Knight Rider “Knight of the Phoenix” (part 1 of 4)
Way back in the early 1980s, producer Glen A. Larson was the king of television, with seemingly dozens of series running on practically every network. Accounts vary on how exactly he came up with the idea of a series about a talking car, but this pilot is the genesis of a show that lasted four years, and spawned several follow-on TV movies, and another, less successful series in 2008. The original Knight Rider was the first series to air opposite Dallas and survive, which is pretty impressive. This is how it all started.
Larson stuffed the pilot with veteran actors, both stars and character actors. There’s definitely a “hey, it’s that guy” quality to the episode, especially with the various thugs and petty criminals that show up later. There are some nice practical stunts, some good drama, and a few funny bits, although those are a little hit and miss. The pilot worked well enough, landing the series as it did. The episode ran three times during that TV season, and was in the top ten in the ratings each time.
The trailer episode credit sequence opens with the famous black Trans Am driving across the desert, Cylon-style LEDs zipping back and forth across the grill. The camera zooms in on the car, and into the cockpit, to look at the “futuristic” dashboard. The camera zooms further in on the twin TV monitors on the car’s dashboard, and in an artistic but impossible touch, one of the TV monitors on the dash is showing clips of KITT driving, and the star, former soap actor David Hasselhoff, getting out. Through all the images of the car driving, the only other star credit goes to Edward Mulhare, as long-suffering manager Devon Talksondaphonealot. Once the stars have been introduced, there are some more futuristic dashboard images, and the car zooms into the distance.
Befitting a pilot episode, some origin backstory is appropriate. We open in Las Vegas, with establishing shots of the neon strip. Wayne Newton was headlining at a casino back then—can you imagine? As the guest star credits roll, we establish the heck out of a casino setting. People are gambling at slots, roulette, craps, and so on. There’s even an all-girl cover band—platinum blondes in hot pink miniskirts, naturally—covering “Proud Mary”.
In the commentary for the episode, Glenn Larson reminds Hasselhoff that the Hoff insisted on using the band. In Hoff’s own words, “a prelude to Baywatch!” Let’s just stipulate that Ike and Tina, to say nothing of John, Tom, Stu, and Doug, don’t really have a whole heck of a lot to worry about.
Once it’s finally clear that the action will be taking place in a casino, the camera focuses on Charles Acton as he plays craps. Although you have to sort of piece it together to figure it out, Acton is the CEO and/or founder of a high tech firm, and he’s about to be ripped off royally.
Acton is doing quite well at the table, rolling sevens and raking in black chips. At his side is his fur-wearing apparent girlfriend, Tanya. Acton decides to quit while he’s ahead, and with a hug from Tanya, he’s on his way back to his room. A suspicious-looking dude talks into his secret Dick Tracy radio watch, which doesn’t look at all strange. Passing gamblers probably just think he’s smelling the new watch he found on the street, to see where it’s been. Pretty standard Vegas behavior, now that I think about it.
The watch-sniffer is named Wilson, although he won’t actually get a name for a while. He orders an attractive redhead in a purple pantsuit, Lonnie, to start her mission, whatever that might be. Lonnie is played by Shawn Southwick, who is now married to Larry King. How could that possibly happen?
She heads towards the elevators, presumably going upstairs to one of the guest rooms. Another man starts smelling his apparel—wait, I guess he’s talking into his secret lapel radio. This is Michael Long, played by actor Larry Anderson, a cop assigned to Acton’s security detail. You can tell from the hair that this is the man who will eventually become Michael Knight, David Hasselhoff’s character. You can also tell that Michael Long will eventually become Michael Knight because David Hasselhoff dubs over Anderson’s voice during the short time—oops, that might be a spoiler?—Michael Long is on the screen. Long talks to his sport jacket and asks his partner, Muncie (Boomer from the original Battlestar Galactica), who’s disguised as a repairman upstairs, to keep an eye on Lonnie.
Purple pantsuit Lonnie manifests her mission, as she enters Acton’s hotel room, and opens his large in-room safe, and begins to photograph some electronic circuit diagrams with a mini camera. She also has a Dick Tracy watch, which she uses to call back down to Wilson. Meanwhile, Acton also talks to Wilson, asking him to assign his security detail to keep watch over his winnings. Then, Wilson asks Michael Long to watch over Acton! Man, this is complicated! Everyone knows everyone, and everyone is working against everyone else! There’s more twists in the first four minutes than there are wrinkles in a vas deferens.
Long, Acton, and Tanya go to the cashier’s cage to cash in all those black chips, while Lonnie sneaks out of the casino, with Muncie in pursuit. Wilson sniffs his watch again to talk to yet another player in this scene: Gray, an assassin in the parking lot. Things might just go badly for Muncie at this point.
Long and Tanya also run out of the casino, but too late! Lonnie has already escaped in her sweet Datsun 280Z, and, oh no! Gray shoots Muncie with his silenced pistol, which is still pretty ballsy considering he’s in the middle of a crowded casino parking lot.
While Long and Tanya rush to the dying Muncie, Gray and Wilson hop into a pseudo-police car, labeled “SPECIAL SECURITY: Consolidated Chemical.” Hmmm. So Acton’s company is a chemical company? And they make microchips? M’kay. Anyways, they rush off in pursuit of Lonnie.
Once Muncie officially kacks, Long and Tanya leave him in the very capable hands of a crowd of drunken gamblers in the casino parking lot. They hop into Long’s black Trans Am, and speed off as the third vehicle in the ongoing, extended car chase. The Trans Am probably would have been an awesome sight to folks back in 1982, because that model was brand new at the time. In fact, Knight Rider got the first two new Trans Ams off the assembly line!
Tanya halfheartedly tries to convince Long to stay and protect Acton, but Long says the bad guys are no longer interested in Acton. They’ve got what they wanted, namely, the microfilm of the microchips. Or, as the Hasselhoff-dubbed Long puts it, “Your boss’ chief of security is up to his Bahamian bank accounts in industrial espionage! And now murder!” That really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Outside of town, on a deserted side road, Gray and Wilson meet up with Lonnie to recover the film. Just after the exchange, Long and Tanya roll up, and Long is able to get the drop on the bad guys. He holds them at gunpoint and asks Tanya to collect their weapons.
But, omigosh! Tanya is also one of the bad guys, and she brought her own gun to the party. She blasts Long in the face, and all of the conspirators escape into the night, leaving Long for dead.
Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that Hasselhoff is playing Long in this scene, for whatever reason. Long is shot in shadows, so you can’t see his face at all, and Hasselhoff’s sort of angular frame is quite distinct from Larry Anderson’s.
After the villains have escaped, a helicopter shows up on the scene, shining its spotlight on Long and the car. Inside the helicopter, it’s wealthy industrialist Wilton Knight, played by Richard Basehart! This is not a random encounter. As we’ll find out later, Wilton has chosen Long as just the right kind of guy for… well, for the kind of thing Wilton is planning. We’ll get there.
In any case, they were specifically looking for Long, and now they’ve found him dying in the desert. Don’t think too much about how they knew Long had been shot or how they knew where, exactly, in the Nevada desert to find him. The writers didn’t. In any case, they land and spirit Long—and car, as we find out later—off to Knight’s impossibly huge house. Not actually impossibly huge, of course, since it’s a real house: The Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills.
Inside the house, Long is in a hospital bed, his face completely wrapped up in bandages. A kinda hot redheaded nurse seems like she’s fondling his bandaged noggin. Whatever floats your boat, dearie! Of course, at this point Larry Anderson is out, and it’s Hasselhoff in the role. Which explains the nurse’s fondling: Even under all those wraps, the Hoff’s still got a way with the ladies!
Wilton Knight talks to Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man, who’s a doctor here. Oscar says that Long should have died from the point blank gunshot to the skull, but was saved by a metal plate in his head… a souvenir from his days in the military. But the bullet ripped his whole face off. “We’ll never know what he looked like!” Well, he was built sort of like David Hasselhoff, but he was nowhere near as handsome.
One of the things that’s difficult with this pilot episode, at least in the early going, is that it’s really hard to tell how much time has passed between scenes. There aren’t any of the typical or clichéd shorthand techniques for showing the passage of time: No flipping calendar pages, rising and setting suns, changing colors of the foliage, nothing. So, wam! Right after we see one of Long’s nightmares, where he dreams of Tanya shooting him all over again, enough time has passed for Long’s new face—provided by Oscar—to be installed and all healed up. Oscar tenderly cuts away the bandages, and…
Oh my gosh! The glorious bastard looks like a young David Hasselhoff now! Hoff looks at his new mug in the mirror and complains that the face “isn’t me.” Dude. We all saw the previous you, and you got an upgrade. Don’t be an ingrate! I’m going to assume there’s been some discussions going on before the bandages came off, because does he ask where he is? Wonder who the heck it was that saved his life and fixed his face? No, he does not.
In the process of this scene, we learn that Wilton Knight is dying from a mysterious TV disease. His only apparent symptoms are that everybody else keep telling him that he doesn’t have long to live. This serves to add some pathos to the proceedings, and put some time pressure on the preparation of the yet-to-be-unveiled supercar, and allow the producers to avoid having to pay Richard Basehart for appearing in any more episodes. He did narrate the opening credits in 83 of the 84 episodes, though.