Justin Bruening, <EM>Knight Rider</EM> Justin Bruening, Knight Rider
Knight Rider airs Sunday at 9 pm/ET, NBC.

The realization hit Justin Bruening the moment the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500KR slammed its own doors. At 28, Bruening was only six when the original Knight Rider, which made a star of David Hasselhoff, roared off into TV mythol­ogy. Now, as the former All My Children actor slid into the Hoff's old seat behind the wheel of the franchise's signature (but updated) supercar, he felt the moment.

"We have a version of the car that's driven by remote control," says Bruen­ing. "So someone's sitting a hundred yards away with two little joysticks, and I get in the car in the middle of a scene, and the doors slam shut on their own. That was the first moment that I went, 'Oh, crap, this is real — KITT actually lives.' It's cool that we're upping the ante that way, but it's a little disconcerting."

The producers hope enough viewers hitch a ride to launch the two-hour NBC TV-movie into a series. The retooled Rider casts Bruening as Mike Traceur, an ex-Army Ranger whose old girl­friend, Sarah Graiman (Deanna Russo), talks him into the driver's seat of the new KITT. Sarah's dad, Charles (Bruce Davison), is KITT's inventor, and his latest automotive putterings have drawn attention from nefarious forces. Sydney Tamiia Poitier lends backup as an FBI agent, and Val Kilmer provides the voice of the Knight Industries Three Thousand (KITT to friends), replacing William Daniels' classic snit with contemporary snark.

Even Hasselhoff turns up to reveal some surprising ties between Traceur and Hoff's old character, Michael Knight. "There are all these great connections back to the original series," execu­tive producer David Bartis says. "Our goal is to make everybody who loved the original em­brace this and bring a younger audience to it as well."

This isn't the first attempt to jump-start the franchise. Hasselhoff, who drove a customized Trans Am in the original 1982-'86 series, returned in the 1991 teleflick Knight Rider 2000 with a '57 Chevy. The syndicated Team Knight Rider came and went in 1997, and five years ago a Hollywood studio considered a feature-film version. Last year, Hassel­hoff says, "I did a video called 'Jump in My Car,' about me and KITT pickin' up chicks. It was downloaded nine million times. The show's fans are relentless."

Transformers fans might have been equally influential: The latest Rider got the network go-ahead shortly after the battling 'bots movie opened huge last summer (hence the new KITT's morphing technology).

But the road to contemporary cool can be a bumpy one for a franchise fondly recalled from a kitschier time. (Just ask Bionic Woman.) There's a lot of nostalgic baggage in KITT's original trunk that fanboys might find hard to unload: Dan­iels' persnickety vocals, the goofiness of many of those old missions, that general '80s Trans-Ammy vibe. "You've got to be on board with Knight Rider's tone from the get-go," Bartis admits. "But I think the light-action hour has been missing from television." Traceur's rela­tionship with Sarah will lend some romance, adds Russo. "A story just about this guy and his car was good enough for an '80s audience, but it felt like we needed something more multilayered."

Thrilled as the Hoff is about the revival, even he had an initial question. "How do you update a show about a talk­ing car when all cars talk now?" he says. Still, he adds, "The original had such a positive message: One man can make a difference. The world needs that right now." Ride on!

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