Question: On the show Knight Rider, what did K.I.T.T. stand for? Shelley S.
Televisionary: Why, he and partner/driver Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) stood for truth, justice and singlehandedly lowering the auto industry fleet's miles-per-gallon average by 10 miles or so. Weren't you watching?
Actually, K.I.T.T. stood for Knight Industries Two Thousand, the model name for the super-powered, computer-sentient car built by dying rich guy Wilton Knight. As fans of the hit series, which ran on NBC from September 1982 to August 1986, know, Knight rescued undercover cop Michael Young, who'd been shot in the face while on the job. He paid for his plastic surgery, giving Young a new mug and a new name (Knight, which smacked of some ego, I thought) in the process. Then he handed his creation the keys to K.I.T.T., a black Trans Am with a Cylon-like roving light in its hood, sent him off to battle evil and promptly kicked the bucket.
Not that Hasselhoff's ascendance into network-TV stardom was much easier. He didn't get his money-making face blown off, but it started with a death and some spilled blood. "I hadn't heard from my agent in six months," the actor said of his early days, when he paid the bills by waiting tables. "So I called his office and asked, 'Has he died or something?' It turned out that he had died. I was so unimportant that no one bothered to tell me." When he went for a meeting with talent executive Joyce Selznick, who ended up signing on as his manager, she kept him waiting nine hours. "Then she arrived, looking very tough with a cigar in her mouth," he recalled, "and the first thing that happened was that her dog bit me on the leg. While I held a handkerchief to the wound, she said, 'Can you act?' I said 'Yes.' She said, 'Bulls--t. But you have the look, so I'll take you on as a client."
The manager's instincts were correct: Hasselhoff drew an audience and charmed TV columnists, many of whom liked him despite their low opinion of his show, with unusual candor for an action star. "This kid... violates all the rules of special-effects shows," a Knight Rider producer complained after Hasselhoff began freely disclosing the secrets behind K.I.T.T.'s high-tech feats. "He gives away our tricks to the press."
Did he? Well, consider this: "We use four identical black Trans Ams, not one," Hasselhoff told a reporter. "And when the stuntmen do those 50-foot jumps, a car sometimes breaks in half. Each of the cars has a protective outer shell on it. When a car gets banged up, they peel off the outer shell, like the skin of an onion, and the shell underneath makes K.I.T.T. look like new."
So the producers made K.I.T.T. look good and the car, voiced to haughty perfection by St. Elsewhere's William Daniels, returned the favor by helping Hasselhoff keep the ratings up. Knight Rider was routinely (and deservedly) savaged by critics TV Guide's Robert McKenzie said in 1983 that "the dialogue and acting are comic-book level and the plots are mostly hand-me-downs" but it was a success just the same. The wooden Hasselhoff and his metal chariot managed to draw kids (with the car), men (with the action, which in Knight Rider's first season gave them an alternative to the competing Dallas) and women (with the former Young and the Restless star's looks and lady-melting smile, which would later serve him well on Baywatch).
Of course, I have to hand it to those behind the series: Knight Rider was dumb but entertaining and it made a lot of money for everyone involved. And those same people knew darned well it was dumb and never tried to hide that from the audience. "[W]e developed this modern Lone Ranger concept, with a guy rushing about righting wrongs, but riding in this crazy car instead of on his horse," creator Glen A. Larson told TV Guide at the time. "But who would believe it unless we did it tongue-in-cheek, like Sean Connery did in the James Bond pictures or Christopher Reeve in Superman? If we played it straight, it would be ridiculous."
But viewers liked that kind of ridiculous, and Hollywood is betting they will again. As I type this, Hasselhoff and Larson are putting together a big-screen version of Knight Rider. The actor is expected to appear in it, but since nearly 20 years have passed since the show launched and neither star nor car are exactly of-the-moment, count on seeing newer models of both.