Your heart pounding, you crouched down behind a wall. Holding your digital watch to your mouth you pressed one of the buttons and whispered ‘KITT, come get me buddy!’ OK, so in reality you weren’t Michael Knight, you were nine and playing hide and seek with your friends. And obviously a car didn’t come screeching round the corner by itself when you spoke into your Casio, but there can’t have been many children in the 1980s who didn’t try that at least once. Some children were able to fuel their imaginations even further with the help of the Knight Rider Car toy.
Michael Knight was right alongside Magnum P.I. for making bouffant hair look cool (actually, both programmes were created by Glen A. Larson, so maybe it was a little fetish of his?), and along with the perma-tan, ice-white smile and a large amount of chest hair on show, he was the epitome of 80’s television pin-ups.
The most high tech thing he used was of course KITT – an artificially intelligent Pontiac Trans Am. KITT was immense – always there in the nick of time, rescuing Knight from peril and coming up with a ready quip into the bargain. In fact, without KITT the show would have been pointless, as Michael (David Hasselhoff) would have spent a lot of his time lounging casually on the floor in tight jeans instead of on KITT’s bonnet.
Knight Rider’s tag line was ‘A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist’, which makes the series sound a lot more dramatic and dark than it actually was. Michael Knight did live a fairly dangerous existence, but only if your idea of dangerous is continually being attacked by just the right number of number of muscly thugs for you to be able to overcome them in a certain order with some set-piece cartoony punching. Each episode had Michael on a new assignment; covering such diverse settings as an ‘auto-daredevil show’ (protecting the owners from loan shark murderers) to infiltrating gunrunners in Central America, to investigating unexplained deaths at an exclusive club for geniuses . Oh, and he also checks out a ghost at a film studio.
Michael Long was a detective with the Las Vegas police force. He came very close to losing his life after being shot in the face during but he was saved by the crack medical team Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart), dying millionaire owner of Knight Industries (I like to imagine him wheezing ‘I don’t care what it costs, just give him a new face…’). Having set up the Foundation for Law and Government (FLAG) he left his fortune to fund this justice organisation and before he died he decided that Long, albeit Long with a new face should be the one that got his hands dirty for the project. Long was given an alternate identity, Michael Knight (couldn’t handle a change of both names then?) and was introduced to the team that will help him go baddie-bashing.
The head of FLAG was Devon Miles (Edward Mulhare), a suave gentleman who took charge of each mission that Michael and KITT went on. Assisting him was Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson) who already worked for Knight Industries as a lead design engineer, before moving over to FLAG to work on KITT, upgrading and repairing the systems that made him virtually (except for when the show needed a ‘shock, gasp’ moment) impenetrable. McPherson was replaced in series two by Rebecca Holden - who played April Curtis - with the explanation that Barstow had left to continue her education, but the public - as well as Mulhare and Hasselhoff - protested loudly; so much so that she returned for series three and four. Obviously both women were gorgeous; which is an important quality in a car engineer…
For series four they were joined by RC3 (ridiculous name, but infinitely preferable to introducing yourself as Reginald Cornelius III), a self-styled superhero (again, the show appeared to bend slightly away from realism) who was helped once by Michael and KITT and then returns the favour by helping Bonnie repair KITT after a ‘shock, gasp’ moment involving ‘the Juggernaut’. RC3 drove the FLAG mobile unit, a sort of huge A-Team van containing large 1980’s style computers with big buttons.
And so to KITT. As with so many shows based around a spectacular gimmick (Airwolf, Street Hawk etc.), nobody would have watched Knight Rider if KITT hadn’t been in it – the dry, sardonic wit and amazing amount of slick gadgetry that KITT had at his disposal to snatch Michael from dodgy underworld characters with made a cheesy show just that bit cooler.
And KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was COOL. Sleek, black and with a red strip light at the front that swooshed back and forward with a ‘werrwerr’ sound, he was a car with artificial intelligence and an attitude. Always ready with a sarcastic remark or deadpan pun, KITT was voiced by William Daniels (Dr Craig in St. Elsewhere, Dustin Hoffman’s father in The Graduate or Mr Feeny in Boy Meets World) who possibly wasn’t that proud of his role in the show, as he allegedly asked for his name not to appear on the credits.
Alongside the perilous crime mysteries that Michael and KITT had to solve, another highly believable plot line was also brought in in the form of ‘Garthe Knight’, Wilton’s evil son. Looking and sounding exactly like Michael (which makes the whole ‘let’s rescue Michael Long and give him a new face’ spiel by Wilton in the first episode even creepier than it actually sounded to begin with) Garthe kidnapped Devon and April so that Michael and KITT had to face his new vehicle, Goliath. It was fairly obvious that the show was going for entertainment rather than realism, but even so…Still it stretched Hasselhoff as an actor, having to play somebody who had the same face, voice and mannerism as both Knight and er, himself.
The original series ran from 26 September 1982 until 8 August 1986 on US channel NBC, with 90 episodes split over 4 series. The adventures of a man and his car didn’t stop there however; in 1991 Hasselhoff starred as Knight again in Knight Rider 2000. This was a made for TV movie about – yep, you guessed it – Michael Knight and KITT in the year 2000. Then there was Knight Rider 2010, which from the name you would imagine is the same thing set a decade later, but despite the name the film bears no resemblance to the original or the follow-up, save for the fact it also features a talking car. A talking car, but not ‘The Hoff’, so it obviously couldn’t be taken seriously anyway. At least Team Knight Rider, a new series broadcast in 1997 had the decency to include references to FLAG, Michael Knight and KITT, even if they did go over the top by having five talking cars instead of just the one (wonder if they all chatted to each other?). Again, the lack of Hasselhoff and his free-spirited chest hair meant it could never compare to the first incarnation of the brand.
In 2008 KITT was reincarnated again in a new TV film (Knight Rider; anybody confused yet?) as a car with even bigger muscles, the Knight Industries Three Thousand. This time its defence system included weapons that could rival a jet fighters, and with holographic technology installed it could change its shape to baffle anybody following it. Mr Hasselhoff had a small cameo in it, and the story continued from the original. This then lead to a TV series of the same name (i.e. that of the original). In both the 2008 film and TV series KITT was voiced by Val Kilmer, which was never the same. His voice may be sort of cool, but everybody knew who Kilmer was. The fact that nobody knew who was providing KITT’s speech as Daniels was kept anonymous added to the super car’s allure.
So, in summary: Knight Rider with KITT voiced by Daniels and driven by Hasselhoff (with open shirt and big hair) was GOOD. Knight Rider with any year after its name, a plot which doesn’t mention FLAG, more than one talking car, and with minus HOFF, was BAD.