THE BACK PAGES

Knight Rider’s talking car says it all

The voice identified with a show is getting as much attention as the actors we actually see

JAIME J. WEINMAN February 25 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Knight Rider’s talking car says it all

The voice identified with a show is getting as much attention as the actors we actually see

JAIME J. WEINMAN February 25 2008

Knight Rider’s talking car says it all

tv

The voice identified with a show is getting as much attention as the actors we actually see

JAIME J. WEINMAN

There’s an updated version of the ’80s show Knight Rider premiering on Sunday, Feb. 17 But does anyone care who’s been cast in the lead? All the publicity is going to the actor who won’t even appear on the show: the voice of K.I.T.T., the talking car. Initially, the voice was provided by Canadian actor Will Arnett, whom producer David Bartis described as having “the cachet to bring a new audience” to the show. But Arnett has been forced off Knight Rider by inter-corporate struggles: he does commercials for General Motors, which refused to allow him to associate with the Ford-manufactured K.I.T.T. At the last minute, the producers brought in a former Batman, Val Kilmer, to re-record all the dialogue for what has become the most essential part of Knight Rider. In today’s TV, a voice can be as important as the people we actually see.

There have been other live-action TV shows that have used voice-only parts; there were even other talking cars before K.I.T.T., like Ann Sothern in My Mother the Car. But now, voice-overs are more important than ever, because rapidly shrinking running times mean that the narrator or voice-over character has to do the work of filling in any plot holes. That makes the choice of voice-over actors as contentious as any other kind of casting. Desperate Housewives depends so heavily on its mostly unseen narrator that it replaced the original voice, Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks), after the pilot, bringing in Brenda Strong to narrate instead. Strong told London’s Sunday Mirror that her character is so important to the show the onscreen actors treat her as an equal: “The other girls see me as an integral part,” she said, “so I don’t feel isolated.”

You wouldn’t have found a voice-over getting that much attention a few years back, when voices were rarely used as selling points for a show. William Daniels (St. Elsewhere) agreed to voice the original K.I.T.T. only “with the stipulation that I would not get billing as the car.” Today, celebrity voices are used to generate publicity. How I Met Your Mother uses Bob Saget to narrate as the older version of the lead character, Ted, whose younger incarnation is played onscreen by Josh Radnor. (Radnor told Bullz-eye.com that the producers “said I sounded too young” to be the voice of his character’s older self.) Though not a big star, Saget is a known quantity in sitcoms—he starred for eight seasons in Full House—and his presence provides some extra name value. Though he’s not physically on the show, Saget has done promotional appearances and DVD commentaries for it, selling it to older viewers who might not otherwise tune in.

That’s part of the point of celebrity voice casting: to allow networks to sign up good or famous actors who don’t actually have the time to appear on the show in person. Sometimes the celebrity is a producer of the series: Chris Rock lends his voice to Everybody Hates Chris and Ron Howard was the narrator of the now-cancelled but highly influential Arrested Development. Other times the selec-

tion of a voice is a way of keeping a promising actor employed by the network until an onscreen project opens up. Kristen Bell’s show Veronica Mars was cancelled by the CW network, but the network had another job lined up for her: providing the voice-over narration for the new show, Gossip Girl.

Even if an actor isn’t that famous, the sound of the voice may be a selling point. The British actor Jim Dale was once the star of the Broadway hit Barnum; now he’s narrating Pushing Daisies, and the show has so much voice-over narration that Dale gets to talk more than some of the onscreen leads. While creator Bryan Fuller’s script suggested Star Trek's Patrick Stewart as a narrator, Dale was chosen for his connection to a franchise even bigger than Star Trek: he reads the Harry Potter books on their official audio recordings. His voice, with its whimsical but slightly tongue-incheek tone, helps attract Harry Potter fans to this other fantasy franchise.

The downside is that professional voice actors, who used to do most of the TV voicing, may be being pushed aside. It was once enough to have a show narrated by obscure actors, or to have K.I.T.T. voiced by a guy who didn’t want to admit he was doing the job. Today, the search for a voice is the biggest casting decision of all. Or as Bartis said when asked how he chose a Knight Rider voice: “It had to be believable coming out of a computer that was wrapped inside a car.” M