Almost 30 years after Saved by the Bell premiered in 1989, Executive Producer Peter Engel is sharing secrets from the beloved show in his new memoir, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love and Dreams That Do Come True.
The EP opens up about the mistakes he made along the way, the backstage drama with the cast and that famous “I’m so excited” moment. Watch what Engel told Us when he sat down for a Facebook Live interview in the video above. And below, Us Weekly rounds up seven surprising revelations from the book, out now.
1. Dustin Diamond never would have been cast if Engel had been paying attention.
During the casting process for Samuel “Screech” Powers, Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack Morris) insisted to Engel that Diamond was their guy: “That kid, Dustin, he really is Screech. In real life. If anyone should play Screech, it’s him. He wouldn’t even need to act.” Trusting Gosselaar, who Engel called a “serious actor” and “much more professional than anyone would ever expect a 14-year-old to be,” producers hired Diamond. However, after noticing how immature Diamond was acting, Engel grew frustrated. Gosselaar broke the news: “He’s only 11.” Engel had been “a stickler about ages” throughout the casting process, but he didn’t realize Diamond was so young. He admits he “never would have hired Dustin if I’d known that he was three years younger than he was supposed to be.”
2. A.C. Slater was supposed to be Italian.
After “coming up dry” during casting, Engel wondered, “Where is it written that A.C. Slater must be Caucasian?” and opened up the pool of actors to “Latinos, Asians and African Americans.” Two days later, Mario Lopez “blew everyone out of the water.” Initially conceived as just a “tough kid and an Army brat,” Slater became a wrestler after showrunners discovered "that Mario was a wrestler in real life.”
3. Casting for Kelly Kapowski came down to three actresses.
Tiffani Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley and Jennie Garth all vied for the role of Kelly. Despite Thiessen being a “deer in the headlights” in the casting room in 1988, she was brought back in 1989 with “improved” acting. “Her delivery wasn’t stellar,” Engel writes, “but she had potential. I also knew that her visibility as a teen model had increased. … Even if she wasn’t the best actress we could find, she was icon material.”
4. Lark Voorhies was supposed to be fired after two episodes.
After nailing the audition for Lisa Turtle, who was originally conceived as “a white, Jewish-American princess from Long Island,” Voorhies fell flat in the first episodes. According to Engel’s book, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff came to a taping and afterwards told the EP, “Fire Lark Voorhies.” Engel avoided firing Voohries as they prepared to film the episode “The Lisa Card,” a major plotline for her character. After the successful taping, Tartikoff approached Engel and said coolly, “Don’t fire Lark Voorhies.”
5. Jessie Spano’s famous “Jessie’s Song” episode wasn’t originally about caffeine pills.
According to Engel, the now-iconic episode in which Jessie struggles with a caffeine pill addiction was originally supposed to be about speed. “Standards and Practices, the censorial department of NBC, vetoed it, saying speed was too serious for Saturday mornings," he writes. "I insisted that we needed to start dealing with more important issues than we had in the past, and that speed was a vehicle not only for exploring drug use but also the pressure that kids put on themselves to achieve. But Standards and Practices wasn’t budging.” Caffeine pills got the green light, and though Engel jokes in the book that they "might as well have had Jessie addicted to Earl Grey [tea],” the emotional scene resonated with fans.
6. No one wanted Zack and Kelly to split, especially not Zack and Kelly.
While taping the episode where Zack and Kelly break up and Kelly kisses her manager from The Max, “the whole audience was booing Kelly, and some of the kids were actually screaming, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’” Engel recalls in the book. But it wasn’t just fans who were upset about the split. Gosselaar and Thiessen approached Engel after the scene was finished, asking for the story to be changed. “We don’t want to break up,” Gosselaar stated, according to the book. Engel insisted that they had to break up but that they would get back together eventually.
7. Thiessen caught Lopez cheating on her backstage.
In 1991, Thiessen and Lopez started dating after filming the episode where the gang goes to Jessie’s father’s wedding. A month later, Engel writes, “things took a turn.” According to his version of things, Lopez thought Thiessen was filming and “was in his dressing room, making out with an extra, and Tiffani came in, catching him red-handed. She was wearing his letter jacket and, in a rage, ripped it off and threw it at him. After that, she ran out. They broke up, Engel writes, "but the [show] family stayed together.”
Pick up a copy of Engel’s new book, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love and Dreams That Do Come True, on shelves now.
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