When Peter Engel was adrift in a midlife crisis marked by drug abuse and floundering career prospects, he’d never have predicted that, decades later, his name would be synonymous with the most popular live-action Saturday morning show for teens in TV history. Fortunately, the longtime Saved by the Bell executive producer’s new memoir, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love and Dreams That Do Come True, ably connect the dots from Engel’s post-Great Depression New York childhood to wide-ranging Hollywood detours and, eventually, his breakthrough as the mastermind behind the fictional Bayside High.
Engel, now 80 and retired from television (his post-Bell productions ranged from California Dreams to Last Comic Standing), spoke to Paste from his home in California about the enduring affinity for Zack Morris and co., compartmentalizing born-again faith and professional purpose and whether he got his due when Jimmy Fallon recently reunited the original Bell cast.
Paste: Now that Saved by the Bell has been thoroughly revisited via cast reunions, a Lifetime biopic, etc., was this the perfect moment for your memoir?
Peter Engel: Not really. It took me five years to write the book. It could have been ready four or three years ago, but I went through so many different drafts. I finally came upon the idea of just doing stories. It is a linear look at my life and the journey, but it was a decision to do stories rather than a narrative. Once they came up with that, it took two years to do it like that. And I wasn’t offended, quite honestly, by the Lifetime thing. I thought it was a sweet valentine with not much substance. There wasn’t that much drama in it, really.
Paste: People are always looking for dirt, and some people from the show certainly generated some controversy after the fact.
Engel: Well, that was that one person. [Laughs] And he paid for it, I think.
Paste: Is nurturing these kids but having no control over what they ultimately do with fame a double-edged sword?
Engel: Right. And for the most part, they did pretty well, the Bell kids, especially. But it’s like letting your children leave to go off to college or a new city or their own apartment—you do the best you can, and then they leave the nest.
Paste: Did you need cast members’ permission to recount behind-the-scenes experiences?
Engel: There was really nothing there that wasn’t public, that was salacious. These stories were common knowledge among the community. There’s nothing in it someone would feel upset about. I made sure of that.
Paste: How were you able to recollect so much detail from decades-old interactions?
Engel: It was so vivid. I told these stories to my kids, and friends, so many times that when it came down to putting it together, it wasn’t a question of remembering. We didn’t have room for every story. And my kids all worked on the show during the summer time, so they remembered and I remembered. We took out a bunch of stories that I didn’t think were relevant.
Paste: What’s the best story that didn’t make the cut?
Engel: Elizabeth Berkley wasn’t in the Zack Attack episode, because during rehearsal, she and Mario [Lopez] were goofing around, and she fell and cut her knee very, very badly. So she was in a wheelchair all during the week of rehearsal. It was just getting intolerable, because I had a PA wheeling her around from scene to scene, and then the Tiffi [Thiessen] and Mark-Paul [Gosselaar] said, “We can’t make this show work because we can’t get rehearsed.” And then we decided to just write her out and give Tiffani her singing part. It was a good story, but it wasn’t great. But there was a reason. People always wonder why she wasn’t in that episode.
Paste: The book doesn’t even get to Bell in-depth until halfway through. Were you nervous about the average reader sticking it out?
Engel: It’s a very good question. I didn’t want to do a pure Bell book. I wanted to do a book about the journey, how many times my heart was broken, how many times I was knocked down. I wanted to show that life doesn’t just go “bang, bang, bang.” I realized I had a story with John Kennedy, with John Lennon, and I felt that would keep the reader’s interest. And Bell’s about a third of the book.
Paste: You’re unabashed about having found Jesus in your 40s, and the gossip has always been that you demanded modest behavior on the Bell set. Any truth to that?
Engel: That’s true, but it wasn’t because of my religious beliefs. One night, one of the stage managers screamed at the kids, and I said, “That’s unacceptable. They’re kids. And kids do things that kids do.” They were so good professionally that some of the people forgot they were 14. It wasn’t a religious bent. It was more of a parenting bent—good values. We told morality tales. At the end of the day, they did the right thing, not because some parent came in and told them to do the right thing. My faith is my faith, and my job is my job. The fact that Bell told morality stories, that’s what the show was about.
Paste: But given your faith, what was it like to watch Elizabeth Berkley go on to Showgirls or Dustin Diamond to wind up in jail?
Engel: Young people are young people, and I wasn’t about to judge [Elizabeth’s] decision. Remember, they were 14 when they came to me and 19, 20 when they left, and I’m sure they were trying to get out of the mold. Mr. Belding still hasn’t gotten out of the mold. [Laughs] I think Mark-Paul didn’t want to be stereotyped as Zack for the rest of his life, and as far as Dustin, that was unfortunate, because he could have had a good stand-up career.
Paste: Did you stay in touch with them as a mentor after the show?
Engel: Mario and I stayed quite close. I used to go to Laker games with Mario and Mark-Paul. First couple of years, there was still a mentorship, and then everyone went off on their own. It’s always sweet and great when we do bump into each other. I was at Mario’s party a couple of years ago [as] the surprise guest, and Elizabeth was there, and I was having a martini and she said, “Why couldn’t you have been like this when we did the show?” I said, “Because I wasn’t supposed to be.” And she says, “I love you!”
Paste: Lastly, did it warm your hear to see the main cast embrace their Bell legacy on The Tonight Show last year?
Engel: How about my freeze-frame at the end that they used? People said to me, “Why weren’t you there?” But they froze, at the end of it, “Executive Producer Peter Engel”. I didn’t know about it till they were doing it, and I was absolutely blown away. And my son works for YouTube. I said, “How many views do you think we’re gonna get?” He said, “I think you’ll get one and a half to two million.” I said, “No way.” We got almost 35 million. And I loved that. We couldn’t have done it better. I never paid attention to the numbers on the lockers. I thought it was wonderful. I couldn’t believe how much Mark-Paul looked like Zack. The makeup and hair and costumes were unbelievable.
Paste: It’s testament to a whole generation that can’t let go of Saved by the Bell.
Engel: We called it the Bell generation. They’re very protective of it. I always say this: As Baby said to Johnny in Dirty Dancing, I had the time of my life.