40 years ago, one sci-fi show had the most bizarre beginning in TV history
Knight Rider is mostly about a guy and a sentient car. But it began way weirder.
Could the first Cylon from Battlestar Galactica have been a talking car in 1982? Although there’s not an overt connection between that side-to-side red light on KITT in Knight Rider and the exact same red light in Battlestar, there is something dark and frightening about Knight Rider that you’ve probably forgotten.
Here’s why, 40 years ago, on Sept. 26, 1982, the most iconic ’80s action show began as a dark sci-fi character piece. Mild spoilers ahead for Knight Rider.
The premise of Knight Rider is simple, right? A slick vigilante solves mysteries with the aid of a semi-sentient AI that is installed in a 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. That’s it, isn’t it? Well yes, the David Hasselhoff-led series can breezily be described that way, but that synopsis also leaves out the part where Knight Rider began with a ghoulish plot that focused on the fact that Hasselhoff’s face isn’t his real face and that the character’s name wasn’t Michael Knight, but instead “Michael Arthur Long,” played by everyday joe-schmo actor Larry Anderson.
Michael Long — who we can think of as The Real (Fake) Michael Knight — is a special agent for the LAPD. To be clear, he doesn’t even appear in the first episode until roughly four minutes in. After he gets double-crossed during an industrial espionage case in Vegas, Michael Long is then shot in the face at the 8:30 minute mark. Of note, he crumples, seemingly dying, on the hood of his iconic 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, which doesn’t yet have any droid consciousness installed.
Michael Long, we’re told, has a metal plate in his head — “probably from military surgery” — and this metal plate deflected the bullet away from his brain and into his face. He later emerges from reconstructive surgery all Hasslehoffed-up at the 11:57-minute mark. This means there’s been at least one commercial break before we even see Hasselhoff in Knight Rider.
Frankly, the fact that the show needed a talking car after that setup is fascinating. Today, if the premise of Knight Rider were floated as a prestige drama all about the nature of identity and the existence of false identities, you can’t imagine a studio executive saying, “Yeah, but what if he had a talking car, too?”
The soap opera-esque origin story of Michael Knight’s face was actually a brilliant starting point for the series. By Season 2 episode “Goliath,” we learn that there’s an evil version of Michael Knight — Garthe Knight — also played by Hasselhoff, with a small, sleazy mustache and a soul patch. (The fact he looks like Michael Knight is because Michael Knight’s new face was based on Garthe’s, not the other way around.)
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And what about the car? Well, Knight Rider was created by Glen A. Larson, the same producer who tried to ride on the coattails of Star Wars fever in 1978 with Battlestar Galactica, and then again, in 1979, with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. 1983’s Knight Rider is a comparatively low-budget Larson series, focused on creating a kind of American version of James Bond — with a cool car that, frankly, is probably better than most Bond cars anyway.
Larson’s inspiration for KITT — Knight Industries Two Thousand — can probably be traced to the Battlestar episode “The Long Patrol,” in which Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) has his Viper starfighter outfitted with an onboard AI called CORA. Again, the glowing back-and-forth red light on the front of KITT (voiced by William Daniels) is straight from the Cylons in Battlestar, and even the turbo-boost sound effects for the car come from Battlestar’s Viper boosts.
What Knight Rider has that Battlestar and Buck Rogers didn’t is a leading actor that actually sells the goofy premise. While Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, and Gil Gerard all have their strengths in Battlestar and Buck Rogers, respectively, it’s amazing how perfect Hasselhoff is in Knight Rider. While BSG ran for one season and Buck Rogers ran for two, Knight Rider was on for four seasons. This means it’s one of Glen A. Larson’s most successful TV series, even if it is the least sophisticated. (Though, because he was a co-creator on Mangum, P.I. it’s really tough to say.)
And yet, the TV action genre is tricky to pull off week after week. Essentially, Knight Rider was just another police procedural, with a mild sci-fi twist. But, because of its dark origin story, and the raw charisma of Hasselhoff, it’s actually more re-watchable than something like The A-Team. It’s easy to say Knight Rider is cheesy and ridiculous now, but if you view it through the lens of just being a very well-made spy-soap opera, it suddenly becomes genius.
Today, Knight Rider is mostly a kind of cultural meme. It’s known for that iconic Stu Phillips-composed theme song, the car, and Hasselhoff’s ’80s cool-guy look. But all that Guardians of the Galaxy-infused nostalgia has probably done the original Knight Rider a disservice. At the time, the show wasn’t trying to be kitschy-tongue-in-cheek-cool, it was just trying to be a sexier version of the Mission: Impossible TV series. And, for a brief moment in the ’80s, it succeeded.