ZAC Efron will surf into Sydney this week to premiere his movie reboot of Baywatch — a bawdy action comedy in which Dwayne Johnson takes over (and takes the mickey out of) David Hasselhoff’s famous red shorts.
The film has revived memories of the iconic television series, most of them to do with Pamela Anderson’s slow-mo jogging on the beach. But there’s one splashy Baywatch episode that has largely been lost to the waves:
Had a small Aussie beach community not got its bathers in a bunch, it could have been Baywatch Down Under.
It was 1998 when the oft-touted “most-watched TV show in the world” — bearing rough seas a decade into its run — set its sights on a small slice of the Australian coast and waved for help.
The tug of war over whether to throw out the lifebuoy became an all-in brawl reported around the world.
The stars of what the New York Daily News called an “ongoing swim-suited soap opera” were Greg Bonann, a Californian lifeguard turned TV producer, and Avalon Beach, a surfer’s haven on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
At the time, Australia was a boom location for Hollywood production with films such as Mission: Impossible II, The Matrix and George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels all taking advantage of lower filming costs.
Baywatch wanted in, too, hoping a refresh would extend its run for another six seasons in the face of dwindling ratings and a cast exodus (Anderson, Alexandra Paul, Yasmine Bleeth and Aussie hunk Jaason Simmons had all recently jumped overboard).
In October/November 1998, the show filmed a two-part episode around Sydney, including three days at the Avalon Beach Surf Club. Producer and star Hasselhoff outlined how this short stint was a test run for a permanent relocation.
“We will make a decision next year about whether to stay in LA or actually move the show down to Australia,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
(The special, featuring local beauties Tania Zaetta and Tanya Koeberl, aired in the US in February 1999.)
In December, Baywatch was forging ahead with a Down Under move even though deals concerning money and locations had yet to be done. The Avalon Surf Club submitted plans for a Baywatch-funded upgrade in readiness for becoming the show’s base location.
But there were already murmurings that locals would object to any loss of access to their beach. During the three-day shoot, residents claimed, security had “frogmarched” a surfer off the beach and ordered skateboarding teens to shut up lest they wake the napping actors.
“After that, television stars just don’t do it for me,” 17-year-old Ian Stone told the BBC.
While the special had taken up just a few days, a full series would spread across eight months of each year.
In January 1999, future NSW MP Alex McTaggart took charge of “the freshly minted anti-Baywatch brigade”, alleging the crew had been bullies and breached filming conditions.
“We don’t need Baywatch to … turn us into an international gawker’s zone,” McTaggart said.
Newspapers dubbed the objectors “NIMBYs” — Not in My Backyarders.
The pro-Baywatch camp argued it’d be a boon for the Surf Club and that storylines raising water safety issues would be of public benefit.
February began with news Baywatch wanted an initial $200,000 from Australian taxpayers for transport costs. Producer Bonann touted the benefits of 220 jobs and $18 million per year for the local economy.
“We are used to working on public beaches, we have been doing it for 10 years and 200 episodes,” he said. “We are good at what we do, we are very polite and … we always leave a beach nicer than when we found it.”
Once a filming request was officially submitted to Pittwater Council, the protests began.
“We’re used to Home and Away but they use only three trucks,” organiser Karen Johns told the Sydney Morning Herald in mid-February. “Baywatch had 15 trucks and, frankly, they had a Hollywood approach, thinking they were God’s gift to the area.”
Champion surfer Mark Warren said Baywatch had “fractured” the community and politely suggested it rack off to Mexico.
Premier Bob Carr urged co-operation.
The objections exploded in a “near-riotous” public meeting held at Barrenjoey High School on February 24.
As reported by the BBC: “1700 angry locals — a fifth of the population — turned out at a public meeting to oppose the move, fearing everything from an invasion of California culture to environmental disaster.”
Locals shouted “We don’t want you here!” at Bonann. The American attempted a compromise: “We will stay one year. If you don’t like it, send us home.”
While Avalon argued, Bonann was fielding offers from Wollongong, Newcastle, South Australia … A Coffs Harbour councillor had crashed the Avalon meeting to hand out bananas, but his cause wasn’t helped by a shark attack on a surfer off a Coffs beach that same week. (Turns out sharks aren’t Hasselhoff fans.)
And in the two days prior to the meeting, producers had scouted Gold Coast locations. Queensland “stealing” the show from NSW would be a “multimillion-dollar publicity coup,” declared The Australian.
On February 27, Queensland Tourism Minister Bob Gibbs announced he’d reached an “in-principle” deal with Bonann to bring the series to Currumbin.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Gibbs said, “unless something unforeseen comes up at the weekend, by this time next week you’ll be able to say Baywatch is Queensland-bound.”
Sure enough, something (not completely) unforeseen was coming up.
While Australia was tussling over the red Speedos, Hawaii had hatched a plan. Millionaire producer Al Masini — creator of Lifestyles Of the Rich and Famous — was dispatched to woo Bonann to the US island state.
Though negotiations with unions almost scuttled that deal, too, Bonann later said that “on the strength of Al’s handshake and the look in his eye that it would work out” he chose Hawaii over Australia.
Baywatch Hawaii was born.
Ultimately, Australia may have dodged a bullet. The NSW Government confirmed Baywatch had asked for $3 million — money Carr and Co. weren’t prepared to give. In February 2000, Bonann requested an extra US$2.5 million from Hawaii (on top of an initial US$6 million) to keep production on the island. The sandpit was turning into a money pit.
Baywatch Hawaii ran for just two seasons. By the time its last episode aired in May 2001, its viewership was a fraction of the 1.1 billion the series attracted at its peak.
And Baywatch Down Under was just a two-episode embarrassment in which Aussie surf life savers were so busy chit-chatting it was up to a Yank (not even the Hoff!) to save a drowning swimmer.
Not on our watch, buddy.
Originally published as The Aussie beach that sank Baywatch