Peter Engel has a lot of stories to tell. The famed Saved by the Bell producer and writer has over 40 years of industry experience under his belt, along with his fair share of heartbreaks and triumphs. In his new memoir, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams The Do Come True, Engel discusses his personal and professional life, how he got his start in television, and his encounters with legendary celebrities along the way.
We chatted with Engel about how he met JFK in New York, how he almost worked with John Lennon, what made Saved by the Bell different, what the show would look like in 2016, and more!
Let’s talk about your book, I Was Saved by the Bell. What prompted you to write it?
I had so many great stories along the way! It took me five years to write it because I went through some different formats. My son, who is getting his Doctorate in Literature said, “Just do (chronological) stories.” I’ve met some of the most interesting people in the world! I mean, I had lunch with Elvis. That isn’t in the book, but there are people I’ve had real stories with, like John F. Kennedy.
I was going to ask you about meeting JFK!
Well, it wasn’t just meeting John F. Kennedy, it was 1960 and I was just out of college, and I had never really been political. I heard his acceptance speech in the Coliseum out here on the radio in my car driving in New York. I said, “I gotta do something!” so I went to the headquarters at the Hotel Roosevelt in Manhattan, expecting that I would be answering phones or licking envelopes. And the (campaign) chairman said, “Well, you’re gonna be in charge of all the colleges and all of the first time voters,” and I was a first time voter. And I said, “I don’t know how to do that!” And he said, “Well, we have no one else. It’s you or nobody.”
And then, of course, I was with Kennedy at his side every time he was in New York. One of my jobs was to get him in and out. The first time I met him, it was early September, he wasn’t that well known, and he was at some kind of fundraiser. It wasn’t a big deal. I was late getting down to the ballroom and I went to the elevator, the doors opened, and this tall man, handsome and tanned, said, “I’m Jack Kennedy, who are you?” and said, “I’m Peter Engel, sir.” And he said, “I’m embarrassed! I’m lost!” So I offered to take him there. So we get up to the elevator and I said, “Senator, in all due respect, where is your campaign staff?” And he looks all around the elevator, he looks up at the ceiling, he looks at me and says, “I guess it’s you!” So I took him to the ballroom!
Could you tell me the story about how you met John Lennon?
I was working at a company called Metro Media and we were doing National Geographic and a bunch of other things, but what we were trying to do, before Saturday Night Live, was a talk show. The President of ABC asked me to come up with something. So first I had a whole thing with Bette Davis, for four weeks, and that was a bust. Bette wouldn’t do it unless I moved back to New York, and I had just moved to California, so she got quite disruptive. And then Orson Welles… he was in town, and somehow a meeting was set up, I had an unbelievable day… I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with him. We talked about the show, and he said he was living outside of the country for years, Spain at that point, and he said everything was great, and I said, “When are we gonna roll?” And then he said, “I have a little problem with the an organization called the Internal Revenue Service.” I said, “What does that mean?” and he said, “I can’t shoot in America!”
So I went back to the President of ABC, Elton Rule, (who) was a Conservative guy from Connecticut. I said, “If you can have anyone in the world, who would you like?” and he said, “John Lennon.” And I said, “John Lennon, from you?” He said that if I got him John Lennon, I would have 26 weeks of episodes, firm. So I called people and contacts, and finally a woman said that she could get me 15 minutes with John Lennon, down in the East Village. (We went) to this grungy place, we met, he said “Sorry, there’s no water.” I said “I can drink water any time.” And he said, “Before you make your pitch, let me tell you what I want. Some guy at ABC picked my name out of a hat and he wants me to do his show. I could do a lot of guests, but I’m not gonna be sitting there with my hands folded sitting at a desk. I’m gonna bring on anarchists, I’m gonna bring on freaks, I’m gonna bring on people who want to start trouble… that’s what I’m gonna do, it’s gonna be trouble.” And I said, “That’s what I want!” So he says to me, “Peter, I’m doing a little thing Friday night, why don’t you bring your girlfriend to it?” The little thing was the One to One concert at Madison Square Garden with Roberta Flack, and Stevie Wonder was the opening act. At the end, Yoko came on and started to talk about the riots in the streets, and it was a speech that Hitler had given. Every time she came on the stage, the audience of twenty thousand chilled. And I looked at (my girlfriend) and said, “Thank God she’s not gonna be on our show.” It was a fabulous evening, we were in the second row.
Every time I was over at ABC, President Elton would say, “Hey, there’s my warrior! There’s my guy! Everything is going great, the lawyers are talking.” So I get a call from one of John’s guys and he says, “John has something he needs to add to the contract.” And I called Elton Rule, and told him I had to see him. So he says, “How’s John?” and I say, “John’s great. John’s on board, it’s great. He has one little, minor addition to the deal.” And I could see him changing his face, and he said “What?” And I said, “There’s this person he really respects, you’ve probably never heard of her. Her name is Yoko… you don’t know her.” And he goes “What does she want?” and I say, “Well, he wants her to be involved in the show…it’s nothing major.” He said, “What?” and I coughed and said “Co-host.” And he said “Get out of my office. She broke up the Beatles, America hates her!” and I said, “But maybe they won’t remember.” He said, “Yoko? No show.” So I went to John’s guy, and he says “No Yoko, no show.”
On the path to television, and I ended up with more than my share of hits, and the first one was Bell, which I didn’t really even want to do. You get your heart broken so many times. Something you think should’ve been a hit, wasn’t, or shows that don’t make it at all.
What were some other challenges that shaped you over the course of your life?
It’s never giving up. I mean, it’s the same thing with our country… we always screw up. I’ve got knocked down so many times, both professionally and in my family life. My daughter’s mother took her away to New York at two-and-a-half years old. Of course, I walked her down the aisle in Miami and we’re all friends, the point I’m making is that I kept getting knocked down, but I kept getting back up. And you can never, ever quit. You will not make it. You have to have a big dream, because big dreams are as hard to accomplish as little ones, so you might as well dream big. Dream big, and never ever, ever let somebody steal your dream. And I think all the heartbreak I had, and not wanting to Bell. I thought, “What do I care? I don’t want to do a kids show!” But my wife at the time said, “What a great idea!” and I said, “No, I told him to get someone else.” And, of course, the kids were magic. I supervised all of the episode. We wrote great scripts, it was great production, but the kids were magic.
Why do you think Saved By The Bell immediately connected with its audience?
Well, remember, I didn’t think anybody would see the show. We were the lead in to the Chipmunks, and our lead out was the Smurfs, so who knew. The reason was because the kids were playing their own age. Whenever you saw kids on television, they were playing sixteen but they were twenty-nine, or they were secondary characters. But this show was all about the kids. Once we found out that we had an underserved audience… nobody served the 12 to 17 audience, and the day that the statistics people at NBC told us that we would bomb, that we would never make it. (…) But, once we found out, we could see when we bussed in teenagers and they were screaming like they were at a Beatles concert and we weren’t on the air yet! We invented the word ‘tweens’ in a meeting when the research guy said, “We’re hitting tweens and teens.” And I said, “What’s a tween? Is that a word?” And once we knew that, we hung on to the sweet spot. We respected them. A heartbreak when you’re 14… adults will laugh, “Oh, you’ll get over it.” We respected it and we respected the teenagers. The prom queen having a zit on her nose…is a life and death reality. And we respected the audience. And they were seeing kids. The reason we did so well, most comedies only go to half a dozen countries…. We were in 85 countries. We figured out every kid goes to school somewhere, and they want to see how the California kids went to school. These kids were magic. In five years, and two movies, and a prime time show, they never ever missed, not once. When that audience came in, it was magic, and it was all because of them.
What made Saved By The Bell so different from other series of its time?
The fact that they were such wonderful characters, if I can say so myself. At the end of the day, without parental intervention, they always did the right thing. And that was what it was about! We did everything together, we went bowling together, and they came to my house and played tennis. We had to be a family because otherwise it couldn’t exist, it would never succeed. The parents put the show ahead of their own kids. There was never any (drama), except when they started to date and would break up. Fortunately, there was never any dating…Kelly and Zack were never dating on the show at the time they dated (in real life). I had another show where a couple fell in love on the show, on the same day they broke up (in real life). They were teenagers, and there were nights when we would sit and talk about things.
What’s your favourite behind the scenes story that you like to tell about the Saved by the Bell stars?
I love the story about Mark-Paul Gosselaar, when we weren’t on the air and we were filming the second episode. We bussed in about 300 teenagers, and I get a call from security in Burbank at NBC, and they said, “We have 200 girls who won’t leave unless Mark Paul comes down and greets them and says goodbye.” You could already see them in the audience, cheering and asking if he would sign autographs and shirts and everything. So I come down with Mark-Paul in the (studio) lobby, and Mark-Paul looks (out at the crowd), turns to me and says, “Don’t make me go out there! Don’t make me go out there without you!” I said, “I will never make you go out there alone, but tonight your life is going to change forever, and it is going to be awesome.”
The Hawaii movie was a great thing. It was like going on vacation! We had the parents, we had the teachers, we had everybody. Lark Voorhies, Lisa Turtle, had to walk on Kalakaua Avenue, and we had these big Samoan cops who would caravan us, and they were awesome. She was walking across the street to the International Market Place, and we couldn’t get a good shot from the building because the cars were going by. So to this big Samoan cop I said, “Could you hold the traffic?” and he gets into the street, he’s like 300 pounds, and with his arms stretched out, traffic stopped. I said, “How long can you do that for?” And he said, “How long do you need it for? I’ll be a hero tonight when I tell my daughter that I stopped traffic for Lisa Turtle.”
Another story…Screech, Mr. Belding and I went to the White House. We were doing The New Class at the time. So we took the stars to a big night on Capitol Hill. So we go there and the President (Clinton) is there, and we were going to tour the West Wing, and it was a celebration for his wife’s birthday. So they took us into a room to tell us about decorum, no pictures, no jokes, no this, not that. We’re walking up the lawn and there are sharp shooters on the roof, and all of a sudden we hear this guy screaming… so we figured we were doing something wrong! And he’s going, “Screech! Screech! Screech is here!” All of a sudden, people come running – policemen, secret service, they were all from the Bell generation. And they’re screaming and running… (Dustin Diamond) has a goofy look. We broke security in three minutes! We had a tour and (in the Oval Office) the famous two chairs where Obama and Trump sat, well the President of NBC, Warren Littlefield and I sat in those two chairs. And I look at Warren, and I say, “I think I’m hallucinating!” And he said, “Why? Because we’re sitting in the Oval Office?” “No,” I said. “Because Screech is behind the President’s desk!” The Secretary, Mrs. Currie, was showing him the President’s coin collection!
What issues do you think Saved by the Bell would tackle if it took place in present day?
Well, we did issues that no one else did. The famous Jessie’s Song episode, which I wrote. We (originally) wrote that she was on speed, because she wanted to go to Stanford, she was in the Hot Sundaes, the singing group, she always was an overachiever. But the network said, “No speed, no way.” Tom Tenowich, the writer with me, said, “What if we did caffeine pills?” and they said okay. But we never changed the script. (…) We were shocked by the audience’s response… they were crying. (…) That (episode) had a huge impact on them. We did drinking and driving, we did the environmental thing (with) an oil spill. We were way ahead of our time in 1992. I don’t know, I’m not sure Bell could work today. Well, first of all, I should’ve gotten royalties. Zack was the first character on television, ever, to have a cell phone. I should’ve gotten royalties! Today we would be taking on gay, lesbian and transgender issues. We’d be taking on drug use, obviously. I’m not sure if Bell could work today as a comedy. As a drama, probably. But that’s what 90210 did… but I’m not sure what issues what they took on differently from us. Aaron Spelling was a great friend, and Tori was a recurring character!
I was going to say, Jessie’s caffeine pill meltdown is one of my favourite scenes… it’s an absolutely iconic moment. What are some Bell scenes that you’re still particularly fond of?
I loved the Risky Business scene when Screech’s mother and father go to Graceland, and they put Zack in charge of the house. Zack and Slater and Screech are in their stocking feet and brooms, the same thing Tom Cruise did in Risky Business… and they break the (Elvis) statue. Another great scene that I loved was in The Lisa Card, when Zack was selling all of Lisa’s clothes at an auction, and every time he would hit a remote and the lockers would open and the clothes were in there. And then somebody would say, “Mr. Belding’s coming!” and he would close them. And that was kind of cool. There were so many great, great moments. (…) The Zack Attack episode when Screech went to go see the High Geek (to find the meaning of life)… I wrote that one, too! And of course, Screech getting hit my lightning.
What are your thoughts on streaming and how do you think it has impacted the television industry? You’ve been in the industry for so long now…
I really have! I think it was simpler. And we had four networks. I think television is doing great things today, but there’s so much. It’s hard to find through the clutter. But I always say, if you have a great show, people will find it. I think streaming’s fine, but I don’t want to watch a football on my phone, or a movie on my phone… but it’s a different time, and a different place. I think there’s a negative, also, though, that people don’t talk to each other anymore. And that’s a shame. On the upside, there’s great content. If you can see it when you want to see it… I’m a traditionalist, I don’t read yesterday’s newspaper. And if I want to watch a show, I’ll watch it when it’s on. But it’s different generations.
Are there any current TV shows that you’re a big fan of?
I love Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory. I just think he’s brilliant. You know, I did reality… I did 10 years of Last Comic Standing. I like Designated Survivor on ABC, I like Empire… I should give one to each network…and I like The Voice!