“The more your heart is broken, the more you will appreciate when you succeed.” — Peter Engel
On Wednesday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet and have a fruitful conversation with Peter Engel, the Executive Producer of Saved by the Bell. Seldom (young) fans know much about who makes their favourite show. We, the Echo Boomers or Millennials, would just watch the program. Credits would roll. We’d familiarize names. The world wide web wasn’t accessible like it is now. We couldn’t search an individual’s entire professional, private life in a matter of seconds. If you could, you were a member of the FBI. Or employed by a Special Intelligence Agency.
It was a teen sitcom that launched in the late 80s. And although I was under 10-years-old when its final episode aired, I have vivid memories of its cast. Mr. Engel was involved in the casting. As a matter of fact, he recalled the moment he changed the ethnicity of Lisa Turtle (Lark Vorhees) for me.
Lisa Turtle was a Jewish princess that I knew from Great Neck, Long Island. Conceptually, this Jewish princess was moving from Long Island to California. That was the concept. We only had one script. They brought Lark in to see me, just on a meet and greet. We didn’t know what the other scripts would be but maybe somewhere down the line we would have a recurring or one-time only [role]… I met her.
I said, ‘Have her read?’
They said, ‘Have her read what?’
‘Have her read Lisa Turtle.’
Then, they said, ‘She’s not black’ and I said, ‘She is now.’”
If Mr. Peter Engel and I were to walk up a street somewhere, say in Middle America, the locals probably couldn’t fathom what we have in common. Hell, in New York City, some New Yorkers might think it too but we wouldn’t dwell on it. Working well under pressure and taking on many responsibilities at once, creative writing and recognizing your gift at an early age are a few. It rained on Tuesday morning (November 15, which was also my birthday) in New York City, so the turnout he expected for his book release event didn’t happen.
“There were a bunch of people. It wasn’t what we hoped. That happens with that kind of weather,” he avowed.
Knowing a thing or two about rain, joining the party, “It does.”
I wanted to know what an Executive Producer does. So I asked Mr. Peter Engel to take me through the day in the life of his time during the early 90s. I wanted to be clear on the role’s level of responsibility.
“Executive producers does everything and everybody reports to the Executive Producer. Mainly in a television show, there are two or three people. There’s ‘nuts and bolts,’ which we call ‘the line producer.’ That’s not a creative job. The line producer is in charge of the schedule, the crew, the physical production,” Peter Engel started to explain.
A line producer would also report to Mr. Engel, the set department and the costume department. Business-wise, they are important.
Engel resumed, “Then, you have the director of course who’s doing the tech rehearsals, camera angles and he also reports to me. And then we’d call ‘the showrunner.’ That is the head writer if you will. Though I wrote 11 of the first 100 but I had someone… On ‘Bell,’ I was always there. On everything. When I had a lot of other shows, I had a guy who ran it for me on a day-to-day. Although, I was still there. The showrunner runs the writing and the creative aspects, and so those three report [to me].”
Engel went in depth.
“Monday would be the day you have your table reading. It all lead up to Friday night taping. You’d have that. Then, they’d start rehearsing that week’s episode. During the week, other things are going on. You’re preparing scripts for the future. Editing those that you’ve just shot. You’re doing the music and sound mixing and casting guest parts for the next week’s episode. So as you are doing each week, they’re all leading up until Friday, in the case of ‘Bell.’ Some shows shot on other nights but it was a 5-day thing, leading up to that moment. At one time, I had six shows, shooting every week.”
I interjected and exclaimed, “How did you do it?”
“Because [of] my OCD. My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Meant that everything was perfect. Otherwise, I would have been…”
Mr. Engel laughed.
“My showrunners would laugh. And I’d go, ‘Why don’t you try the joke this way?’ And they’d be like ‘How do you even remember what we’re doing?’ I would see every script and approve it but I couldn’t be at every step of the way anymore. I was always there but during the taping, I would be in the control room. I would never miss one. Once I did forget it, I’d say ‘Where’s this such and such?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, you shot that last week.'”
Next, I asked the prolific producer what his number one television show was when he was a kid.
“When I was a kid—That’s a good question. No one’s ever asked me that. That’s a good question!” I laughed and he smiled as he thought of his answer. “My number one TV show when I was a kid—How much of a kid?” Mr. Engel laughed.
“I mean, well…”
“Yeah, probably The Jackie Gleason Show, the variety show. What was that called, Albert?”
His manager Albert replied, “It was called, The Jackie Gleason Show.”
We all laughed. Finally, Mr. Engel shared a little about what he covers in his new memoir: His personal and professional achievements.
My best personal achievement is my three children. They are my heroes. I dedicate the book to them. Laura, my joy. Joshua, my heart, and Steven, my soul. My other greatest personal achievement was being one of John F. Kennedy’s organizers in 1960 in New York City. Right out of college, and every time he was in the city, I was by his side. There’re some great stories about that in the book.
Of course, my heart was broken when he was… When they got him but my heart was broken many times since then. That’s what the book is about. It shows the coulda woulda shoulda, things that didn’t… because of whatever. I was ‘too political’ in 1977. Show never got canceled—a critically-acclaimed show I did, called ‘Sirota’s Court’, which is based on John Sirica who put all of Nixon people in jail, though he was a Republican. So we called him Judge Sirota instead of Judge Sirica. It was a major critical acclaim. We never even got thrown off the air. We just kinda faded away. Way ahead of my time. I did a gay wedding on that show in 1977.”
This couple had a marriage license and… we were pushing the envelope. I was still angry about Nixon and Watergate and Kennedy but I wasn’t an important person then like David Kelly or like Dick Wolf. I can’t believe, in retrospect, writing the book that I took on all [of] that. It’s one thing when you’re established and you got a little power. I had nothing. I can’t believe I did a gay wedding on television in 1977.
The country obviously wasn’t ready. I think Saved by the Bell changed the whole generation, a whole generation of how they looked… How I cast. I got the first Diversity Award from the Academy and the FCC, and Bill Cosby—when he was Bill Cosby—presented it to me and called me a ‘hero’. What happened was Mario Lopez and Lark Vorhees. I had written Slater as kind of a John Travolta/Saturday Night’ Italian kid. He had been an army rat. Kind of a Travolta from Saturday Night Fever, and I didn’t like the people I was seeing because they had ‘attitude’ but they weren’t likable.
So I called my casting director and said, ‘Where is it written that Slater has to be Anglo?’ He said, ‘You wrote it.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m unwriting it. Let’s get an African-American in. Let’s get an Asian. Let’s get Latinos.’ We never even changed his name. The box set came out for Christmas a couple of years ago. I was on it. It was a USC professor who said that ‘When Zack kissed Lisa, it was the first black and white scripted kiss’, which it wasn’t. I think maybe it was third in the history of television. But I called up one of my show runners, who I became friends with a couple of years ago, and he asked, ‘Did we ever think about that? He said, ‘No.’ We never thought about it.
Engel says they received 10,000 letters from fans. Instead of fans being outraged by an interracial kiss, they asked: “How dare Zack kiss Screech’s love?”
Engel asserted, “The audience didn’t… There was no black and white. It was ‘How could Zack do that to Screech?’ The ‘Bell’ generation voted over 70% for Obama in 2008, for which I was most proud—including my own children. I think we had a whole new set of values and understanding that we didn’t hit over the head. It just evolved. It just happened. I never even thought of it, quite frankly, of it being the first black and white kiss. It was ‘how could Zack do that to Screech?’
And as you know, in that episode, Zack says we can’t do this because Screech is my friend.” And so they had that moment. I’m most proud of the fact that I think we brought up a whole generation to have a different understanding of the diversity of people.”
I remember watching it. It was really good. You also had a friendship with John Lennon?
It wasn’t a friendship. ABC wanted to do a show, before Saturday Night Live, from like 11:30-12:30 on Saturday night. They wanted to do a talk show, and I asked, ‘How about Bette Davis?’ And they said, ‘Really?’ So I coordinated with her. We had weeks of conversations. I had just moved to California. She would only do the show here (New York City), and she insisted that I move back but I had just moved here. I’m not going to do it. So she wouldn’t do it. Then I said, ‘How about Orson Welles?’ Orson Welles, I had breakfast lunch and dinner with, which is in the book. He was in California. We lay out the whole show, and anyway, he couldn’t shoot in the United States.
The bellhop rung the bell. Mr. Engel excuses himself. Tells the gentleman to proceed with whatever he wants to do, and he returns to his seat.
It turns out he couldn’t shoot in the United States because of the IRS. He had problems. That’s why he was out of the country. I can’t do it. ‘Where would we shoot it?’ He says, ‘How about Spain?’ I said, ‘We can’t do Orson Welles, America from Spain. We were doing a lot of business—the company I was working for—with ABC. I went to the president of ABC. I said, ‘If you had anyone in the world—I struck out twice—anyone you want—and he was very conservative… It was 1972.
I say, ‘Anyone in the world.’ He says, ‘John Lennon.’ I said, ‘John Lennon? John Lennon, the Beatle?’ He wasn’t a Beatle then. They had broken up but it turned out that… ‘You get me John Lennon in 26 weeks.’ So, I had to get John Lennon. I had a meeting. It was a short meeting and John said, I want to bring out freaks and geeks and revolutionaries. Then, he said ‘I’m doing a little thing. Why don’t you bring your girlfriend?’ The little thing was 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. We were in the second row. Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder were the opening acts. But it turned out that Yoko…
Anyway, everything is going great and John wants to change the contract. He wants Yoko to be the co-host. And so I go to ABC, and he almost throws me out of his office. I say, ‘Yoko broke up the Beatles. Maybe they won’t remember.’ John said, ‘Yoko or no show.’ and ABC said, ‘No Yoko, no show.’ We went back and forth. We never did that show. So that was the John Legend story in a capsule.
What would be your inspiration to your readers?
Never give up. My inspiration to my readers, in my book: Dream big because big dreams are as hard to accomplish as little ones. Don’t let anyone talk you out of your dreams. Don’t let anyone scare you out of your dreams. The more your heart is broken, the more you will appreciate when you succeed. And just never never never never ever quit. It was a great journey, and here I am.
In any case, order Peter Engel’s new memoir “I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True” now through Amazon. ultimately, it is a story about his work for US President John F. Kennedy, his short time with John Lennon, his personal life, and more. Then, when you’re done with that, you can binge watch episodes of Saved by the Bell on Amazon, too.
Ironically, I started writing my first book last month. One night, I stayed awake to write twenty chapter breaks. All twenty of the chapters are also split in two, like Peter Engel’s personal and professional format.