The Man Behind KITT And The Batmobile

Long before MTV's Pimp My Ride, George Barris was souping up and designing vehicles for TV and the big screen. The "King of Kustomizers" was the mastermind behind the Batmobile and David Hasselhoff's snarky car, KITT, in the TV show Knight Rider.

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(Soundbite of music)

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We credited guest George Barris with creating the DeLorean from "Back to the Future," but Barris did not create that vehicle.]

NEAL CONAN, host:

Long before the days of MTV's "Pimp My Ride," George Barris souped up, designed and customized vehicles for TV and the movies. Essentially, he turned cars into characters. Barris created "Back to the Future's" time-traveling DeLorean and Jed Clampett's jalopy. And maybe his best known set of wheels:

Mr. ADAM WEST (Actor): (as Batman) To the Batmobile. Let's go.

Mr. BURT WARD (Actor): (as Robin) Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) Roger. Ready to move out.

(Soundbite of "Batman" Theme Song)

CONAN: George Barris, the King of the Kustomizers, joins us to talk about a career that spanned more than 50 years. What car do you remember that stole the show in a movie or on TV; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

George Barris is with us at a studio in Hollywood. Lovely to have you on the show today.

Mr. GEORGE BARRIS (King of the Kustomizers): Well, its sure great to be here. And its an enjoyable, enjoyable day here in Hollywood. Very much so.

CONAN: Well, I hope the heat has gone down a little bit. It's been terrible there earlier in the week. Nevertheless, I wanted to ask you -the Batmobile, I think the first question that a lot of people had: Did you make this from the ground up, or did you adapt something?

Mr. BARRIS: Well, actually, I started out with a Futura, which was a concept Lincoln that I acquired from Ford Motor Company. But I really think that the concept - come from Doescher, when Doescher called me to come over there to make a crime fighter in 1966, a 20th century crime fighter.

I said, well, let me see your script. Let me see your dialogue. Let me get an idea what your show is - which is kind of different because the Batman that Bob Kane figured out for DC Comics was a comic book. But with Doescher, this is real. So when I went and looked at everything -if youll remember that pow, bang, wow is going out - throughout his whole script. That gives you an idea of what I had to contend with. I said, well, if you're going to make these exciting sounds and all this thing that comes up, I'm going to do the same thing to the car.

So when it goes, pow, I went to send rocket to bang, we had a chain slicer go out. (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: And I think we can tell how proud you are of that car because I think that was your ringtone that we were hearing there.

Mr. BARRIS: That was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRIS: I forgot to turn off my cell phone. You picked that up. I can turn that one off.

CONAN: So we're talking with George Barris, who took Bob Kane's character of "The Batman." And this was the 1966 show that was all pop art and bang and pow and biff.

Mr. BARRIS: Yeah, well, that was what I mainly decided because then I finally made a car, a hunk of steel, become an actor. He became a star. And that's why the car became so popular - because everybody would wait to see what's going to happen next to the car, whenever Doescher would make some kind of a funny sound. And of course, Adam West and Burt Ward -they all joined in to the group, made it even more - funnier, and made it become more of a comedy and more enjoyable than it is to be a serious type of crime fighter.

CONAN: And from that - well, you were involved in Hollywood for a very long time. We have a clip here from a 1958 movie called "High School Confidential." We'll listen to this for just a second.

Mr. RUSS TAMBLYN (Actor): (as Tony Baker) Okay, doll, out.

Ms. JAN STERLING (Actor): (as Arlene Williams) Do you think I'm chicken like the others? Let's roll.

Mr. TAMBLYN: (as Toney Baker) Anything you say.

CONAN: And of course, the hot rods - goes flying off into the night. That was your first Hollywood gig?

Mr. BARRIS: That was correct. Over there with MGM, we were called in to do a typical street-drag-racing type of show. And I used a '48 Chevrolet that we had to turn over. But it wouldn't turn over because when the stunt guy hit the corner, it was so low to the ground that it would -just wouldn't do it. So finally, we had to lift it up with a crane, and drop it down on top of its head and let the wheels spin off, because we had to get the excitement that that car could turn over.

So you see the different antics that we had to do...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARRIS: ...when we hadn't - have cars become stars.

CONAN: Well, you, as I understand it, came out of the hot- rodding scene, the car racing scene. And there, you're supplying just cars that - well, it's verisimilitude. You're trying to document something for a movie that goes on real life. When did the idea of making a car a character come into play?

Mr. BARRIS: A car becomes a what?

CONAN: A character, a...

Mr. BARRIS: Oh, character? Well, actually it started out way back in the '40s and the '50s. We were kids that raced on the streets, and that's what it made it exciting. So when the '50s came in, the big screen came in, they come running over to me and said, we'll let's go ahead and just do some racing down at the beach area. Let's go across Main Street. But every time we did that, we would have cops that stop us, and we'd have to chase - and that's where "High School Confidential" - it was a hot one. But many of the hot rod - hot-rod rock, hot-rod gang, hot-rod this, hot-rod that, became a rolling start at the '50s. And on that big screen, we were able to go ahead and bring out what we did in real life, onto the screen - and made it actually happen.

And of course, the '60s changed - that's when we went into television, and that was - now we were in every household in the world instead of the big screen down at the theater.

CONAN: We're talking with George Barris, the King of the Kustomizers. Both those words spelled with Ks. If you'd like to talk to him about what cars you think have stolen TV shows or movies, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Thomas(ph), and Thomas on the line from Boise.

THOMAS (Caller): Oh, it's me. I'm on the radio.

CONAN: Yes, you are on the radio, Thomas.

THOMAS: Yeah, hi. I'm at the post office. Sorry about that.

CONAN: That's okay.

THOMAS: Yeah. I was voting for "The Munsters" car. I mean, that was a pretty wild ride.

CONAN: Can you describe it?

THOMAS: Pardon me?

CONAN: Can you describe it?

THOMAS: Yeah. It was super long and had a really long wheel base, kind of like "The Beverly Hillbillies" ride. And a chair out back for Grandpa to sit on. And then it had like a - sort of a fringe on top. And it was pretty wild-looking.

Mr. BARRIS: Well, actually, he's pretty well right on it. To make it long, I actually took three Model Ts and made it a six-door thing that had to carry Al Lewis and Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo, and all the gang. And up in the back, we have to put Butch Patrick because he was a boy and poor Pat Priest was a - the nice girl, which they thought was kind of unusual looking, because she didn't look like a monster. And it became a major - in fact, that was the one - first thing we started off. "Beverly Hillbillies" was first, in 1960. And 1964 was "The Munsters," right on to '66, into the Batmobile.

But a carry-on from the Munster Koach was the Dragula. That was Al Lewis' little race car, which was a real casket. But to get a casket in those days was a lot of trouble - because I didn't want to build a casket car by myself; I wanted a real one. So I went to the mortuary and I said, I want to buy that casket. He said, well, where is the deceased? I said, it's not for a dead body; I want to make a car out of it. He said, I'm not going to sell it to you. So I went to the second mortuary. I said the same thing to him. He said, what are you going to do with it? I said, I want to make a car for TV. He says, I hate TV; I won't sell it to you. So I was determined to get a real casket. So I went to the third mortuary, and I just put money in an envelope. My guys picked up the casket, and we literally had to steal the car so I can make a car - the Dragula.

CONAN: Thomas, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

THOMAS: Yeah. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: You also mentioned "The Beverly Hillbillies." That jalopy - all these cars you're talking about, the Batmobile and the jalopy, and "The Munsters" cars - they all had to work.

Mr. BARRIS: Oh, and very much so. They had to work more than I had to work. Once they got on the road and be coming behind that screen, they'd become actors. And they would jump around and swing and make noises. In "Beverly Hillbillies," that was also very interesting. Because when they call me in on that show - here we are in Beverly Hills, and they told me, hey, George, we got to have a jalopy in Beverly Hills. Where are you going to find a jalopy, an Ozark jalopy, in Beverly Hills?

So I go out to 10 Freeway, and I come to Riverside. And I saw an old feed store over to the side of the freeway. So I whipped off, and there was a 1922 Oldsmobile. It was a sedan. He cut the back of it off, and he made a flatbed so he can carry hay. But after a few - period of years, it's finally grow - outgrew its time of working. So I took photographs of it. And I run back to the studio, and I show the producer and director. What do you think of this - bent-up fenders, and a rack in the back? George, that's perfect, he says. But you got one problem. I said, what? He said, you got to put something in the back for the wheel - well, actually it was a, a rocking chair that rocked back and forth.

CONAN: Of course, that Granny...

Mr. BARRIS: So we had to make that happen.

CONAN: That was the - well, let's see if we got another caller on the line. Let's go next to Michael(ph), Michael with us from Clinton in Ohio.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. I would have to say that I have a couple of favorite cars. Of course, they're all from my childhood back in the '60s. The first one comes to mind is the Green Hornet's car. That was a real cool, souped-up sports car; it would probably be considered an exotic today. The other one is KITT from "Knight Rider."

CONAN: Well, of course, KITT from "Knight Rider." Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "Knight Rider")

Mr. DAVID HASSELHOFF (Actor): (as Michael Knight) Back in the saddle. Butch and Sundance. Rock and roll.

Ms. PATRICIA McPHERSON (Actor): (as Bonnie Barstow) Michael, KITT, no.

CONAN: Michael, KITT, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That was a great...

Mr. BARRIS: David Hasselhoff.

CONAN: David Hasselhoff there. And that was a great car. Of course, it had character, partly because it talked.

Mr. BARRIS: And that was the main thing. Of course, the interesting part about that is that the car not only talked, but it also - it performed. We had different electronics that happened. But the I always -everybody always asked me, what's your favorite car? I said, well, you know, I mean, I built so many cars. Every one is a favorite. If you had a family of 10 children, which one would you love? You love them all. Like, I got thousands of children. But the KITT car, I had to make it the first transformer. That means it had to transform from a KITT, driving on the ground, to hit speeds of 150 miles an hour in the air.

Now, yeah, you can go up in front of the blue screen, and they can make all these little - goody things happen. But the director said to me, George, I want it all in one take. I do not want to have to edit with the front end coming out, the rocket tubes coming out, the dia(ph) plates coming da, da, da, da, da. He says, I want it all to happen at one time. So I got my stunt guy in the car with all the electronics, the computers, to make everything stretch up, boom, hit the ground; hit the air, 150 miles an hour, all in one take. Now comes the problem. Now he says, okay, what are we going to do when we land? How are you going to stop that car at 150 miles an hour?

If you remember, if you've ever flown on a jet aircraft, if you look out the window, you see the wings come up for air brakes. Boom. I did the same thing for KITT. Up came the top, out came the hood, out came the fenders to make air brakes. But again, the same problem. The director says, I want it in one take. I don't want to have to make any editing. So I had to have everything happen - come down, land, at speeds of over 150 miles an hour - with air brakes.

Mr. BARRIS: So you can see, KITT also became a star and did a lot of work, too.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking with George Barris, the King of the Kustomizers. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's some email. This is from Geraldine(ph) in Sacramento. Nellybelle from "The Roy Rogers Shows" in the 1950s had more character than any of the other actors.

That was the jeep that Pat used to drive around in. Of course, the other characters rode horses.

This from Joe(ph): One of the earliest and most memorable of the movie custom cars was the 1937 Buick Roadmaster from "Topper," with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. The design literally cribbed from a Cord 810, had an enormous single fin on the back, and a front end that was adapted for the 1939-40 Graham Hollywood and Hupmobile Skylark - a fine example of art imitating life and vice versa. And that car is still around.

And here's Bill(ph) in Jacksonville, who says ask George about the project for Pontiac that was signed on a napkin.

Mr. BARRIS: Well, that was exciting, because that car we had to make for it was a show back in New York. And when they come to me, they all were - we were in - at a meeting and they said, well, we want to have this car done for Pontiac, which was John DeLorean. And that was the way it first - he came to me and he says, you see that car? That's my Trans Am. And actually, it was a Firebird.

He come to me and he says, here. I'm going to send the car out to you. I want to see what you can make. I went ahead and put some (unintelligible) decks in the side, ram-air scoops and everything. He came out to the Bel-Air Hotel two weeks later, and he pulls up. And I -pulls up with the car. He says, that's my Firebird. And that's the way the Firebird was first originated for John DeLorean, from a regular Pontiac.

CONAN: And John DeLorean, of course, went on to form his own car company, and you were involved with adapting the DeLorean for "Back to the Future." But I want to ask you, is this something that continues today? Are you still getting contracts for custom cars in movies and TV shows?

Mr. BARRIS: Well, it's stronger now than it ever has been. The economy has not bothered anybody in the automobile world. I just come back from Detroit, Michigan, and I was a grand marshal of the Woodward Cruise, the most famous cruise in the world, 52 miles long. One million five hundred people read and talk about the Woodward Cruise - and I was a grand marshal, which was exciting because all of these things that were happening.

I mean, thousands of people lined up in the road, and I got on the top of my Monkeemobile and I had a stream of cars, "The Green Hornet," the "Knight Rider," "The Dukes of Hazzard," the General Lee, the - and the Batmobiles. We had the biggest tour of movie and TV cars in the history, that went into the Woodward Cruise. But that's just a part of this world.

It's getting so strong now that - I mean, yes, I was a - what we call a pioneer of the cars of the '50s. That means chopping Mercury tops and sectioning Shoebox Fords and customizing Plymouths. And I enjoyed that very much, to be a pioneer. But we're in the 21st century now, and I'm all excited about the cars that we have today, like the muscle cars.

I just went ahead and customized a Camaro, and it was called the Spirit, which - we made it affordable, not a $200,000 car. I not only made it affordable, but everything that we made for the cars was made in U.S.A. I will not go overseas to have anything made for my custom cars. From there, I made a two-passenger GTO. From there, I made a Magnum into a four-door, vertical doors with a full sunroof.

And now, the biggest, exciting thing is hybrids - yes, cars that are electric-powered. I got a Prius that is so exciting. I got vertical doors. I got special front ends. I got sunroofs. I got 21-inch wheels on it. And I put the colors of driving in green. We've been at SEMA now for two segments, showing what we can do with the cars in the 21st century.

CONAN: George Barris, good luck to you. Thank you very much for your time today.

(Soundbite of theme from "Knight Rider")

CONAN: George Barris is the King of the Kustomizers. He's been designing custom cars for Hollywood since the 1950s. He joined us today from his studio in Hollywood.

Tomorrow, gender politics in the locker room. We'll talk with women sports reporters after a recent controversy. So join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of theme from "Knight Rider")

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Correction Sept. 30, 2010

We credited guest George Barris with creating the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Barris did not create that vehicle.

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