The other Mike, a true
lifeguard, misses the
Hand it to MikeBy Tim Ryan
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif -- Michael Newman sits on a coffee table in his den watching the "concept" video for the original "Baywatch" television show. The former Los Angeles County lifeguard-turned-fireman is pretty much the star of the 2-minute tape, which launched about 200 episodes: there's Newman standing on a lifeguard tower; Newman running over wet sand; Newman diving through waves; Newman swimming.
He's been a major part of "Baywatch" not only as an actor, but stuntman, lifeguard, technical advisor and boat man; you name it and he's done it.
"Newbie," a long-time friend of "Baywatch" creator Greg Bonann, is the longest tenured actor on the show, along with star David Hasselhoff. It was natural that when Bonann, also a lifeguard, needed a star for his day-in-the-life video, he chose his old working partner. Newman agreed to be in the video as a favor.
"This is good isn't it," says Newman, 42. "It's what sold the show. This is real stuff. I thought the premise was a great idea but never thought the show would go on for 10 years," says Newman who has his own Web site -- http://www.mikenewman.com -- fan club, T-shirts and baseball caps. "I was in the right place at the right time."
In this peaceful coastal neighborhood a few blocks south of Sunset Boulevard, Newman remembers well Bonann's early fantasies. "We were working in a tower together at Will Rogers and it was the end of a very busy day when we had had lots of rescues, fights, people stealing purses or breaking into cars," Newman said. "At the end of the day we put our feet up on the rail and Greg leaned toward me and said 'If (a show like) 'CHiPs' can be so popular, why couldn't we make a show about what we do down here?' "
Newman agreed, then said, "Now where do you want to have a beer?"
Then fate stepped in. Bonann, in 1978, rescued the 13-year-old son of TV executive Stu Erwin in Santa Monica. "The son would have been dead if not for Greg," Newman said.
Erwin asked Greg how he could repay him and Bonann had only one request. "I wanted to discuss my idea for a show with him," Bonann said. Over the next 10 years, Irwin led him through the process to getting his show on a network.
(About five years ago, Bonann hired the Erwin son as an assistant film editor for "Baywatch." Today Tom Erwin is a full editor with the show.)
"Greg's been lucky over the years," Newman said. "I think as the years go by (Greg) forgets some of the details. He's been very good at running a production company and keeping people working, maybe a little less than we would like though."
But the 6-foot-4 fireman knows he has little to complain about. Newman, the only major actor on the show without an agent, is really one of the few L.A. members of the show who were picked to stay with the Hawaii contingent since Bonann wanted to have as many Hawaii performers on the show as possible.
"I usually drove all the boats because I knew how, and I'm a lifeguard so I know rescues and procedures," Newman said. "I can help the show run cheaper since I can perform my own stunts, show inexperienced cast members how to run with the rescue can, use personal water crafts in the surf, dive from a boat at 30 miles an hour."
Newman is the guy in the "Baywatch" opening montage who dives from the speeding yellow lifeguard boat.
L.A. County lifeguards say Newman once was considered one of the top watermen in the country, winning the National Ironman championship, a kind of decathlon of lifeguarding, as well as competitions in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Many "Baywatch" "situations" have been based on real rescues Newman's been involved in, they said.
Newman was 11 when he met Bonann, then 16, who swam on the Pacific Palisades High School swim team. Newman was an All-American on that team years later.
At the University of California at Santa Barbara, Newman again achieved All-American swim team honors -- four years in a row -- remaining undefeated in the 200-meter freestyle in his senior year.
He put himself though college working as a seasonal L.A. County lifeguard, then worked in advertising as a publisher's representative for four years after graduating. When his mom died, Newman realized life was too short to work in a job like advertising "50 weeks a year with two weeks off."
"I quit and went back to the beach to be a lifeguard," he said.
While waiting to get hired full-time, Newman took the L.A. firefighters' exam, passed and went to work there also.
Although "Baywatch" promotes lifeguarding as a profession, Newman is less enthusiastic about the "T&A" aspect of the show.
"What 'Baywatch' became and why it's become popular is not what I envisioned when I started," he said. "I'm a lifeguard, a waterman, my life is the ocean. When we got the chance to do a show about lifeguarding I thought it would be more about the feeling you have when you save a life."
But Newman now understands television and why "Baywatch" is marketed the way it is.
"All the ... executives are men," he said. "All the people running this business are men. They ... don't want to watch guys, they want to watch girls."
Newman, who is married with two children, says his wife, Sarah, says that on those occasions he has a love scene, Sarah realizes "these are real acting parts and allows me to show my ability."
Moving the show to Hawaii is particularly pleasant for Newman, an avid surfer, so he can now work "in real surf, real waves."
But there's a down side to the show's success. Newman worries about losing the closeness he once had with Bonann.
Bonann, godfather to Newman's brother's children, acknowledged that friendships for someone in his position "are challenging. I left a lot of close friends at home when I moved to Hawaii," he said.
"The show is Greg's ball," Newman says. "What he says goes. We all change. But, you know, I really do miss those days in the tower, our feet on the rail, talking about the day and where to go for that after work beer."
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