David Hasselhoff Hooks London in Peter Pan

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Ferdaus Shamim / WireImage

David Hasselhoff poses alongside the KITT car from Knight Rider to launch the Peter Pan pantomime at New Wimbledon Theatre on December 9, 2010

Stars rise and fall and rise again — and so does David Hasselhoff. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he remains the world's most-watched television star thanks to his years in Knight Rider and Baywatch. And while his sheen of celebrity doesn't shine quite so brightly these days — remember the video of a drunk, shirtless Hasselhoff lying on the bathroom floor trying to eat a cheeseburger? — he has kept his status as a pop culture icon by embracing his own absurdity. During a cameo in 2004's SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, he offered the animated yellow blob a ride down to Bikini Bottom, and in the Ben Stiller-starring Dodgeball he tore up a photo of himself posing in Baywatch attire. So when Hasselhoff marches onto the stage at London's New Wimbledon Theatre to portray Captain Hook in Peter Pan, it's only fitting that he mocks himself with his signature cheese. "Don't you just love me?" he asks, waving his pirate's hook and sporting a fulsome wig of black curls and a thinly drawn mustache. "I look Hoff-tastic. I'm Hoff the hook!"

For those unfamiliar with the British art of the pantomime, these annual Christmas shows can seem like bizarre and frequently inappropriate departures from traditional family entertainment. Theater companies take popular children's stories such as Aladdin, Cinderella and Snow White and spice them up with audience participation, cross-dressing and deliberately hammy acting — all peppered with double entendres and sexual innuendo that titillate adults but fly over the heads of their kids.

The shows also help boost the egos of washed-up stars by letting them experience once more the thrill of adulation. In recent years, Henry Winkler, Steve Guttenberg and Mickey Rooney have taken up the mantle. This year Joan Collins stars as Queen Rat in a Birmingham production of Dick Whittington and His Cat. And Pamela Anderson, having portrayed a sexed-up Genie in the Bottle in Aladdin last year, is reprising the role in Liverpool.

Hasselhoff has told reporters he agreed to play Hook because he couldn't resist "a little bit of campiness." And campy it is. Producers adapted the script to give it a gay subplot with characters flamboyant enough to make RuPaul blush. Seeking a new shipmate, Captain Hook's men place an ad in the "cruising" section of a local newspaper, saying the post requires someone to run with a band of pirates as they "chase lost boys." Cabin Boy, played by former Celebrity Circus judge and Mariah Carey choreographer Louie Spence, lands the gig by describing himself as "brave, bold and bootylicious." His suggestive quips, finger snaps and requisite interjections of "mmm-hmmm" draw the biggest laughs.

Forced to share the stage with Spence — perhaps best described as a fireball doused in glitter — it would be hard for anyone to consider themselves the true star of the show. But Hasselhoff manages to compete. When he sings "Hooked On A Feeling" and later "Jump In My Car" — his 2006 cover of Ted Mulry Gang's 1975 single — he wiggles his hips and gyrates with gusto, proving to audience members of a certain age that he doesn't need red swim trunks to convey sex appeal.

His vocal skills are not awful — you can almost understand how four of his albums topped the charts in Austria and Germany. And with surprisingly deft comic timing, he even steals a few laughs from Spence. "You can be my cabin boy," he says as he turns around and fans his derrière. "But you can't get anywhere near my cabin."

Behind the laughs, though, there's much hassle to being the Hoff. British tabloid the Daily Mail took great delight in pointing out that the theater had airbrushed the show's posters, removing the star's wrinkles and creases. They ran an undoctored photo of him leaving the theater, saying that "his face bore full testimony to 30 years of high living and Californian sun."

The show's timing only made things worse. The playbook boasts of David's new reality series The Hasselhoffs, which follows his life as a single dad to two teenage daughters. But on Dec. 9, the day before the curtain went up on Peter Pan, the A&E network pulled the plug on The Hasselhoffs after airing just two of its 10 episodes.

Judging from his on-stage persona, though, Hasselhoff is taking it all in stride. Having survived two divorces, alcoholism, accusations of violence and roles in appalling films like Anaconda 3: Offspring, he knows not take himself — or the glare of the media — too seriously. When at one point in the show an indigenous Neverland tribeswoman starts shrieking after Peter Pan is kidnapped, Hasselhoff insists that she stop. "I hate that sound," he says. "It reminds me of my first marriage." Later, when a crewman asks him to look out over the bay, he breaks down in tears. "Don't mention that word around me," he moans. "I do miss Baywatch. And Pamela Anderson."

No doubt. But given that the show is on permanent loop in syndication, none of his fans will ever miss him.