'Billy' Again - Actor Goes from Galactica to Knight Rider

If you grew up watching TV in the 80s (and are a genre fan), you might remember a show featuring a tall, good-looking hero and his sidekick, a souped up, talking Pontiac Firebird, who worked together to right wrongs and fight crime and injustice. The series was called Knight Rider, and this past February, NBC revived the onetime hit series with a two-hour movie. It, too, proved popular with audiences, and has subsequently spawned an updated version of the series with a new heroic lead character, Michael Traceur, and an even cooler four-wheeled wonder, the Knight Industries Three Thousand (or KITT 3000). As in the original show, Michael has the support of a top-notch team, which includes Billy Morgan, who is played by Canadian-born actor Paul Campbell.

“My character has been introduced into the Knight Rider world because the new KITT is equipped with all sorts of high-tech computer systems,” explains Campbell. “They need someone to run the day-to-day systems and operations of all that stuff, which is Billy’s job. He has multiple degrees, including advanced degrees in physics, chemistry and mathematics. He’s the young boy genius and the go-to guy for all the problem-solving matters in those areas. I also think they [the producers and writers] felt that they could use some light-hearted comedy on the show, in addition to what they’d already had in the TV movie. So they hoped I would be able to provide that. Whether or not I have remains to be seen, but I’m certainly giving it my best shot.”

Although the Billy Morgan character does not appear in the 2008 Knight Rider movie, that is where Campbell’s association with the series first began. “I actually read for the role of Michael Traceur in the TV movie,” recalls the actor. “It was one of those auditions that I really dragged my feet on because I knew just from reading the casting breakdown that there was no way I’d get the part. I went in, though, reluctantly, and needless to say it didn’t go well. However, I later got a call to come back in and read for the young boy genius, Billy Morgan. They were looking for someone with comedic timing and I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ I was the first person to go in and read for the part, and they [the producers] phoned a couple of days later and said, ‘We’d like you for the job,’ and that was that.”

Introduced in the Knight Rider season opener, Billy is among the key operatives who work at the Satellite Surveillance Chamber, nicknamed the KITT cave. It is home to the KITT 3000 and part of Knight Research and Development, an offshoot of Knight Industries, the foundation that covertly supports our heroes’ crime-busting ventures. The KITT cave is also where Campbell spent his first day of shooting on Knight Rider.

“I was in awe of the size and scope of that set when I first walked onto it,” he notes. “It’s on a soundstage in the middle of an industrial park in Santa Clarita, California, which is a rather unassuming setting. However, once you walk inside the studio, the KITT cave, specifically, is just monstrous. It takes up the entire floor and has a rotating gimbal in the center. They had to bring excavators in to dig out the pit in order to install the gimbal. I mean, you drive KITT onto this thing and it rolls the vehicle around spherically. You can’t help but be impressed by the time, money and effort that went into building a set as detailed as this one. It’s great to start a new job and immediately feel like you’re in good hands and have the support of whoever is putting the money into it [the show] because that doesn’t always happen.

“We ended up actually lumping together some of the filming for first and second episodes because the KITT cave was the last of the sets to be finished. When we began working in the cave, they’d already shot the bulk of episode one, including all the stunts, and were beginning episode two. So by that time it was a well-oiled machine and several of the cast from the TV movie had done a week’s shooting on episode one and had settled into their groove. So it was nice to jump into something that was already up and running. Even though there are a number of high expectations for this show, you feel like, ‘OK, we’re here. Let’s have fun and do the best we can,’ and those are really the most positive of circumstances to be working in.”

Being a genius, Campbell’s Knight Rider alter ego is rarely at a loss for words. However, that is not always the case when the actor steps in front of the camera. “The most challenging part of playing Billy is often understanding what he’s talking about,” chuckles Campbell. “As I’ve mentioned, he deals with many of the show’s technological aspects, and I’m not a computer guy by any means. However, I end up spouting off this sort of techno-talk, and when I initially read a script I have no idea what I’m even talking about. So I spend a great deal of time asking loads of questions and trying to figure out what all this stuff means. That’s the only way I can memorize my lines and speak them in a convincing manner. After all, if you don’t know what you’re saying, then it might as well be in another language.

“So that’s definitely the most challenging part of my job. The rest of it is just playtime. That’s one of the beautiful things about coming onto a show with a team of people that are willing to let it [the creative process] be collaborative and give the actors their space to do what they want, within reason, of course,” he jokes. “That’s an ideal situation and what we have here on Knight Rider. When you spend 15 hours a day with people, eventually you’re going to get pretty close to them. They say there’s always one rotten apple, but, truthfully, we don’t have one of those. Everyone is really enthusiastic and working their butts off.”

As the relationships among the Knight Rider cast continue to grow and develop, so do those with the show’s characters. “Without giving too much away, we’re currently [late September] on-location at Morongo Casino and Resort, which plays as Las Vegas in an upcoming episode, and this is my character’s first foray into the world of action,” reveals Campbell. “Billy gets out of the KITT cave, and he happens to be on a mission with Mr. Traceur [Justin Bruening], so there’s going to be a lot of neat stuff with those two coming up in this episode.

“I liken the relationship between Michael and Billy to that of [the feature film] Fight Club, a la Ed Norton’s and Brad Pitt’s characters. To me, Michael Traceur is everything that Billy wishes he was. He’s the charming, good-looking action man to my character’s somewhat nebbish, awkward geekiness. They’re really good friends, but polar opposites as well, which results in some amusing interplay between the two.

“The neat thing about being where we’re at now insofar as filming, is that once you get the first couple of episodes done, the writers as well as producers can start to spend more time developing character relationships. I know they’ve put a lot of thought into the relationship between Billy and Zoe Chae [Smith Cho], who is Alex Torres’ [Yancey Arias] assistant. She works next to Billy at the desk and the two of them have a love/hate-type dynamic. He and Zoe like to ‘torment’ one another, and at the same time would do anything for each other. She’s a foil if you will to my character, and it’s fun to play that.”

Prior to booking his Knight Rider gig, Campbell worked on two films, Bag Boy and Play the Game starring veteran actor Andy Griffith. “It’s a light romantic comedy and Andy Griffith steals the show. He’s just phenomenal,” says the actor. Campbell also played Presidential Aide Billy Keikeya in the hugely popular Sci-Fi series Battlestar Galactica. Sadly, his character met a tragic yet heroic death in the season two story "Sacrifice", which for him capped off an unforgettable time on the program.

“My favorite part of being on Galactica was the chance to work with Mary McDonnell [President Laura Roslin], who’s an amazing actress and a great lady,” praises Campbell. “She’s so much fun, but at the same time a true professional, and I couldn’t pay for what I learned from her acting-wise. I didn’t always have tons to do on the program, but I was often in the background just watching. Being able to watch everyone on that show was really fantastic, but Mary, in particular, is truly inspiring, and there ‘s so much she does that never makes it to the screen. Her ability to transform into the Laura Roslin character was astounding. That experience for me can never be replaced.

“I had such a good time on the series, and after two seasons I decided that it was time for me to move on and try something different. It was a gamble, but I think it paid off. I wouldn’t have minded sticking around for another season or two, but at the same time I don’t regret leaving either.”

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