On the Road Again
'Knight Rider' Gets Back on Track
NBC movie could serve as launching pad for new series
Only a couple of television shows rate that blurb, and mercifully, it isn't "My Mother the Car" that's getting an update.
No, it's the much cooler one. Since its original 1980s run, "Knight Rider" has maintained a solid following, enhanced by DVD releases of its four seasons. NBC relaunches the concept with a two-hour movie and series pilot Sunday, Feb. 17, under the stewardship of filmmaker Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity," "Jumper").
David Hasselhoff still has a presence as troubleshooter Michael Knight, but a new hero steers the latest model of the hyper-tricked-out, know-it-all car named KITT. Justin Bruening ("All My Children") plays Mike Traceur, a young Iraq War veteran asked by a close friend (Deanna Russo) to protect her father (Bruce Davison), inventor of the first KITT and the newest one: the KITT 3000, actually a Mustang Shelby GT500KR.
Still with a voice – supplied now by Val Kilmer (a last-minute replacement for the originally announced Will Arnett) instead of William Daniels – the self-thinking vehicle, able to change shape and color, is coveted by an enemy willing to do anything to acquire it. An FBI agent (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, daughter of Oscar-winning actor Sidney) is in on the situation, too.
"The fans have kept this alive," Hasselhoff says of "Knight Rider" getting another revival after two TV-movie sequels and a single-season "Team Knight Rider" series. The actor was impressed by NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman's enthusiasm for the project, echoing forerunner Brandon Tartikoff's dedication to it the first time around.
"'Knight Rider' was about saving lives," Hasselhoff says. "It was about one man making a difference, and it used both humor and action. We always had a good story with heart in it, and we always had KITT being smarter than Michael. Clearly, the cool way to go with this is a sequel; we want to be respectful to the old series, and Ben brought in maybe the best producing team in television. They've made this look like a $100 million feature film."
Liman certainly knows that approach. An executive producer of the revival, along with longtime associate Dave Bartis ("The O.C.," "Heist"), he recalls he was "at the right age" when the Glen Larson-created "Knight Rider" first caught his attention. "Just like reading 'The Bourne Identity,' it was a universal experience. There are certain shows you felt like everybody watched.
"I don't remember if this was Dave's idea or if it came from NBC talking to him about it. Redeveloping an existing show had never occurred to me, but the moment he mentioned this, it made perfect sense. The memory of a show can feel more relevant than the actual show, so at the end of the day, you're basically chasing the memory. That's why I don't try to do literal adaptations. I try to figure out, 'What was the emotional feeling I had when I read or watched that thing?' then capture that for today."
Bruening was a "Knight Rider" devotee long before getting the chance to bring it into the 21st century. He fully feels the responsibility of inheriting such a famous franchise.
"Honestly, I'm still in shock that I got it," he says. "I'd just had a conversation with my agent about how I wasn't finding anything that was intriguing me. As soon as I saw my character's description and the title 'Knight Rider,' I called her back and said, 'I'm gonna do this. This is going to be my job.' She was like, 'Oh. OK.'"
Once Bruening landed the role, the reaction was somewhat different from that of his wife: Alexa Havins, who played Babe to his Jamie on ABC's "All My Children." He reveals, "She started crying. She was so happy for me, because she knew I really wanted it. It's an amazing script, and it could have been really cheesy, something that had nothing to do with the original. Instead, it has everything to do with it, and that's what fans are going to love."
Hasselhoff enjoys sharing a background with Bruening, since both came into "Knight Rider" from soap operas. In fact, so did the new movie's Russo, formerly of CBS' "The Young and the Restless" -- on which Hasselhoff first attained stardom.
"He reminds me of me when I was that age," Hasselhoff says of Bruening. "We're almost the same height, and we even look a little bit alike. He's got a lot of charisma."
Back in the day, cars didn't talk very often, but it's not uncommon in the age of OnStar and GPS.
"Parts of this that once seemed so futuristic are in our everyday lives now," Liman says. "That means we had to go more extreme with KITT's capabilities, and we had to push the production designer and the stunt people harder. KITT was much more robotic, and his personality now is very much a product of today. Computers are much more human, and that's reflected."
As he gears up to judge another season of NBC's "America's Got Talent," Hasselhoff hopes for continuing involvement if the new "Knight Rider" effort goes to series. "It's really up to the fans and to the way the show goes," he says. "I think what defines a legendary show is for it to retain its popularity over the years, and 26 years later, this has more of that than almost any show in the world."