Yasmine Bleeth is focusing in full makeup, teased-and-sprayed hair and a high-cut orange maillot on Will Rogers State Beach. She is looking vulnerable -- briefly, anyway -- which is what the "Baywatch Nights" scene calls for. Her character, Caroline, is being stalked by a sicko.

"And . . . rolling!" somebody calls. "Background!" A half-dozen large-breasted women in bikinis stroll by. The cracker-whacker wings pieces of Ritz crackers skyward to bring on the sea gulls. The ocean roars on cue.

"Is that him?" asks a concerned David Hasselhoff, playing lifeguard-by-day, private-detective-by-night Mitch Buchannon.

"Yes," she murmurs. "It is."

The sicko, played by Steven Culp, gets all the good lines. "You meant all those things you said to me, didn't you?" he pleads as he's dragged off by police. "Caroline! I love you! I love you!"

Pause. Then Bleeth and Hasselhoff blurt in unison, arms outstretched, "I love you too!!!!" Necessary comic relief in an excruciating day on "Baywatch Nights."

"Too good for television," grouses director Georg Fenady with a scowl. "The things you do for money."

Hasselhoff, 43, would agree. Today he can barely disguise his boredom, despite a hectic shooting schedule. On the beach since 7 a.m., he spends his time between takes signing 8-by-10s and calling on a cellular phone to check his prospects elsewhere. Which is where he'd rather be.

He doesn't really bother denying it. "I'm not bored with it. The beach -- I love being down here," he says unconvincingly. Then he gives it up. Six seasons of "Baywatch"? Endless episodes of telling Pamela Lee, "He's not breathing. Quick -- mouth-to-mouth!" And now "Baywatch Nights"? "It's like, been there, done that," he says. "I look at this as a necessary time in my life so that I can move on from this."

The truth is, he says, there are scenes he sees on television that he has no recollection of shooting. The truth is, he can't be bothered to learn most of his lines in advance. The truth is, he could play Mitch Buchannon in his sleep. And on days like today, he does.

"At this time next year I'm done with it all," he announces. "I can do what I want. I can do Baywatch Nights,' a feature film, go back to Europe" -- he pauses. "Do a Rocky Horror Picture Show,' play Jean Valjean on Broadway. Do the stuff I want to do."

He's fantasizing, of course. Then he remembers: He is the highest-paid actor on syndicated television. More people watch his show worldwide than any other in television history. He's got a front-end deal, a back-end deal, a piece of the merchandising deal, a consecutive-strip-run deal, a cable rerun deal and a thriving (sort of) music career in Europe. By most lights, he's a star: Hasselhoff just had his name cemented into Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Would he really give all this up for -- how shall we put it -- artistic fulfillment? Critical acclaim? A role not performed in red swimming trunks? He reconsiders. Probably not. "I don't know if I'll ever walk away {from Baywatch'}," he says. "You're only hot when you're hot. . . . This is such a fickle business. I've seen actors turn from being cocky with million-dollar houses to having nothing." Maybe he'll stick around after all.

The bottom line for Hasselhoff is, actually, just that. The Beautiful "Baywatch" Bottom Line. "You know what?" he says. "I'm going to make six figures to run down the beach in slow motion." He grins a devastating, all-American grin. "I'll do it." How the Tide Turned

The irony is, Hasselhoff has grown tired of the merciless "Baywatch" grind just as the show has reached epic proportions of success. As the show's publicists never tire of repeating, "Baywatch" is now aired in more than 140 countries -- from Iran (where satellite dish owners sell tickets) to China to Kazakhstan to Brazil -- and is seen by a mind-boggling 1 billion viewers a week. In the United States alone, "Baywatch" addicts can score up to 10 hours a week of beach, babes and bad guys, with the current episodes, nightly reruns -- called strip runs -- and, since September, "Baywatch Nights," a spin-off detective show being produced at the same time as "Baywatch." (In Washington the "Baywatch"-o-rama is on Channel 50.)

And there's much, much more. Hasselhoff, one of the show's four executive producers, has turned out to be a very savvy businessman. He has launched a line of "Baywatch" swimsuits, suntan lotion and hair care products. He proudly notes that "Baywatch" Barbie was the third-biggest-selling toy in the country last year. He is planning a series of "Baywatch"-theme restaurants. There's even a truck on the set selling "Baywatch" T-shirts and baseball caps so as not to miss any opportunity to make a "Baywatch" buck.

Why not? As Hasselhoff and his fellow producers point out, the star of a hit show is usually the first guy to get squeezed out of the profits. You work like hell, you bring in the ratings, and then you get canceled. Then you're out of a job. And stuck with a mortgage.

Hasselhoff is through with that. NBC bought the "Baywatch" idea in 1989, gave it a one-year run and dumped the show when it got only fair ratings, not realizing that it was an enormous hit in Europe. Hasselhoff and his pals decided to buy and produce "Baywatch" on their own -- a novel idea at the time -- and successfully sold it to European syndicators and a U.S. distributor, All-American Television Productions. They learned the business side of making a TV show, slashing the $1.2 million production budget by 30 percent in order to take more profits home (that's the back-end deal) and coming up with a formula to keep U.S. distributors satisfied by tying their investment in the production budget to the show's ratings (which have dipped since November).

The rest is TV syndication history. "Baywatch" became an industry model; shows including "Hercules," "Point Man" and "Thunder in Paradise" have been marketed the same way. Hasselhoff and his co-producers have sold two years of strip runs for $40 million, closed a $100 million cable deal and locked in another strip run after that. CBS executives have visited the set to learn from "Baywatch's" success. And in 1994, when the show celebrated its 100th episode, a regretful NBC took out a full-page ad in one of the entertainment dailies with the message: "Oops. Who knew?"

Of course, none of that speaks to the issue of Hasselhoff's boredom. Even in its first season, "Baywatch" was not exactly a major acting challenge. But that, explains executive producer Greg Bonnan, was never the point.

"This whole venture is about making money," he says. Bonnan, a part-time lifeguard, spent 10 years pitching the idea for "Baywatch" before finally selling it to Grant Tinker's GTG Entertainment. "David is a very smart guy. He's learned from his past, he's learned how to motivate people, how to spend his money and still have a family life, how to surround himself with capable people and let them work." And the industry snickering over "Babewatch"? Bonnan snorts his own disdain. "David's laughing all the way to the bank." Young, and Restless

The snickering bothers David Hasselhoff. This isn't really how he envisioned his acting career --

Here's the part of the interview when most celebrities switch to auto-speak: childhood, early failures, lucky break, discovery, stardom. They've told it thousands of times. Not Hasselhoff. As he sits in his trailer over plastic plates of grilled chicken, salmon, tortellini, cold pasta salad and green salad (the guy is 6-4 and burns plenty of calories), Hasselhoff's blue cat-eyes glint as if this is the first time he has ever told the story of his life. He jokes, he riffs, he belts out a few songs -- he puts out. He'd make a great politician.

So where was he? Star-struck at 7 after watching a performance of "Rumpelstiltskin," and moving around as the family followed his father's career in the Brink's security company from Baltimore to the South and Midwest.

There was the basement theater with the neighborhood kids in Atlanta, and high school productions in Chicago. After graduation Hasselhoff set out for the West Coast, to study theater and music alongside Laraine Newman and Michael Richards at the California Institute of the Arts. It was the '70s and too drug-enhanced for him. "Every week it was like, Who ODs and gets carted off this week?' " he recalls. He dropped out after two years.

So Hasselhoff was 20 and waiting tables in Los Angeles, and auditioning for industrial films. "I'd send out hundreds of pictures," he says. To whom? He shrugs. "To anybody, everybody, every casting director. I was real resourceful, wide-eyed -- I thought, Here's what I have to do to make it.' " He auditioned to play a choking man in some sort of public service announcement and bombed, but in the process found an agent willing to take him on, getting him bit parts in "Police Story" and "Griffin and Phoenix."

Eventually, Hasselhoff landed the role of Snapper Foster on the soap opera "The Young and the Restless." He was terrified. He spoke in a faked, gravelly voice. He got sacks of hate mail from fans who wrote: "You're not Snapper. Every time I see you I want to throw up." He ultimately won them over, but after four years he got bored and quit. Then, in 1981, Hasselhoff tested for the role of Michael Knight for a new series, "Knight Rider." He failed the first time, but got another shot.

This time, he says, he asked for a moment to concentrate and walked into the corner, bent double and bellowed: "I am the Knight Rider! I am the Knight Rider!"

He was indeed. Hasselhoff got the part and shot to TV stardom worldwide as the Man Who Talks to Car (which is how he is still known in Africa). Of course, it didn't do much for his acting reputation. After the series was canceled in 1986, Hasselhoff couldn't get a job. Not only couldn't he get a job, he couldn't get an audition for a job. "Suddenly I couldn't act. Suddenly I was wearing too-flashy clothes to lunch. Suddenly I was typecast," he recalls.

It was a bad time. His agent abandoned him, his marriage to actress Catherine Hickland fell apart. Hasselhoff went to Europe in desperation when someone mentioned that the "Knight Rider" theme song, which he sang, had hit No. 1 in Austria. For the next three years, while Hasselhoff couldn't get an audition in Hollywood, he built a music career in German-speaking Europe, singing such soft-rock hits as "Crazy for You," "Close to Heaven" and "You Are Everything." He has sold more than 6 million albums on the Continent.

His chance to come home came at the end of the '80s, when he persuaded NBC to do a movie-of-the-week version of "Knight Rider"; that led to his audition for the role of Mitch Buchannon on "Baywatch," which at first he didn't want. "I said, I won't do Gidget on "The Love Boat" ' " -- he stops a beat -- "even though some people say it is" -- another beat -- "including me." But the producers wrote a very large check, and Hasselhoff caved.

You see, none of this is what he really wanted to do. "Look -- I could do 10 Baywatch' episodes a year and do that forever," he says. "I'd still have money in the bank, the franchise, I could put my family and friends to work on Baywatch.' I want to" -- he stretches his arms, as if to touch his alternatives -- "be onstage. I want to do theater, I want to experience that.

"I need to do something different. I want to redo a classic. I'd like to do a remake of Mr. Lucky' with Cary Grant. Be a vulnerable hero -- do a love story, a suspenseful movie. A Sabrina.' An American President.' "

So far he's got two movie offers on his desk, both for idiotic spoofs. Last year he took time from the "Baywatch" assembly line -- he's been shooting the two series 42 straight weeks since March -- to make "Gridlock," an NBC action thriller with Kathy Ireland that aired this month to mediocre ratings and even worse reviews. In it, Hasselhoff played a maverick helicopter cop fighting terrorists in New York. It was a switch, but still not quite what he was looking for.

What he is looking for, in fact, is the chance to change the image he has so convincingly created -- and oiled up -- on "Baywatch." Can he do it? Nobody knows. Won't someone give him a chance? The indefatigable Hasselhoff recently called up "The Tonight Show" when guest Quentin Tarantino said he was a "Baywatch" fan. I'd love to work with you, Hasselhoff told him.

Or anybody decent. "I'd have liked to do a Harrison Ford movie. He's a real man, and I consider myself in the same way." He's daydreaming again. "I'd like to do Witness' . . . or something really weird . . .

"I'D LIKE TO DO ANYTHING!!!" Fun in the Sun

It's another day on the "Baywatch Nights" set, this time in Paradise Cove, a private beach in Malibu, and David Hasselhoff has just finished a balcony scene with Steven Culp in which the stalker accuses Buchannon of being jealous and then -- in a fit of sicko-ness -- picks up an ashtray and starts slamming himself in the head.

"Good job," says Hasselhoff, patting Culp on the shoulder. He trots down the stairs, remembering to stop and greet a well-endowed blonde in canary-yellow midriff top and shorts. She has won a contest in Tennessee to be an extra on the show. He really does enjoy this. He really would make a good politician.

"Oh, man," he sighs, hopping into the lifeguard truck that takes him to his trailer. "It's so, so -- nice to work with . . ." He's talking about Culp. A real actor? "Yeah," he says. "It's so much fun."

What he means is, it's such a change from what he does every day. Hasselhoff has the good life cradled in his massive, CPR-ready hands. He's happily married to actress Pamela Bach, and barbecues on the weekends with their 3- and 5-year-old daughters. He's shopping for a new mansion and plays with his "Baywatch" sea toys whenever he likes. He won't say how much he earns, but remembers paying $750,000 in taxes a few years back.

And yet. "I haven't really achieved what I'm looking for from this show," he says finally.

Or, he should add, from his career. CAPTION: David Hasselhoff on the Santa Monica pier and with co-star Pamela Lee: "I need to do something different. I want to redo a classic." CAPTION: David Hasselhoff at the unveiling of his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and in drag for "Baywatch Nights."