner, Michael Berk, wound up working as writers at Tinker’s new production company, GTG, in 1987.
Schwartz and Berk had resisted Bonann’s lifeguard show idea, but Schwartz eventually accepted Bonann’s invitation to attend the annual Lifeguard Games – and the spectacle won him over. GTG had a deal with CBS and asked Schwartz, Berk and Bonann to develop “Baywatch.” CBS passed, but Tinker managed to sell a two-hour pilot to NBC instead.
Of course, NBC wanted a gritty crime drama, with lifeguards holding guns and investigating murders. “Baywatch: Panic at Malibu Pier” featured a woman stalking the lifeguard who saved her. It wasn’t Bonann’s vision ¬– and he found himself even fighting to keep the “Baywatch” title.
“NBC was comfortable with cops-and-robbers shows,” Bonann said for the book. “That’s what they wanted, so that’s what they made.”
Hasselhoff was chosen over Tom Wopat, William Katt, Lorenzo Lamas and others for the lead role, and Parker Stevenson and Erika Eleniak (whom NBC wanted to fire after she shot a spread for “Playboy”) were also cast. The movie did huge, and the show was ordered.
But more drama ensued: Berk quit, and Schwartz was passed over for the showrunner job. Then came the awful reviews. The show was canceled by NBC after one season.
That should have been the end of it – but Berk and Schwartz were eager to revive it. They bought Tinker’s stake in the show back for $10, and Gannett (which was Tinker’s partner in their production company) asked for a paltry $5,000 per episode from any future series (not thinking it would happen).
Fremantle Corp., which had handled the show’s international distribution, agreed to foot a whopping $400,000 per episode – partly because execs at the German-owned company knew exactly how popular Hasselhoff was in their country.
Bonann crunched the numbers and figured the show could cost a lot less by cutting overhead, writers and salaries. He was half way there, but needed more partners. British network ITV climbed on board with a caveat: No violence against women and children, and no guns.
“By adhering to ITV’s rules, we made a show that appealed to a broad range of viewers and it could play in any tine slot, on any day, anywhere in the world,” Bonnan said in that interview. “It’s not a tits-and-ass show. It’s about heroes.”
After the networks passed, as well as cable, Bonann, Berk and Schwartz looked at first-run syndication, and struck a deal with a new company, All-American Television. And they even managed to hold on to creative control, unless they went beyond their budget. That kept them eager to do just that.
By the second year of the show, Pamela Anderson had joined the cast, and “Baywatch” had cleared 145 countries – more than any other show. That’s how the show’s PR company began pitching “Baywatch” as the “most popular TV series in the world.” So what if it wasn’t quite accurate.
“The planets had arrived,” Bonann wrote in his book “Baywatch: Rescued from Prime Time.” “‘Baywatch’ was king.”