Even for the lifeguard character that David Hasselhoff played on Baywatch, it would constitute a dramatic rescue: The 1989 drama, which wiped out after only one season on NBC, is returning with new episodes this fall in syndication on 140 stations. That's a rare resurgence for any failed network series, let alone one that critics assailed for being more style (skimpy attire) than substance (shallow plot lines). And Hasselhoff's return means more than being the series' star he now owns 25 percent of the show and, as one of its producers, promises substantial subjects and ''no stringy bathing suits.'' ''I've always wanted to be more on the producing side,'' he says. ''Now I ask the writers to come to a meeting and they actually show up! And they listen. I can't believe it.''
Before Baywatch, Hasselhoff was known stateside primarily for his popular 1982-86 series Knight Rider and, in Europe, for his pop singing (''Looking for Freedom''). He learned acting in the early '70s at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he formed a close friendship with classmate Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman). ''A lot of people don't know the real Paul Reubens,'' he says. ''He's a good guy, and he's been getting a bad rap.'' When Hasselhoff first saw his ''shy, very sweet'' friend do the ''wild'' Pee-wee character, it came as a big surprise. ''It simply blew me away.''
Exactly the sort of unexpected effect he wants for Baywatch.