Action has stopped on the set of NBC's Knight Rider while Patricia McPherson as Dr Bonnie Barstow who creates wildly sexy cars, and David Hasselhoff, as Michael Knight.who gets to drive them, indulge in a favorite actors' sport: rewriting the script. Edward Mulhare, the urbane Devon Miles, looks on urbanely. Crew members sip coffee and talk about the new California lottery. Only Kitt, the dream car of every boy of every age, seems at all impatient.
Kitt's motor growls and its galaxy of red cockpit lights flashes impatiently. An attendant keeps buffing Kitt's long, sleek nose. but one still has the impression that the car soon may dash out the door on its own in search of evildoers.
The problem, McPherson had explained earlier, is "the human side. It's missing. The script is just bare bones. We need to add a family feeling. She and Hasselhoff try new lines and bits of business in search of family feeling.
Supervising producer Burton Armus, who had been called to the set earlier, listens calmly to his stars, then retires to the sidelines. "I'm not picky about lines," he explains. "l'm from New York. I speak New York. Patti doesn't. Let her change the words to fit her mouth."
But McPherson insists it's more than a matter of accents, that the scripts tend to be pedestrian. "Every day I've been here it's always, OK, this is what's written, can we do anytfiing with it? Can we make it funny? Can we make it like we like each other?"
All of which executive producer Robert Foster has heard before. "Actors always feel like that. All scripts go through the gauntlet stage, no matter what the show." After a few more reflections on actors and scripts, he announces, "Someday I'm going to send 60 blank pages to the stage." A moment later, "Hey, put down that he laughed when he said that."
In many ways, McPherson's struggles to express herself on Knight Rider go far beyond finding the right words. As Hasselhoff explains. "This is a show about heroes. Michael is like the Lone Ranger, Kitt is Silver and Daniels is Tonto." But the Ranger's entourage didn't include any women, and McPherson believes that needs correcting.
In most previous Rider adventures, Michael has jumped into Kitt and, with William Daniels as Kitt's voice providing the equivalent of They Went Thataway, zipped off at an incredible speed after bad guys on roads remarkably free of traffic cops. The faithful Kitt (actually there are about a dozen Kitts) can do practically anything Silver did, including jump and whinny, and is at least as fastidiously groomed. All of which hasn't left much for Dr. Bonnie to do except wait for the warriors to return, whereupon it's usually her job to scold Michael end minister to Kitt.
Kitt is admittedly a prime attraction. "He has an energy of his own; he's a star," according to Armus. So how does a mere human actor compete with such glitter? "It's something I work on," McPherson admits. Mulhare doesn't care for the question. "I do not compete with machinery; I do not compete with actors." he announces.
"Patti's is not necessarily an exciting part," Armus concedes. "Her dialogue is mostly expository." It's understandable that a young actress as fetching as McPherson would want lines now and then about something besides drag coefficient or sensor malfunction. Something like romance. Romance between her and the modernday Lone Ranger himself.
"No way." Armus responds. "lt's been talked about but it wouldn't work. It's an 8 o'clock show, an action-adventure format. If we were on at 9 or 10 the audience could probably understand."
"That's silly," McPherson .counters. "David is in a romance on every single show. The best stories are those in which our emotions show. My fan mail says,'As angry as you get, we know you love Michael'." Michael's romantic encounters this season include an episode in which he marries a character played by Catherine Hickland, who happens to be Hasselhoff's real-life wife. But Hickland, who also has a busy career, is only scheduled for the one episode.
Those involved with Knight Rider tend to use such words as "great believabity," "likable" and "a real pro" to describe McPherson, which is fine, but sometimes an actress may also wish to hear "glamorous" or "dazzling," which she didn't, at least for a long time. In fact, it was her supposed lack of sizzle that got her fired at the end of the first season. "We wanted to try something different, something glitzy," according to Foster, "and they hired a shapely redhead, Rebecca Holden.
Hasselhofff is still angry about McPherson's firing and upset with his own reaction to it. "They let Patti go and I didn't have enough guts to fight for her because I was still fighting for myself. In the second year I realy wanted her back. Both of us had survived against Dallas. I said,'Why are you breaking up this team?'"
The producers decided they really didn't have a good answer and McPherson returned in triumph with an episode written to celebrate the reunion. "It was a real emotional scene when she came back," Hasselhoff recalls. "What you saw on the screen was happening on stage."
McPherson talks dutifully about the show but becomes truly animated on another subject. "Did I tell you about the wolf I'm supporting?" In most cases this wauld be the prelude to a familiar, if interesting, Hollywood tale, but in her case the wolf lives in Montana where it chases rabbits and ducks hunters. She supports the work of a foundation near Bozeman, where endangered wolves are given a chance to live and do some controlled roaming. There are stunning photos of the wolves in the living room of the little house she shares with writer James Garrett.
McPherson not only contributes her time and money to wildlife causes, but also her lungs. "I was jogging on a back road near my folks' home in Oceanside [California]. There's a little lake where geese land and this morning some yo-yo was out there shooting them. Well, I must have ranted and raved for half an hour at this guy and I finally realized I'm not getting through. So I started jogging again and he caught up with me and said,'I think I you're right.' I thought, wow, sometimes you can help."
McPherson, 31, the only daughter of a retired Navy commander, took a degree in graphic communication at San Diego State and got a job as a magazine artist. She was probably lost to the printed page when, in jeans and flannel shirt, she posed for what became a famous cigarette billboard. TV commercials followed and then came Knight Rider, her first important role.
The house she and Garrett occupy is in West Los Angeles, a decidedly plain neighborhood where celebrities are rare and the limousines that occasionally fetch her are an imposing contrast to the prevailing pickups. "I bought the house when I wasn't working," she explains. They have almost completely redone it until it is now the grandest tiny house on a tiny lot in its area. "Every brick and tile has its own scream," Garrett says. "When we work we scream at each other." At one point in their remodeling, the bath and shower were out of action. "so we took showers in the back yard with the garden hose."
Replying to a question about children, she hesitates. "Eventually, I suppose. I don't particularly care for babies, but I love families." She hopes Rider will have a long life but dreams of a career in feature films. " Maybe to live in Ireland and just do a feature now and then. It wouldn't have to be a big role." As for TV, "Women still don't get to do much. It comes down to being a doctor or a cop. Neither is my favorite thing to be. I've always loved Westerns and if they come back, I'm ready. Maureen O'Hara roles, gutsying it out...."
She knows certain problems never seem to change. O'Hara made films in a make-believe world dominated by men and horses. McPherson works in a make-believe world dominated by men and cars. "And the cars keep getting smarter."