Lifeguard (film)

Directed byDaniel Petrie
Written byRon Koslow
Produced byRon Silverman
StarringSam Elliott
Anne Archer
Stephen Young
Parker Stevenson
Kathleen Quinlan
CinematographyRalph Woolsey
Edited byArt J. Nelson
Music byDale Menten
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • July 23, 1976 (1976-07-23)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$5.4 million

Lifeguard is a 1976 American drama film made by Paramount Pictures. It was directed by Daniel Petrie from a screenplay by Ron Koslow. It stars Sam Elliott, Anne Archer, Stephen Young, Parker Stevenson, and Kathleen Quinlan. The film follows Rick Carlson, a Southern California lifeguard who is prompted to reexamine his life when he attends his high school reunion.


Rick Carlson is a 32-year-old career lifeguard in Southern California who enjoys a commitment-free life of casual relationships. For the summer, he trains Chris Randolph, a college student and temporary weekend assistant. Though Rick is content with his profession, he is needled by his father to get a "real job" that pays more. One day, Rick receives an invitation to his 15-year high school reunion in the mail.

While on duty, Rick is approached by Wendy, a 17-year-old girl who has moved to the area from San Diego with her family. Wendy develops an infatuation with the older man. Though wary of returning her affections as she is underage, Rick remains friendly with her. He encounters Larry, an old high school friend who is now a partner in a Porsche dealership. Larry brings up the school reunion and tells Rick his old high school flame, the newly divorced Cathy, is expected to attend. Larry also offers Rick a sales position at the dealership, suggesting he can double his salary. Rick decides to go to the reunion in the hopes of seeing Cathy.

Meanwhile, Wendy continues to pursue Rick. At her insistence, Rick gives in to her one day and it is implied that they have sex in the lifeguard tower. On the night of the reunion, Wendy surprises Rick at his apartment door before he leaves. He invites her in and she is somewhat surprised to discover that he is in his 30s, but says she understands his concern over their age difference.

At the reunion, former classmates discuss their careers. Rick seems embarrassed about still being a lifeguard and begins to lie about why he is so tanned, claiming he works an outdoors job for the county. He reunites with Cathy and learns she works at an art gallery and has a young son. Rick and Cathy rekindle their relationship with each other. The next day, Rick and Chris compete in the annual lifeguard relay races, but Rick is outrun by younger competitors. Rick shows up to interview at the Porsche dealership. Mr. Gilmore, Larry’s partner, initially has doubts about Rick's qualifications, but reconsiders when Rick impresses him with how seriously he takes his lifeguard job.

After a brief absence, Wendy returns to the beach and asks Rick when they will be intimate again. He tells her plaintively that they are doing something illegal and it would be best if she found someone closer to her own age. He admits he is with someone else when she prods him about another woman. He tries to comfort a distraught Wendy. A few days later, he sees Wendy swimming away from the beach and goes to rescue her. She admits she is trying to kill herself. He takes her to shore and walks her to her car. He reassures her that when school starts Monday she will "begin to make new friends" before she drives off.

Rick visits Cathy at the art gallery to tell her about the incident with Wendy, which seems to have frazzled him. Cathy comforts him, then invites him to move in with her. While they are discussing the arrangement, a male client continually insists that Cathy wait on him. An annoyed Rick loudly tells the man off, jeopardizing Cathy's standing at the gallery. He apologizes to Cathy for losing his cool and says he will think over the living situation.

With the summer season winding down, Larry returns to the beach one more time to offer Rick a job selling Porsches. Rick turns it down definitively, even though he realizes it will probably mean an end to his relationship with Cathy who has been encouraging him to become more upwardly mobile. He tells Larry he will remain a lifeguard "just as long as they'll have me". On his last day on the assistant job, Chris thanks Rick for everything he taught him.

As the movie ends, Rick is summoned to the beach changing room as a hysterical woman tells him there is a man in there. Rick asks the man what he's doing in the ladies' room. The man claims to be a police officer working surveillance but doesn't have his badge because he's working undercover.



Elliott's parents were lifeguards and he had worked as a lifeguard himself. He was cast after Dan Petrie and his wife saw Elliott on TV in the film Frogs. Lifeguard completed filming in August 1975 but was held for release by Paramount until the following year. Elliott held off on doing any TV in that time because he hoped the film would establish him in features.

Despite some of its serious subject matter, the film was marketed as a lighthearted beach party movie. However, it was considered a breakthrough for Elliott, with the actor saying, "Dan Petrie did a great job directing that movie; it was shot for something like only $900,000. Those were the days".

Part of the film was shot in Petrie's own home.

It was executive produced by Ted Mann.

Most of the lifeguard tower scenes were filmed at the Knob Hill and "Burnout" towers in the South Bay of Los Angeles.


On Rotten Tomatoes, Lifeguard holds a rating of 47% from 17 reviews.

Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Vincent Canby stated: "As a film, 'Lifeguard' is romantic twaddle, but as sociology it's a spontaneous assault on a very American way of life. [...] as entertainment it ranks somewhat above 'Bikini Beach' but below 'Godzilla Versus Megalon.'" In a positive review, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "It's not just about a man beginning to wonder whether it's time for him to start growing up but rather about a man who's tough-minded and honest enough with himself to question what maturity really is. Is it really doing what is expected of you or is it having the courage to be yourself, to do what you want—especially when you're fortunate enough to know what you want to do in the first place?"

Time Out wrote the film "manages to perform an interesting autopsy on the psyche of the American male". Filmmaker David Frankel selected the film for a New York Times piece on favorite summer movies.

In Through the Shattered Lens, Lisa Marie Bowman wrote, "The attempts to mix drama and comedy often lead to uneven results and Anne Archer, Parker Stevenson, and Stephen Young are stuck with underwritten characters…When the film does work, it’s due to the performances of Kathleen Quinlan and Sam Elliot. Though her character is a cliché (the rebellious teenager who isn’t as worldly as she thinks she is), Quinlan does a good job of giving the character a personality that makes her more than just a stock temptation."

In a 2013 review for DVD Talk, Glenn Erickson said the film "captures a particular So-Cal beach vibe during a brief post-pill, pre-AIDS patch of time when a significant segment of the singles scene actually treated sex as a kind of heightened recreational activity", and noted that some elements, including the relationship with Wendy and the lightness with which the screenplay treats indecent exposure, are plainly dated. Though he said the film's drawback is "it leaves a thread or two unresolved", he reviewed the film positively and said "What makes Lifeguard special is that Elliot convinces us that he's the nicest guy ever to walk a beach."

See also

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