Week after week for three years, David Charvet had been making daring, nick-of-time saves as studly Baywatch lifeguard Matt Brody and then suddenly he realized maybe he needed to be rescued. ''I was crying in my trailer,'' recounts the French-born actor. ''I'm looking at my scripts and saying, 'Oh my god, I gotta take off my shirt, I gotta hold in my stomach. This is not me. What the f--- am I doing here?'''
Convinced he had more to offer than a sculpted bod and motel-room eyes, the former Bugle Boy model announced in May that he was hanging up his crimson trunks. No bad-mouthing David Hasselhoff and company. No ugly contract renegotiations. No big-movie-career-in-the-wings. ''It's not about money anymore,'' says Charvet, 23, sitting in the living room of his four-bedroom, chalet-style pad in Beverly Hills. He talks of plans to join a New York City theater troupe and ''sweep floors and work my way up. It's time to be challenged. I'm so done with popcorn music.''
Trying to shed the himbo-du-jour label hasn't been easy: In April, he played a cute construction worker who gets duped by Susan Lucci in the TV movie Seduced and Betrayed. But now Charvet raises the bar for himself with the ABC movie Derby, in which he stars with Joanne Vannicola as a virtuous, passionate horse trainer. Trading tank tops for Thoroughbreds was a welcome change for Charvet, who became so enamored of the sport and his costarring animal, Caliope, that, he says, ''I probably did more bonding with the horse than with the leading actress.''
Charvet's transformation has involved more than career choices. He weighs in 17 pounds lighter, having shed the muscles that were part of his Baywatch uniform. Now for the real shocker: ''I have hair on my chest!'' he says proudly, jacking up his sweatshirt to reveal the freshly sprouted garden.
With all that chest-shaving time freed up, and no sweetie to speak of (he says he's still close with ex-flame and ex-costar Pamela Anderson), he's been taking 9- to 14-hour-a-day voice classes at Canada's Simon Fraser University. ''French is my first language, English is my second, and I believe Shakespeare will be my third,'' says Charvet. He only hopes his Baywatch past gets lost in the translation.