It’s almost unfair how good-looking David Chokachi was in the 1990s when he was one of the stars of Baywatch, the syndication smash that made the beaches of Southern California look like a T&A paradise. Our cultural memory might linger on the show’s gorgeous women — Pamela Anderson, Yasmine Bleeth, Carmen Electra, to name three — or David Hasselhoff’s towering cheesiness, but there was also a rabid fan base that loved Baywatch’s boys. Chokachi joined the cast for the start of the sixth season in 1996, playing Cody, a likable, goofy heartthrob who soon began a relationship with Baywatch’s most popular character, Anderson’s C.J. (It was his first acting gig.) Their love affair wasn’t built to last, however, and when Anderson departed the show, Cody got involved with her replacement, Electra’s Lani.
For a few years there, Chokachi was probably as envied an actor as any on Earth — at least among those who lusted after the Baywatch babes. He was handsome, fit, charming, impossibly blond — and only in his mid-20s.
Speaking to Chokachi over Skype a few times during the last week, I’m here to report that it’s still unfair how good looking he is. At 51, he has retained his boyish sunniness as he sits in his L.A., doting on his seven-year-old daughter who occasionally comes into the room. The guy is buff and lean, and while he’s never since been a part of something as globally popular as Baywatch, he radiates a warmth and optimism while talking about those bygone days. Still acting when he’s not focusing on activism — he’s an ambassador for the Surfrider Foundation, appropriate for a guy who’s loved the water since childhood — Chokachi is one of those happy success stories who found contentment, professional satisfaction and domestic bliss. But yes, he knows you mostly remember him from wearing a Speedo.
Over two lengthy conversations, he recounted how Baywatch came into his life, what it was like to be international eye-candy and the sorts of career obstacles he faced after his Baywatch days ended. (In a sense, though, he’s never fully let go of Baywatch, especially since the original series has now been remastered and made available on Amazon Prime.) Plus, he had some thoughts about that Dwayne Johnson big-screen remake…
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I went to Bates College in Maine, and one of my buddies was obsessed with Baywatch. It could be Saturday night and we’d be like, “Come on, man, we’re going out.” He’s like, “No way, my favorite show’s on!” I’m like, “Come on, dude, who wants to watch that crap?” Literally, three years later, I was fighting for a job on the show.
Back then, Baywatch was in a lot of the rags — Us Weekly was really popular — and I would see these shots of them on set shooting. I was like, “Oh my God, that show looks like so much fun to be a part of.” And as I slowly got closer to testing for the role, I learned a lot more and was like, “Wow, this is a big deal!”
David Charvet was leaving the show, and they needed a young male lead to replace him. They looked at thousands of guys. I happened to physically fit the bill for what they were looking for. They were looking for a California kid, but with a Midwest kind of vibe. I’m from Massachusetts, and that’s kind of semi-similar, you know? [laughs]
When I walked into the casting, I didn’t even say a word, and they were like, “You’re the guy! You’re the guy we’ve been looking for for months, you have no idea.” I hadn’t even said a word yet. I think that happens a lot with TV shows: The creators have someone in mind — a very strong idea in their heads — and you either fit the bill or you don’t. So yeah, it worked out.
They brought me in probably four times for all the producers. Hasselhoff was one of them. In my second-to-last audition, I remember him just kind of making jokes at me. He’s in the room — you’ve got, like, 30 people in the room — and Hasselhoff likes to enjoy the moment, so you just want to do your scene and get out of there. He’s kind of grilling me, and I’m standing up there, trying to remain calm and cool. This was my opportunity, and as an actor, you gotta be ready when the opportunity presents itself, to step into it and deliver. Luckily, I was prepared.
It didn’t hurt that they wanted a swimmer for this role, as I’d been on a swim team back East. Not to mention, I was already a certified scuba diver, I grew up sailing and I had tons of experience in the ocean, so they got way more bang for their buck when they cast me than probably if they cast another guy.
When I was coming on Baywatch, they’d incorporated a swim test because, a few years earlier, while casting one of the girls, they found out that she was terrified of the ocean — and she’s supposed to be a lifeguard. She’d run in to her ankles, they’d cut and they’d put in a stunt person — so they’d learned their lesson. They tested myself and Gena Lee Nolin in the pool, and this one producer was an avid swimmer and had a keen eye. He knew if you could swim, and also if you could hold your breath underwater. That was the first time I think they were like, “Wow! The kid can swim, he’s strong and he looks good in a Speedo!” [laughs] I checked all the boxes.
When we were getting our swim test, they make you go through [lifeguard training], but not the CPR aspects. I got CPR certified on my own, just to have that. I’ve kept that current throughout my life, ‘cause I have a daughter and she’s seven. Adult CPR, infant and toddler CPR — I got all that training. I knew it’d come in handy. It always does. I’ve had a couple incidents when I’m surfing — this is even recently, where one guy was getting blown out to sea on a standup board, and nobody was helping him. So I went and got him. Another time, a mom racked herself off the rocks, and they were screaming for me to come get her, so I jumped right in.
That reminds me of a funny story: When I was shooting the show, we were in Miami in South Beach. I was with my manager at the time, and this girl starts waving and flailing in the distance. So I’m looking at her — she looks like she’s struggling — but I thought she was faking it just to get [my attention]. She wanted me to come out and do a rescue [so she could] say, “I got you, I fooled you.” So I didn’t go. My manager, though, was like, “No, I think she’s really in trouble.” And he ended up going to get her — and she was way in trouble. I was like, “Whoops!”
The character of Cody was pretty developed [when I auditioned]. However, in terms of a love interest, they waited. They didn’t want to put that on me right away. They basically said, “We’re offering you the role, but we’re only gonna guarantee you eight episodes out of 22. If we like you, we’ll write more for you, and we’ll put you in more throughout the season.” If you’re not performing, they just leave you at eight, and they’ll probably cut your character and bury you. So when I got the role, it was exciting but terrifying at the same time, ‘cause I was on probation, in a sense. They wanted to see how you were gonna do on set, how you were gonna do in front of the camera and how you were gonna do with everything.
The good news is that I was ready, man. I really prepared, and when it came time, over the course of eight episodes, I proved myself. They actually came to me and were like, “Listen, you’re killing it. This is the character we wanted. You’re bringing it to life. Who do you want to have for your love interest? It’s either Pam or Yasmine.” And I was like, “I love Yasmine,” but at the same time, Pam and I had this really good, instant rapport, like buddies almost. And I thought that was an interesting angle — also, it’s Pamela Anderson. I put in my vote for Pam, and they gave it to me.
Pam had a lot of personal-life things going on at the time, so there were [a lot of] paparazzi [when we filmed]. It wasn’t so bad for me — it was mostly her. But because I was the new male heartthrob for the show, there was a lot of attention — it was kind of fun to play with that and see yourself in some of these magazines and laugh it off. But for her, I witnessed it becoming a mounting pressure on her relationship with Tommy [Lee], and her son. I felt bad. [Paparazzi] were hiding in places, like under trucks, and she’s just trying to walk to set or walk to the makeup trailer and be normal. It was disgusting to watch. I saw what it did to her, personally. But we can’t shut off an entire beach, so they’d cordon off an area with police tape and have security guards.
When I got on Baywatch, the show was still climbing. It hadn’t peaked yet in terms of popularity, so it just became this bigger and bigger thing every year. Overseas, [the fans] were insane. It was like we were the Beatles. There was so much popularity and hype about the show, and we’d go do all these appearances. In those moments, you realized the show was this massive, massive hit. You saw it firsthand. That’s when it sunk in that we were a part of something that was gonna make history.
Meanwhile, when we were shooting the show, there’d be 200 or 300 people standing around at the beach watching us film, and they were from all parts of the world. Baywatch was part of a tourism pitch back then. It’s funny: People in these countries that are landlocked and maybe Eastern European, because they could see Baywatch and nothing else from the United States, they thought, “Okay, America is Baywatch.” They thought all of America was basically like Baywatch. We were like, “No, no, it’s not really like that over here.” That’s why they’d come here and be like, “Wait, what’s all this other stuff?”
Fans were very interested in who the new male lifeguard was going to be. Pam and I, she’s really goofy in real life and fun — she likes to joke around and be loose, and I was the same way. It was almost like we had a brother-sister relationship. We didn’t want our [characters’] relationship on the show to be soapy, so we made it more fun. And because of that, I think the fans were like, “This guy is cool and humble. He’s not thinking he’s hot shit.” It might be my East Coast background — it’s a very grounding background. I think because of that the fans gave me a thumbs up
Once [the producers] paired me with Pam, we’d have these scenes where we’re making out on the water’s edge. Remember those shows like Extra and Access Hollywood? They’d send these crews to get shots of you making out, and it’d be like, “Look at Pam, she’s two-timing Tommy Lee with the new guy, David Chokachi! They’re making out in the ocean!” We’re shooting a scene, you know? But they twisted the truth around a bit. That stuff, I felt for her — it put a lot of strain on her. But it helped the show’s popularity.
At one point, I was dating Brooke Langton, who was on Melrose Place. And at the time I was with Carmen — our [Baywatch] characters were together — and there was some stuff that came out in People magazine. [Carmen] said something to them, like, her first screen kiss was with David Chokachi and it was the best kiss of her life, or something like that. And my girlfriend saw that and went ballistic. She was like, “What’s going on here? What are you guys doing?” But other than that, I kind of slid below the radar.
Obviously, when you’re running around in a Speedo, it’s eye-candy for both the men and the women. The interesting part was [my] fan mail would be more aggressive from the men than the females. I was like, “Whoa, man.” [laughs] But it was cool — there was obviously a huge gay fan base for the show, and they were super-supportive, even to this day. My friends who are gay, they’re just like, “God, dude, you were amazing eye-candy.” I had this blond, blond hair that they kept dying, and the ocean made it blonder and blonder. I was super fit, super tan. Back then, it wasn’t as open as it is now, but we [attracted] the whole spectrum of gay, straight and every ethnicity.
Early on with Baywatch, I figured out that the more in-shape you were — and also the better of an actor you were — the more they’d write for you. It was a simple formula. There were no words spoken, but I knew they frowned upon the girls eating too much. We had this catering thing on the beach — back in the day, there was no [thought about] nutrition. It was Twinkies and donuts. I was like, “No way, man, I’m not going there.” But the girls ended up having to have certain stipulations put in their contracts — there were people who only wanted to eat junk food. I took the opposite approach. I was relentless in terms of the gym. I was like, “I’m gonna work out super hard, and I’m going to study really hard.” That combination lent itself to the producers seeing that this guy’s serious — he’s a hard worker, and he wants this.
Right before my fourth season, I tore my Achilles and had to have surgery. It was March, and I was freaking out: “How am I going to be able to shoot in June?” There was, though, a really good trauma surgeon in Santa Monica, and he was like, “If you want to be athletic again and go back to the show, we need to operate right now.” He was aggressive with the rehab, too. I couldn’t do anything with my legs, but I could use a hand bike. I’d go to my gym and just grind on the hand bike for as long as I could. I was trying to maintain some sort of fitness, so when I could get back [to the show], I’d be able to come back easier.
I was never into [steroids]. I felt anybody who used something was cheating. So I was all-natural. I think everybody who was cast on the show was pretty much cast because they had an affinity for fitness. A lot of actors do some different stuff nowadays that’s probably not au naturel. But that stuff is so dangerous — like growth hormones. It’s very addictive, too. I don’t want anything like that in my body. No way.
The producers wanted to keep it so kids could watch the show, so there wasn’t anything gratuitous or too [sexy]. A bunch of make-out scenes and a little groping was as far as we’d get. For the character, I didn’t have to try too hard — you almost try to do less. When you’re doing [make-out scenes], you don’t want to come off as this corny, Fabio kind of guy. And when we shot montages — ocean swimming, running in the waves — they knew how to make the beach look so stunning. All you have to do is basically show up, be really fit, be athletic, do this stuff, and it became sexy.
Being part of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People? It was a very sought-after thing amongst a lot of actors and celebrities. It’s almost like a little club if you get chosen. My publicist was like, “They’re considering you.” Then finally they were like, “Yeah, they want to do it with you.” I don’t think when I went into it I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” [To be selected] I think (a) you have to have a good publicist; and (b) you just got to be a little bit lucky. Like, you have to have enough momentum and enough uniqueness to be chosen. I mean, we’re not talking about the Nobel Peace Prize.
It probably comes up in almost every interview: “Oh, yeah, you were chosen for the 50 Most Beautiful…” That little feat just doesn’t go away. People are marveled by it.
Because of how I looked back then, it was like, “Well, he’s a beautiful-looking human being. He has to be stupid.” Which was an unfair diagnosis — I would get a little offended. I graduated from a really good liberal-arts school. I had to write a thesis in order to graduate. I worked for a congressman in D.C. I also went to the Naval Academy. I actually was interested in the CIA and went far with that until they saw how young I was, so that didn’t work out. But I had all this real-life knowledge already to bring to the character. During the transition between college and working for a congressman — the few years leading up to getting cast — I studied super hard. Then once I moved to L.A, I was in a nightly acting class. I worked construction during the day. I wasn’t someone who just fell off the turnip truck saying, “Hey, I’m an actor.”
When Pam wanted to leave [the show], it was a bummer because [Cody and C.J.] had just gotten engaged at the end of the season. I think she should have done another season or two — she totally had it in her. [The producers] were like, “We’re gonna hook you up with Carmen Electra.” And I was like, “Bring her on.” She was probably the second-most famous female in the world at the time. They were just hooking Cody up left and right. [laughs] We had so much fun working together — we had this fun-loving chemistry. Then Carmen left the show, and they were like, “We’re kind of out of hot females to bring in. We’re just going to bring in guest stars.” So, I went through a bunch of guest stars in my fourth season.
In the show’s ninth season, which was my fourth season, they wanted to move the location to [somewhere with better incentives]. Basically, they were leaving L.A. for sure and going to Australia or Hawaii. At that point, I asked if I could go for pilot season, and they were like, “If you feel you’ve run your course and want to move on, we’d rather you just move on and not even come back for a fifth season.” At the time, it was a gamble, but I did it. They were fine because they ended up going to Hawaii, and they wanted to move in a different direction anyway.
I ended up getting cast in a Jon Favreau pilot, so the gamble paid off. A year after that, I tested for the show Witchblade and ended up getting that, which was a big deal. So I think I jumped ship at the right time. There was never any ill-feeling, though. I loved those guys, and to this day, I have nothing but awesome things to say about Baywatch.
Unfortunately, there was an [attitude of], “The actors from Baywatch can’t act.” There was resistance to bringing us into a room to audition for other things: “No, they can only do that.” That was their mindset. Everybody across the board got that resistance. It was unfair. Basically, Baywatch was a medium of entertainment — it was a formula. I always said it wasn’t Shakespeare — we were doing a certain type of entertainment. That inclination to doubt us definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I worked harder and harder to go in there and prove them wrong. But the other side of the coin was it added pressure on me — you had to prove them wrong because there’s already two strikes against you before you even open your mouth.
Now, there’s more opportunity, but all of a sudden the market is flooded with Academy Award-winning actors doing TV. The competition has gone from this pool of only TV actors to everybody wanting to do TV because it can launch your career much further than a movie. There’s only maybe, what, 10 movies a year that actually move the needle? Then there’s [all] these TV shows that are [garnering] attention, so they’re drawing from the best actors, and it’s become, weirdly, much more competitive. In most careers, you go in, climb the ladder and get to a point where you’ve put in your time. I mean, I’ve been doing it since 1994, so it’s like 25 years, and in a normal career after 25 years, you’d be at the top. But with our business, I’m still fighting for opportunities.
They tried for, like, 10 years to put [a Baywatch movie] together — probably even more. They had all these different iterations, and nothing came to pass. Nothing against those actors or Paramount, who did the movie, but I didn’t think Baywatch was even relevant to the story. It was just Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron running around with their shirts off — it had nothing to do with what the heart and soul of Baywatch was. They just made an over-the-top comedy. [The characters] could have been anything. They could have been fishermen — they could have been astronauts — with the same story.
I’m 51, which is crazy to me. I feel like I’m 18 or 28 — I just don’t feel that age. Back then, I was a little more into the gym — now I’m more into running, yoga and surfing. I still lift a ton of weights ‘cause you have to or else you just lose your strength.
In a weird way, I’m probably in better shape in a lot of ways right now than I ever have been in my life. For the last five years, I’m just clean — I don’t party, I don’t put anything in my body. Occasionally, I’ll put some sugar in my body, like with a dessert. But other than that, it’s clean living. Admittedly, I probably have to work a little bit harder nowadays to maintain really good fitness. But I’m lean. I’m down to a really good weight — like, fighting weight. If I had to throw on the Speedo right now, they’d be like, “Wow, you didn’t change! You’re actually a little bit more fit.” [laughs]
Internally and spiritually, I’ve grown a lot since I was that guy. Everybody in this world has a different trajectory. Some people don’t hit a place where they feel like, “Oh wow, this is a really good level to be at.” I feel like I’m just getting to that level of feeling completely comfortable in my own skin — feeling good about who I am and what I do, and taking care of my body in all the right ways. In the last three or four years, I feel like even my work as an actor has blossomed. Right now, I feel like I’m doing some of the best work I’ve ever done as an actor. And a lot of that goes with age and experience. I think it takes a while to find who you are in this world. Some people don’t ever get there, and some people do.
My wife and I rent out a place in Point Dume in Malibu year-round. Every time we drive out there, we take the PCH, and we go right by the headquarters where we used to shoot. Every time I see it, I flash back to all these amazing memories of shooting that show and what a good gig it was. Even my daughter now when we pass it, she’s like, “Daddy, Baywatch!” and points to Will Rogers State Beach. And, of course, when you get these really beautiful summer days and the water’s warm, I definitely reminisce about being on the ocean or on a beach shooting, and how much fun we had.