Iconic ‘90s teen sitcom producer Peter Engel has released his memoir, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Come True, where he opens up about professional and personal highlights — chronicling the challenges in the television industry which helped shape him. The memoir takes its reader on an intimate journey which covers his work for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, almost producing a show starring John Lennon and of course, the rise of Saved by the Bell and the slew of teen sitcoms which followed it including California Dreams and Hang Time.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Engel over the phone to discuss highlights from the book, including which drug Jessie was supposed to be using in “Jessie’s Song,” what he thought about the cast reuniting on The Tonight Show and what the characters would be up to today.
You almost produced a show starring John Lennon but he wanted Yoko Ono on it. ABC didn’t. Did you ever say, “You know what, let’s give Yoko a shot?”
I tried to make it work! John said “No Yoko. No show.” The network said “Yoko. No show.” I kept trying to make it work but I couldn’t convince ABC to go with her. There were big anti-Yoko feelings at that time . But, that would have been one heck of a show!
You reveal that the caffeine pills in “Jessie’s Song” was originally supposed to be speed.
I didn’t even know what caffeine pills were at the time! I agreed to it because I just wanted to get out of that meeting. [Laughs] It was Tom Tenowhich who suggested that we use caffeine pills. Now, this was the same guy who said to name the show “Saved by the Bell,” and [at the time]I thought it was the stupidest title I had ever heard off! We never changed any of the words in the script and it didn’t make a difference. The studio audience was crying and it resonated so much because no matter what she was taking, it was the fear and frightening aspects of what she was going through.”
Both Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) and Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) were so emotionally invested in that scene.
They were crying during the scene and I kept saying, “I want another take!” I didn’t even write that Zack would say Jessie’s name 17 times! “Jessie… Jessie.. Jessie…” But they were so in the moment with that last take that I went with it!
There’s a great piece on the “sibling rivalry” that you had created between the Saved by the Bell and California Dreams casts.
That was because of some idiot who decided that we should all play softball.. One cast against the other. And that idiot was me! [Laughs]
They were all your kids…
They had to be. The Bell cast was young. The Dreams cast was older because they had to know how to sing. Actually, maybe they were too old? They did feel like the stepchildren. Dreams never got the props it deserved. It was one hell of a show. We did 58 original songs with some great songwriters.
I thought Sly (played by Michael Cade) was such a hilarious character.
“Ba-boom!” He was!
Where there any storylines that the brass at NBC said you couldn’t do?
No, there was never a storyline that we could never do. They were very supportive of what we were doing. It was a great relationship. They trusted us until the “dwarf tossing” incident on City Guys! [You’ll have to read it in the book!]
The network was never really intrusive until we did Last Comic Standing. It was like a civil war. We were on… we are off. I think the problem as that they had never done a comedic reality show. They were used to The Apprentice. We got into huge battles over the comedy. I wanted to bring the finalists to the Pasadena Civic Center on a helicopter which would have been piloted by Josh Blue [who ended up winning]… But he had cerebral palsy! We’d have the voiceover go, “Last Comic Standing, you are clear for take off,” and all of a sudden something bad happens. The finalists are screaming and closing their eyes… They turn around and they see Josh driving. All of a sudden they are about to crash and that’s when we’d pull wide and they’re all on the ground and the director goes “Cut!” The network hated that. I had to fight them tooth and nail. I thought it was the funniest thing.
One of your earlier shows, Sirota’s Court, about a night court judge, was very groundbreaking at the time. Could a show like that work now?
Yeah, but everyone is so sensitive now. But we did do a gay wedding on that show in 1977… I must have been nuts. We really pushed the envelope.
Could Saved by the Bell work now?
I don’t think it could work as a comedy. Bell would have to be a drama today.
How did you feel about The Tonight Show reunion with the cast?
I thought it was the greatest thing ever! I didn’t know they were doing it until 5 o’clock on the day it was going to air. People ask me why I wasn’t there, but I tell them that they used my credits… Which was way more iconic! I called my son Joshua [who worked for YouTube]and asked him how many hits he thought the clip would get. He said, a million or a million and a half. It ended up getting 35 million hits!
I couldn’t have done that tribute any better. They had everything down. Even the numbers on those lockers! At the time, we never paid attention to the numbers. We just knew that “This was Zack’s,” or “This was Kelly’s…” I thought it was great.
I realized then that I had this book finished. It took me five years to work on.
Do you think that there will be a time where Dustin Diamond (Screech) can reconcile with the rest of the cast?
I don’t know. He apologized two years ago. I don’t know why he’s apologizing again. He apologized on Oprah then he apologized to Mario [Lopez; Slater] on Extra. They wouldn’t do the anniversary cover of People magazine with him. It’s unfortunate. Do I know if that’ll ever change? I don’t know.
Where would these iconic characters be today?
Zack would probably be the host of The Price Is Right or a hedge fund manager. Slater would probably be a coach at a high school. Screech would be a Bill Gates type. Jessie would have probably just lost to Donald Trump. Or won! Or she could be working for the Supreme Court. Kelly (who was played by Tiffany Thiessen) would be hosting a show on a cooking network. Lisa (played by Lark Voorhies) would obviously be the head buyer at Neiman Marcus or be a designer like Vera Wang.
What about Mr. Belding (who was played by Dennis Haskins)? Would he still be a principal?
Belding would still be Mr. Belding! [Laughs]
I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Come True is a great gift for TV fans this holiday season and is available on Amazon and Chapters/Indigo. It has a great message about following your dreams.