In 2006, Mike Newman’s wife noticed a strange “shake” in his movement.
Newman, a ’90s TV mainstay as lifeguard Mike ‘Newmie’ Newman on the long-running action series Baywatch, had started walking funny. He was becoming slower in the pool and slower at running — highly unusual for the 6’5,” 250 lb. lifelong athlete.
Initially, the retired actor and firefighter, then 50, assumed his body was simply wearing out as he got older. But when family members and a concerned neighbor asked him to see a doctor, he figured it wouldn’t hurt. He was prescribed a pill called Azilect — a MAO-B indicator that slows the breakdown of dopamine in the brain — and it was like some sort of magic. Almost immediately, all his physical woes subsided. The next day, he went back and excitedly told the doctor he felt “great.”
Unfortunately, it turned out to be nothing to celebrate. In a devastating turn of events, his doctor explained it was actually not a goodthing that the pill had helped — because it meant he had Parkinson’s disease.
Nothing would ever be the same again for Newman.
“Everything changes,” the former Baywatch star, now 66, tells PEOPLE. “All those things that you thought you were going to do with your children and grandchildren, pictures we were going to take, all the plans I had… stopped.”
As he sits in his Pacific Palisades home in California chatting over Zoom, a vintage lifeguard stand poster is visible in the background. Staying in the Los Angeles area wasn’t his original plan, he says. Before the diagnosis, he and his wife Sarah, 67, had planned to retire in Hawaii. He’d even built their dream home, complete with an olympic pool, with his bare hands. He and his wife have been married 36 years and share son Chris, 34, and daughter Emily, 31. Through their daughter, they also have a granddaughter, Charlie, 1.
Now spending his retirement in L.A. instead of Hawaii, Newman soon will be headed back to a familiar place: television.He’s long done with his acting days — “If you didn’t have to be there, why would you be?” he quips of Hollywood — but he’s set to play a prominent part in an upcoming four-part series looking back on the cultural impact of Baywatch.
Directed by Matt Felker, Baywatch: The American Dream will dive deep into the 1989-2001 syndicated phenomenon and the lives of its cast, which included Pamela Anderson, David Hasselhoff and Jason Momoa, among others. Despite the star-studded lineup of the original series, Felker was always most interested in speaking with Newman.
“I had noticed even on our social media that Mike, surprisingly enough, had a bigger fanbase than almost any other actor, probably on the same level as Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff,” the director tells PEOPLE. “Everyone loved this guy. They thought he was just so cool.”
His Baywatch character, Newmie Newman, was a loose caricature of himself. For years, he wasn’t even in the opening credits. But as the only real-life lifeguard in the cast — not to mention, a working firefighter — Newman made himself invaluable on set. He performed stunts in the water that nobody else could do and offered guidance to the writers about rescue scenes in exchange for a few more lines. Eventually, it paid off.
“I was too useful for them to get rid of me,” he says with a laugh. “I basically started off as a stuntman, and after seven years of being out of the opening credits, I finally was anointed and allowed to be in the front of the show.”
When Felker first met the former actor, he felt a “gut reaction” in his stomach. He explains that Newman doesn’t have a tremor, which people commonly associate with the disease — he’s still in top physical shape, but there’s a noticeable impact on his lower body. He has trouble walking and sometimes gets lost in his train of thought when he speaks. Felker says you wouldn’t necessarily be able to discern what’s going on just by observing him, only that something is “off.”
“I didn’t know the guy, and it almost made me kind of cry,” he says of their first meeting. “It affects you because it’s like, ‘That’s not right.’”
At first, Newman was hesitant to open up about his diagnosis in the documentary — he didn’t want to just be known as “the guy with Parkinson’s,” he explains. But after spending more time with Felker, he changed his mind and gave the director his blessing to share his story, authentically, with the world.
The two have since formed a close-knit bond, with Felker, 43, likening the Baywatch alum to a father figure. Three or four times a week, the director brings him out to Malibu and helps him get in the ocean.
Newman has never stopped going into the water. In fact, he’s just as active as ever. Every day he swims, kayaks or runs on the sand. He explains that the best treatment for Parkinson’s is exercise, at least 45 minutes a day of intense cardio. In that respect, he says he considers himself “lucky.”
“I’ve been training for this,” he says, referring to his lifelong passion for physical activity. “Somebody that was 65 and not very athletic, if they got the news that they got Parkinson’s, it wouldn’t turn out as well. I got them all beat, I guess, if we could call it ‘beat.’”
Felker agrees that the ocean is where Newman shines. “In the water, he’s like Superman, and on land, he’s Clark Kent,” he explains. “You see him on land and he’s stumbling, he’s tripping … but you put him in the water and the dude’s like Superman.”
It only makes sense, considering Newman has essentially spent his entire life in the water. He was a junior lifeguard at the Santa Monica Pier back in his youth, then went on to swim for Santa Monica City College. He admits he “surprised himself” by making the college team and grins as he recalls once coming in third out of a 250-person race. His son Chris is also an LA County lifeguard, carrying on the torch of his legacy.
It’s been 16 years since the day Newman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He acknowledges that most people who have the disease don’t make it this long and still live comfortably. “It’s a slow burn,” he reflects. “Parkinson’s disease doesn’t wait for you. It keeps on plowing in.”
He describes the disease as a “sinister” thing. The symptoms, he says, “march forward so slowly that you barely notice that they’re changing.” His primary treatment is his rigorous exercise routine.
After largely keeping out of the public eye in the past decade, he’s now choosing to tell his story in hopes that it might help others. Participating in Felker’s documentary came with the condition that they would work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Cedars-Sinai to raise funds for fighting Parkinson’s. “This may not help me,” he says. “But it’s going to help someone down the road.”
Reflecting back on his life now, Newman admits there are “a lot of things” he would have done “differently.” But he’s also immensely grateful for so much: his wife and children, the life-guarding competitions he’s participated in all over the world, all the “good people” he’s met throughout his career and the many years he spent on Baywatch.
“Where would I be without it?” he says of the show. “Well, it would’ve been kind of a boring life, I guess.”
And, despite everything, Newman hasn’t lost his Baywatch charm.
“There isn’t anything in the world that I can’t do,” he declares. “Whether it’s sailing a boat or scuba diving or tackling a guy off a jet ski.”