Knight Driver

 Brixton Karnes is at the wheel of TV's Team Knight Rider

by Marc Shapiro
Starlog, November 1997
1st Photo: Jim Cornfield, all others Greg Degler
All photos Copyright 1997 Universal Television Enterprises


Brixton Karnes is a no B.S. kind of guy, which is why there is no B.S. in his description of the TV series that will, hopefully, catapult him from obscurity to stardom, Team Knight Rider.

"Hey, it's not Shakespeare!" Karnes roars, laughing easily as he describes the show. "NYPD Blue is safe at this point. You will groan and roll your eyes but, while you're rolling your eyes, you're going to be watching the show and liking it."

Karnes is talking about Team Knight Rider on a rare day off. The fantasy adventure series is churning out action at the breakneck pace of an episode every five days. In late summer, 11 episodes are already done. So the actor admits that "it's all a blur at this point. It has action, lots of action," he chuckles. "There's just enough dialogue to advance the story to the next explosion."

Team Knight Rider focuses on a group of elite, specially trained undercover operatives who are called upon to solve problems that conventional law enforcement and government agencies can't. The five-person team is aided in their "A-Team meets Knight Rider" business, as Karnes describes it, by five specially designed talking cars that reflect the personality and demeanor of their drivers. The premise doesn't sound too deep or complicated and, according to Karnes, it isn't.

"We're the good guys and they're the bad guys," laughs the actor in explaining the complexity of the storylines. "And one way or another, we're pretty much saving the world every week."

Character-Driven

This kind of action has its ensemble group of divergent characters and, in the case of Team Knight Rider, just as divergent a group of four-wheel drives. Karnes portrays Kyle Stewart, the former CIA operative who leads Team Knight Rider from behind the wheel of a know-it-all sport utility vehicle called Dante. Christine (Riven: MYST II) Steel plays Jenny Andrews, a former Marine and martial arts expert whose cautious and driven life is countered by Domino, a red Mustang who's always tempting her to take risks. Duane (Universal Soldier) Davis is the former cop and boxer Duke DePalma who rides into action in the all-terrain vehicle called Beast. Kathy (Little Girl Lost) Trageser plays the mysterious con woman Erica West who wages a constant battle of wills with a hybrid, goody-two-shoes motorcycle called Kat. Nick (The Lazarus Man) Wechsler is the group's slacker techno-wizard Trek, who devises elaborate schemes with his computer-driven high-pursuit vehicle Plato.

The show, which is shot in a whirlwind of simultaneous first- and second-unit action all over Los Angeles, is produced by Gil Wadsworth and Scott McAboy and executive producers Rick Copp and David A. Goodman, the team behind the 1996 TV movie, The Adventures of Captain Zoom.

Team Knight Rider is another attempt, like the unsold TV movie pilot Knight Rider 2000 before it, to update the successful early '80s Knight Rider, which starred Baywatch's David Hasselhoff (STARLOG #78). But Karnes doesn't really know about any basic differences between that hit show and his current one. "I'm one of those freaks of nature who never saw the original show," he offers. "I know that's a freaky thing to say. I knew it starred Hasselhoff and that he had a talking car named KITT, but when it comes to that original show, I didn't have a clue."

Consequently, the actor had no preconceptions when he went in to audtion for Team Knight Rider. "I went in and read some scenes. They liked what I was doing so they brought me back." Karnes offers that researching Team Knight Rider is pretty much limited to what's in the script. "You really can't research a show like this one. My character's backstory is that he's a former member of the CIA and leader of the team. They've given me a little bit more meat on the backstory by giving me a father who was also in the CIA and was a turncoat, so Kyle feels a great responsibility for making up for what his father did. That's it in a nutshell. I actually studied the CIA when I was in college, so tat helped. I'm an athletic guy and I've always kept in shape and that really comes in handy on something like this. Knowing how to drive probably helped too."

Stunts and car acrobatics are obviously the big draw on Team Knight Rider, but Karnes maintains that the actors are not being overshadowed by the autos. "There's a good balance between the action and characterization. We all have our histories and hang-ups. We've all got personalities that play into the stories. My character wants to do right and correct all the wrongs in the world. I'm the guy with all the angst."With two female members of Team Knight Rider, the inevitable question is: Will romance ignite amid the screeching tires and smoky explosions? "There's a definite chemistry between Jenny and Kyle," Karnes relates. "They both know there's a job to do but, at times, they both notice eachother in a non-professional way. Right now, nothing has been established on the show in terms of that or any other relationship."

Never having seen the original fantasy adventure, Karnes has had to rely on second-hand impressions when comparing Kyle Stewart to Knight Rider's Michael Knight. "I have the impression that Michael Knight was much more easygoing than Kyle Stewart. They're both serious about their missions, but I think Michael Knight would be more likely to be the life of the party." Again admitting that "it's all at this point," the actor offers a few examples of the storylines. "In the pilot, we're faced with saving the world from a nuclear disaster. There's a story about a guy with a non-gasoline driven car who's trying to destroy the world's auto supply. We have an episode where we save some villagers from being wiped out. But it's pretty much the same every week. When I get home from work every day, my girl friend asks me how it went and I'll tell her, 'the usual thing. I just saved the world again.'"

Karnes gets help saving the world from a battalion of stunt people. "I'm not the one crashing through brick walls. When a car goes flying through the air, it's not me. The extent of my stunt driving is hitting a mark, stopping the car and getting out."

But he's quick to point out that Team Knight Rider is not totally stuntman-driven. "We're all doing some stunts. I've been jumping on and off cars and I recently did a stunt where I jumped from a ramp to a car and then to another car. We have a lot of fights and we're always running around. We had an episode where I'm hanging from a helicopter and another where I jumped off a roof. We're not doing everything, but we're doing quite a bit.

"We have a great stunt team, but it's pretty flexible when it comes to us doing our own stunts. There have been times when I've had to talk to myself into doing certain stunts because I wanted to do them so badly. And there have been other times where I just looked at what the script was saying and I told the stunt people 'You can do it.'"

Team Knight Rider's primary SF element concerns the relationships between the humans and their cars. "It's not like Hal from 2001" Karnes explains. "The relationship between the cars and their drivers is more akin to teammates conversing on how to solve a problem. What's interesting- and oftn funny- is that each of the cars seems to know just what to say to get their driver's goat. In a sense, they are the polar opposites of their human drivers so it often gets humorous. But hey! We talk to cars for a living. It doesn't get more humorous than that. I mean, there's nothing really heavy going on here. The cars keep us in line and we keep them in line. It's a lot more than, 'There go the bad guys. Go chase them.'"

Career-Driven

Karnes, born and raised in Syosset, New York, was a three-sport guy in high school who seemed headed for a pro-baseball career when he developed some physical problems in college. "I had a rotator cuff injury which put an end to my baseball career. At that point, I sat down and decided what I did and did not want to do with my life.'"

He briefly considered journalism, but his adventurous nature led him to acting. "I knew acting was going to be difficult. But I also knew acting was an occupation where the challenge would never end. I liked the ide of not knowing where I was going to be."

Karnes moved to New York City where he paid the bills by doing commercials (he was the guy jumping off the waterfall in the Mountain Dew commercial) and did some theater "for very little money." But, by 1987, "acting opportunities had pretty much dried up in New York. So," he says, "I jumped on my motorcycle and came out to LA."

Karnes arrived cold. No agent. No contacts. But he persisted and, after a year-and-a-half of knocking on doors, landed an agent and began making the rounds. His television credits include a recurring role on The Client, guest shots on The Father Dowling Mysteries, Murder, She Wrote, Silk Stockings and Sisters and semi-regular roles on the daytime soaps Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless.

His lone film credit, he laughs, was Tank Girl. "I ended up as a dead body in the sand. I shot for three weeks and had dialogue and a real part and you would have seen all that if the movie had been made as scripted. But what the script was and what actually hit the screen were two different things."

The actor, perhaps thinking he has found too much in his new job to laugh about, does insist that the process of making Team Knight Rider is serious acting business. "We're a talented ensemble group of actors. And we're committed to making the audience believe this is serious business and for that to work, we really have to buy into it. We're not looking outside what's going on, winking at the camera and saying , 'Isn't this stupid?' We're playing this deadly serious. If there's going to be any laughing done, it's going to be the audience laughing.

"We're not playing this as a farce, but there is some comedy," he continues. "We recently did a scene where I'm trying to take out a car being driven by a mad scientist. He's swerving, trying to knock me off. I finally open his gas tank, pull out an AlkaSeltzer and drop it in the tank, stalling out the car and saving the world. There's a lot of that kind of thing going on."

Karnes laughs a great deal at the notion that Team Knight Rider is, in terms of tone, the equivalent of Baywatch. "Not hardly! It's definitely not that. You won't see me running slow motion with a musical montage playing behind me." But Brixton Karnes, ever the realist, does predict that Team Knight Rider will ultimately be a people's favorite rather than a critical one. "The initial reaction from critics is going to be to roll their eyes and laugh. I realize this show is going to be an uphill battle. I can just imagine what the critics are going to say. But they're critics. That's what they do."


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