The tale of a crime fighter and his sentient car, Knight Rider was a major network TV hit when it launched in 1982. Starring David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight, the show’s ensemble also included an up-and-coming young actress, for whom the show represented a major career step. Not ten years later, she would have left the industry altogether.
Patricia McPherson got her big break playing Knight Rider’s first mechanic, Bonnie Barstow. Abruptly fired and replaced after season 1, McPherson came back for seasons 3 and 4 when Hasselhoff campaigned for her return. But in 1991, just five years after Knight Rider ended, McPherson decided to quit acting for conservation.
Born in Oak Harbour, Washington, on 27 November 1954, Patricia McPherson had an adventurous childhood. As the daughter of a naval officer, she grew up across ten different states before her family relocated to Paris when she started secondary education.
Initially, McPherson hoped to land a career in print writing or art. She majored in advertising at San Diego State University, and she became a magazine graphic artist before finding her way into modelling. She was scooped up by agencies to promote menthol cigarettes, cereals and sodas, featuring on prominent billboards. This in turn led to McPherson trying her hand at acting.
McPherson had one minor credit to her name (a 1978 short film, Libra) when she landed the role of Bonnie Barstow in the action-adventure TV series Knight Rider. Barstow was the show’s mechanic, responsible for the upkeep of a hi-tech supercar: the Knight Industries Two Thousand – better known as KITT.
On hitting the airwaves in September 1982, Knight Rider proved an instant hit, and by that December it was the second-highest-rated show in the US behind M*A*S*H*. A lot of the show’s popularity was down to the cool-looking talking car with super-speed and other special features, but the cast and their on-screen chemistry was also important.
McPherson’s Bonnie developed considerable chemistry with David Hasselhoff; she would frequently get frustrated with him over his lack of care for her beloved vehicle, helping build a hint of will-they/won’t-they romantic tension between the two. Some fans were a bit surprised, then, when McPherson did not return for Knight Rider season two, with Bonnie having supposedly left to study computer science at grad school. Former model Rebecca Holden took McPherson’s place, as new technician April Curtis.
Accounts vary on why McPherson was dismissed from the series. She had reportedly pushed for a full-blown romance between her character and Knight, which irked the producers, who also felt she was not ‘glamorous’ enough for a female lead. Things were already somewhat fraught behind the scenes, as original producer R.A. Cinader died of cancer in November 1982, and, as McPherson herself has remarked, “there was quite a bit of disagreement among the new producers, and that’s where this weird decision came from.”
At the time, McPherson admitted to being disappointed – but insisted she was not disheartened. “I didn’t let myself get bitter,” she reflected to the press in 1985. “Sure, it was a smack in the face, but it was just business… I tried not to take it personally.”
However, Knight Rider leading man David Hasselhoff was furious at the change, and later expressed regret that he didn’t use his influence to block 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 really wanted her back.” Hasselhoff would ultimately get her wish, as Rebecca Holden left Knight Rider after one season, and McPherson returned for the remainder of the show’s run.
During her period of unemployment, McPherson threw herself into a home renovation project. She and her then-boyfriend, the environmental journalist James Garrett, moved into a house near Marina del Rey, California and remodelled it. Marina del Rey is home to the Ballona Wetlands, a haven for wildlife and rare plant species. Garrett and McPherson fell in love with the area, and the couple – who wed soon afterwards – began writing articles to educate the public on its environmental significance.
After Knight Rider was cancelled in 1986, McPherson continued to act sporadically. She made guest appearances on various other TV shows, including Starman, MacGyver, Dynasty, Star Trek: The Next Generation Murder, She Wrote, and finally two episodes of Matlock in 1991. Matlock marked the end McPherson’s acting career, aside from a one-off cameo on Warehouse 13 in 2009.
In the late 80s, McPherson immersed herself in environmentalism. She concentrated her efforts on working with local activists to protect the Ballona Wetlands from development threats – a fight that continues to this day. Shunning her old fame, McPherson became a behind-the-scenes researcher, documenting abuses of corporate power and exposing dishonesty around environmental disasters.
McPherson and her new colleagues discovered that developers in the Playa Vista neighbourhood of Los Angeles, just east of the wetlands, were allegedly exposing local residents to dangerous gas leaks.
McPherson would step into the role of President of the Grassroots Coalition, and worked closely with the world-famous environmental group The Sierra Club. Her particular focus became the freshwater aquifers under the precious wetlands of Ballona. According to McPherson, local developers had written off these areas as saltwater only, leading to widescale pollution – but she was determined to prove their freshwater quality and value to the natural environment.
“While I try and stay very polite, I am very blunt about the agencies not having any of this in the DEIR [draft environmental impact report], and I’m very blunt with the water board,” she told an audience in 2018. “We want our water back for Ballona.”
By all accounts, McPherson has no interest in reviving her acting career. Instead, she has embraced an inarguably more worthy cause.