Question: When I was a girl, my sister and I both had a crush on Patrick Duffy in The Man from Atlantis. She said he was a former Olympic swimmer. Is that true? — Emma J., Anderson, Ind.
Televisionary: Nope, but if it helped two lovelorn kids enjoy the show by thinking he was, what's the harm?
Duffy, who landed (no pun intended) the role of aqua-man Mark Harris before moving on to play Dallas' Bobby Ewing, had a background in acting and mime — which meant he was trained in movement, but didn't have any notable athletics on his résumé. Matter of fact, though he did some scuba diving in his youth, he hadn't been in the water for five years when he showed up to read for the part. "I didn't even own a bathing suit," he told TV Guide in 1977. "I had to do the audition in my underwear."
That plus his less-than-Schwarzenegger-like physique meant the producers of the underwater action show, which ran on NBC from September 1977 through the following July, had a tough time selling him to the network. According to executive producer Herb Solow, NBC execs wanted a former athlete, someone who was very muscular. "What I tried to get the network to understand was that the story deals with an alien," he explained. "Patrick was built like a water person — long, muscular, slim — and he had a certain air about him. When he walked into a room, people seemed to look at him and say, 'Gee, I wonder where he's from.'"
Which may have meant the actor had a quality his would-be bosses could sell to their bosses, but he still required some bulking up. "Patrick was 10 lbs. underweight," Solow said. "When I first dragged him over to NBC, we had to put a padded sweater on him." Stuntman Paul Stader put the actor on a protein-enriched diet and gave him a daily hourlong workout of weights and isometrics, all of which put another 20 lbs. on his 6-foot-2 frame. So before reporting to the set each day, Duffy got up at 4:30 am for weight lifting, liquid protein and a half hour of chanting (he practiced a form of Japanese Buddhism).
And that wasn't even the hard part. If you watched the show, you remember how Mark, the last survivor of Atlantis, swam like a dolphin, flopping his way through the water in a whipping motion. I can tell you from trying it as a kid — I liked the show, too — that it was no mean feat. "In a whale or a dolphin, the backbone runs continuously right to the tail," Duffy said. "In a human being, it stops at the pelvis. So it's tiring, especially in the base of your back, and really not too good for you to swim that way. It's not painful; you just know you've been doing it after a while."
Harder still was learning to "talk" underwater — mouthing sentences without letting any air out while submerged in a tank and making it look like he was breathing (dialogue was dubbed in afterward). "It's a weird feeling," Duffy said. "When most people hold their breath, their cheeks puff out and their eyes squint. I have to keep my eyes open, put water up into my nose and mouth, and talk. What I do is hyperventilate, which saturates my lungs with oxygen, and then I exhale, so I have negative buoyancy and can stay down there. You inhale just enough water to go up into your nose and sinuses, so that no air bubbles come out. Then you stop the air in your throat, rather than your mouth, so you can open your mouth and keep taking water in and out. This makes it look like you're breathing."
The toughest part, though? The eyes. Duffy's character had highly developed eyes that allowed him to see in almost total darkness, which meant wearing contact lenses to transform the actor's hazel eyes to a deep fluorescent green. Technology being what it was at the time, that called for a pair of painted lenses that covered the entire exposed portion of the eye — which Victor Buono, who played the show's main bad guy, likened to "acting with golf balls stuck in your head."
Then there was the body-hair problem, since an Atlantean, according to the show's mythology, had none on his arms, hands, chest or legs. Accordingly, Duffy shaved twice a week — "I took the longest showers you ever saw; I'm probably solely responsible for the water shortage in Los Angeles," he said — before switching to electric clippers.
All of that was for naught when it came to the real world, however, as Duffy discovered while snorkeling on vacation in Hawaii. "I looked up and saw this huge sea turtle come swimming by," he said. "I tried to catch it, swam just like Mark Harris does. But I couldn't seem to make it understand that I was the Man from Atlantis. It just high-tailed it right out of there."