David Hasselhoff: Hooked on panto

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Baywatch and Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff tells Catherine Usher about making his panto debut in Wimbledon, trading insults with Piers Morgan and his plans for a Serge Gainsbourg-inspired duet with his Baywatch co-star Pamela Anderson

There is a certain amount of pantomime that surrounds David Hasselhoff, so it seems only fitting that he’s finally got the starring role in one.

After a lot of emails, waiting, time alterations and a promise not to ask him about certain unfortunate incidents or possible future involvement with a well-known television show, The Stage is finally granted an audience with the Hoff at the New Wimbledon Theatre, where he is about to star as Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

Looking into Hasselhoff’s enduring career, it’s clear that he has much to be proud of. Knight Rider was an early eighties hit and is now an era-defining classic. He invested his own money in Baywatch after the first series, when its future looked shaky, and it went on to become the most watched television show ever. All the while he has maintained a successful music career, with his 1989 song Looking for Freedom being a significant hit in Germany as the Berlin Wall was demolished.

Yet, with his huge ego and over the top persona, Hasselhoff would be easy to mock, except for the fact he normally beats his critics to it. He’s always laughing at himself and proving that he can take a joke, but is his skin thick enough for pantomime and the associated scorn that often goes with it?

“I’m an expert on being an entertainer and if I have to act and entertain you by scaring you, I can do that, and if you want me to sing and be romantic, I can do that,” says Hasselhoff, who is looking sharp for his 58 years, dressed in black with a leather jacket and polo neck. “I look at myself like a throwback to the vaudeville days – I do whatever comes up. I’m doing panto and I might be being a judge again soon, I kind of go with what happens.

“I did melodrama which is very similar to panto and so I kind of knew what I was getting into, but I haven’t experienced it on a grand scale. To be here for the 100th anniversary [of the New Wimbledon Theatre] is an honour, but I’m kind of pretty much used to being over the top with my lifestyle and all these crazy things that have just followed me round. It’s like I don’t have much of a choice so let’s go for it.”

One of the things Hasselhoff is particularly dedicated to at the moment – aside from perfecting his pantomime sneer – is promoting his daughters, Taylor-Ann, 20, and Hayley, 18, who have formed a surprisingly slick electro pop act called Bella Vida. Hasselhoff is loud and proud of his daughters – he describes their music as “techno pop – stuff that’s very much like Lady Gaga” and his relationship with them reveals his vulnerable side. Discussing why he agreed to take part in his own reality television show, Meet the Hasselhoffs, he describes his girls as his motivation. “I wanted to highlight my relationship with my daughters as a single dad – because there are a lot of single dads out there and single moms – and show them how much fun it is,” he says.

“And it’s an opportunity to bring awareness to my daughters wanting to be in a pop band. I have half an hour to do whatever I want and, whether it’s successful or not, [it’s important to me to] present it in a classy way and allow my kids to actually have a voice and say, ‘Hey it does hurt our feelings when kids come in and say stuff about my dad that’s not true. He’s my dad’. It also gives them an opportunity to say, ‘We are working hard to become actresses and singers and my dad can’t buy me a career’. You have to have talent in this business.

“The reviews for the show have been phenomenally great – we’re still waiting for the ratings to come in. So we’re not predicting a hit – you know Knight Rider and Baywatch got horrible reviews and are still legendary. When you get good reviews, it’s sometimes the kiss of death.”

Hasselhoff does possess that powerful, Madonna-like quality of needing to be loved by the public. He has a bit of an entourage and he shouts out to his staff to get so and so on the phone and remember to do this and that, but it does seem like mostly he just enjoys having company. He refers to ‘we’ a lot and he’s not always referring to himself and his daughters. They are in Los Angeles for Christmas, whereas he’ll be staying over here: “No plans for Christmas, not yet,” he says. “We have one day off so we’ll figure out something fantastic.”

Of course, he can always go and have a festive get-together with his former America’s Got Talent colleague Piers Morgan. The pair have had their share of bust-ups, but he describes Morgan as a good friend.

“I was the first person to call him a wanker on TV,” he says proudly. “It was great because all the kids were going, ‘You wanker’ and they have no idea what it means over there. He and I became good friends. After he got done insulting the people on stage, he was insulting me and once we had a little misunderstanding that led to a very big understanding, we became close friends. He’s always been respectful of my father and my mother and he’s always been respectful of my children. I just saw him two days ago in London – I was doing an interview for CNN – and he said, ‘Do you wanna apologise to me for saying you wanna headbutt me?’ and I said, ‘It’ll be a cold day in hell before I apologise to Piers Morgan, but you’re still my friend’.”

Another unlikely friendship that has emerged is between the Hoff and his exuberant co-star Louie Spence (of Pineapple Dance Studios fame) who is playing Roger the cabin boy in the show. Despite Spence’s unnerving inclination to break into the splits at any given moment, Hasselhoff has nothing but praise for the performer.

“When I met him, it turned out to be great because he’s quite a professional, which is all that I require from who I work with,” Hasselhoff says. “I don’t care who you are or what you do – so long as you’re professional. And he is and he’s also very funny. In rehearsals, the problem is we can’t stop laughing. He’s just completely off the wall. He’s incredibly creative and hysterically funny. It’s gonna be a really fun, campy show.”

It’s not the first time the Hoff has camped it up on the London stage. He played Billy Flynn in Chicago in 2004 in a role he admits was practically perfect for him. “I had a blast in Chicago,” he says. “I try and bring a bit of myself and my personality to every role I do. Billy Flynn is probably the most befitting role because he’s over the top and always kind of flirting, but he’s also kind of cool. And in control.”

A sense of control seems to be the motivation – aside from his daughters – for agreeing to film his own reality TV show. His episodes of bad behaviour have made him a tabloid favourite, so he sees the show as a way to present an alternative image.

“I was the biggest critic of reality television because I believe it takes people into situations and makes them do things that they would not normally do,” he says. “It makes people compromise their morals and values. It offers them money to act in ways they would never act and it’s kind of an illness that everyone’s bought into. When I had an opportunity to do a reality show, I originally thought, never in my wildest dreams. But if I can use it in a positive way, instead of reacting to all the negative press and the lies and instead of fighting the press, I thought, why don’t I invite the press in? Why don’t I show everybody who I am and show them that I do have a heart and I do care, and I do work my butt off?”

The Hoff will certainly be putting the hours in over Christmas in Wimbledon, and he’s looking forward to introducing his brand of wackiness to a younger audience. “Any time that you can interact with children is great because children don’t lie – they know if you are a phoney,” he says. “Watching the rehearsals and seeing the look on the kids’ faces when Peter Pan is talking, they are just lighting up when they see the story unfold. Children don’t lie and also there’s a child in all of us which is why we’re in this business.”

Commenting on following in the footsteps of his former Baywatch co-star Pamela Anderson, who appeared in pantomime in Wimbledon last year and is reprising her Genie role this year in Aladdin at the Liverpool Empire, he says he’s only spoken to her in passing but he wants to get in touch about a new project.

“When Kevin Wood [chief executive of First Family Entertainment] came to my home to convince me to do Peter Pan, he told me that Pamela had done it, which I thought was great,” says Hasselhoff. “We wanna get in touch with her again – my German label said we could have a smash record if I were to do a duet with Pamela Anderson, so I’m trying to convince her to do a song with me. She says she can’t sing, but I said, ‘We can help you with that’. If she could do the rap in the song, that would be pretty cool. I was thinking something like Serge Gainsbourg. It would be great to do that with Pamela – that’s a cool idea.”

And speaking of Anderson, an actress made famous because of her Barbie doll looks, perhaps Hasselhoff is in a good position to comment on one of The Stage’s recent campaigns – the plight of older actresses and whether roles become more scarce as an actress ages: “There are a lot of women in lead roles in America, and they’re not that young,” he says. “What do you consider young – 30s, 40s? There are a lot of girls in all these shows like Grey’s Anatomy and they’re hot. They are all between their 30s and 50s. And there are so many women cops on TV, it’s like arrest me, please.”

* David Hasselhoff appears in Peter Pan at the New Wimbledon Theatre until January 16. Jerry Springer will be playing the role of Captain Hook at selected performances in January and Baywatch actor Jeremy Jackson will be starring as Captain Hook on December 18 and 19