TV

Sunday on NBC, it's the return of the Knight

Frank Lovece
Justin Bruening, left, talks with David Hasslehoff at the "Knight Rider" premiere party at the Playboy Mansion, February 12, 2008. The two will be in the new NBC movie Sunday night. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC/MCT)
Newsday (MCT)

The Knight is young.

Oh, he was always youngish. The man born as Michael Arthur Long was all of 33 when he was critically wounded, declared dead and spirited away by the Foundation for Law and Government (FLAG), which gave him a new face and identity as Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) in the 1980s series "Knight Rider." And though equipped with a quipping car -- the talking Trans Am KITT, an artificial intelligence on wheels and just the ultimate toy -- Knight was a genuine grown-up: Vietnam veteran. Detective lieutenant in the LAPD. Well-versed in self-defense, small arms and investigative technique.

FLEET OF FAME

We drive cars, but cars drive our dreams -- about freedom, adventure and the open road. At least most of the time. Here, aside from KITT, is a chronological quintet of classic cars that helped us journey across TV Land. Your mileage may differ.

Stone Age Flintmobile ("The Flintstones") -- Whatever the actual make and year of Fred Flintstone's classic ragtop, it made up in naive charm what it lacked in horsepower. Or footpower. Or something.

1928 Porter ("My Mother the Car") -- Before there was KITT, there was Gladys, attorney Dave Crabtree's late mother, who -- voiced by "Old Hollywood" star Ann Sothern -- gave us TV's first talking car. TV's first nagging car, too. The perfect vehicle for a guilt trip.

The Batmobile ("Batman") -- A reconditioned 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura concept car, tricked out with more gadgets than a James Bond vehicle, this open-top two-seater was equally good for a sunny day or a Dark Knight. And holy Web site, Batman! The specs and history are at 1966batmobile.com!

The General Lee ("The Dukes of Hazzard") -- So about that time them Duke boys wuz ridin' around in their 1969 Dodge Charger R/T with a 440 Magnum V8 engine, four-barrel Holly 780 double-pumper carburetor, Chrysler Torqueflite A-727 automatic transmission and Shelby rims with Goodrich radial tires. Oooo-ee! Ol' Cooter was pimpin' wheels before anybody knew what that meant!

The "Starsky and Hutch" 1975 Ford Gran Torino -- The two detectives went to a `76 model after the show's first season. Purists grieved. Ford issued a limited-edition consumer model. And to this day you can find the fan site starskytorino.com.

But his son and heir apparent in the TV-movie revival "Knight Rider" (NBC, Sunday at 9 p.m. EST)? Not so much. Iraq War vet though he is, Mike Tracer is a lost and cynical 23-year-old, generally found getting the crap (tables) beat out of him in Vegas and not exactly burning rubber toward adulthood. If Michael Knight was relatively mom and apple pie, Mike Tracer is estranged dad and Red Bull cocktails.

We say this based solely on NBC's press material and the script, the latter of which "was on Ain't It Cool News (a popular showbiz Web site)," says David Bartis, one of the two executive producers, "the day we sent out for actors to look at. It got reviewed on a number of sites."

The TV movie itself was unavailable for screening since, said a network spokesman, "It has so many complicated special effects I'm told they're going to be working on it almost right up to airday."

Yeah, and vocal effects as well: Last week, Variety reported that Will Arnett, the new voice of KITT, had to be replaced by Val Kilmer. General Motors, at nearly the last minute, suddenly said it didn't want Arnett, who does commercial voice-overs for GMC Trucks, to be the voice of the TV movie's Ford Mustang. Why GM waited until two weeks before airdate, after months of cast announcements, online trailers, interviews, etc., is anybody's guess.

In whatever form it comes down the pike, this "Knight Rider" isn't a remake or reimagining, but a sequel to the 1982-86 series -- which even creator Glen A. Larson recently conceded owed much of its success to "kids and the 8 o'clock time slot." The new TV-movie -- a "backdoor pilot" the producers hope will go to series -- stars former "All My Children" soap hero Justin Bruening as Tracer; Deanna Russo as ex-girlfriend Sarah Graiman; Sydney Tamiia Poitier as FBI agent Carrie Rivai; and a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500KR as the new and improved KITT a Knight Industries 3000, as opposed to the old 2000.

The reason it's a sequel, Bartis says in a recent telephone press conference, is "because that's one of the rights they had at NBC." Larson, who retained movie rights, has been working to develop a big-screen feature since 2002. "We have had no contact with Mr. Larson," Bartis notes. "The details of whatever arrangements they made happened before I came into it."

And besides, Bartis says, "For us creatively, we knew how strongly people felt about the original characters -- as did we. The best way to bring David Hasselhoff into it is to bring him into it as Michael Knight."

The TV movie does this in a cameo, but the Knight errant makes his presence felt through Mike's being the son Michael doesn't know he has. rAccording to reviews of the script, Mike grew up on the Graiman-Kamen estate with his single mom, Jennifer. Fans on forums have floated a few hundred ideas about who that is, but don't seem to have made the connection with a single-episode character named Jennifer Knight (Mary Kate McGeehan) -- daughter of the eponymous Wilton Knight, the late billionaire behind Knight Industries. Jennifer took over the Knight Foundation in the fourth-season opener, "Knight of the Juggernaut," and after the initial dislike between Michael and her becomes mutual respect, she gives him a kiss at story's end.

Of course, the reconstructive surgery that turned Michael Long into Michael Knight made him identical to Wilton Knight's son, Garth, Jennifer's brother, so if Jennifer is Mike's mother ... ewww!

Such continuity musings go only so far -- Mom might be someone never before seen. But a new character, Charles Graiman (Bruce Davison), Sarah's dad, "is the link between our show and the original series," Bartis says. "He is the guy who actually built the original KITT" -- a heretofore unrevealed piece of history. "There's never a mention in the original series about who actually physically built the car, who developed the technology."

Wilton Knight, the new movie establishes, hired Graiman to do just that. Should the pilot go to series, Bartis says, he'll look at perhaps tying in threads from the 1991 telefilm "Knight Rider 2000" and the 1997 syndicated series "Team Knight Rider." (The 1994 TV-movie "Knight Rider 2010" takes place in the future.)

"We're getting pretty used to the kind of scrutiny we'll get," the producer says resignedly of the old show's fan following. "But there's only so much we can do in the time we have. I mean, it's not just the hard-core `Knight Rider' fans. We've seen car fans responding to the Mustang," some saying it's the greatest make of car ever and others putting it out to pasture.

"Being a fan of the original series," pipes in new star Bruening, "I want to keep it close to the original as well as having a new take. Which, you know, that's a fine line. I'm taking over the franchise and stuff, and that's humbling and it's an honor at the same time. I just hope I do it justice."

He should. Because wherever injustice revs its tarnished engine, Michael Knight will run it down.

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