I’ve given Peter Engel a lot of crap, both on this blog and on California Dreams Reviewed, for producing some of the cheesiest and corniest story lines in existence. I may have implied a time or two that he doesn’t understand the basics of how high school works and that his writers couldn’t come up with a compelling story or character in The New Class to save their lives. I may have been pretty harsh on the guy over the last three years.
Yet there’s something about Engel that exudes just being the nicest guy in the world and genuinely wanting to make good television for teens and, though I’m sure he and I would disagree about religion, I can’t fault him for that. He’s like the polar opposite of Dustin Diamond: a man I would probably agree with more on such controversial topics but would be tempted to scream at if I saw in person. So, when I discovered his memoir, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True, was coming out in November 2016, I thought that reviewing it would be a great way to end this blog, plus I still really want to wash the taste of Behind the Bell out of my mouth.
I won’t go in too deep on the parts that don’t directly deal with Saved by the Bell, and it is a long book, so I’ll do my best to let you know if it’s worth reading or not.
Prologue: Thirteen or Call Security
This is a cute story about how Engel convinced Brandon Tartikoff to give the first season of Saved by the Bell a full order: he laid down in the middle of Tartikoff’s office, demanding thirteen more episodes or Tartikoff would have to call security to have him removed. Very telling how much he believed in the show, even so early on.
Part I: In the Beginning
Like a memoir should, this one starts off in Peter Engel’s childhood, telling the story of how he began his love affair with television soon after his father purchased their first set, how he fell in love with producing, briefly studied textile engineering in North Carolina where he experienced the wrath of segregation, changed course to film at NYU (maybe Nicky choosing NYU for film was a homage to Engel?), and became a page at NBC, learning the ropes on The Tonight Show and The Perry Como Show. The amazing thing is you can tell he has such a deep respect for the people he worked with that hardly an ill word is ever spoken.
We have such an amazingly class picture here of a young man coming up in television, and Engel soon started producing New York area sports for television in between being a reservist. This section ends with a shocking incident in 1963 and a lead in to a part of Engel’s life that was very painful and disheartening for him. I can’t help but admire him, for, though he always felt like the outsider in his family and, later, career, he pushed on, determined to make a name for himself.
Part II: JFK
This is a relatively short part designed to show how important Engel’s work as a campaigner for John F. Kennedy in 1960 was. Through the campaign, he became optimistic and full of hope for the future, but his hope was soon shattered by news that an assassin’s bullet killed President Kennedy only three years later.
Part III: California Here I Come
This section details Engel’s move from New York to Los Angeles with his first wife, Chris, to work for Metromedia. Though he was enamored with the allure of California, he continued to have trouble finding a production gig, and he details encounters with Bette Davis and Orson Welles he hoped would lead to a show but didn’t.
Metromedia put Engel to work making pilots while he searched for a show. His first production was for a mini-series about the ice capades. There, he met a fiesty Olympic figure skater named Linda Carbonetto, and realized he was in love.
Part IV: Searching for that Hit
Engel’s relationship with his first wife deteriorated as he started seeing Linda behind her back. Eventually, Engel and Chris divorced and Linda became his second wife by 1974. There’s some funny antecedents here about Engel finding out his new father-in-law is a drag queen, acting as a handler for Jacques Cousteau, and pissing off legendary producer Joseph Levine. He tried to get John Lennon for a talk show but was prevented because Lennon wanted Yoko Ono to be his co-host. Engel also saw the birth of his first child, Lauren, during this period.
The bulk of the section, though, is about Engel finally producing his own series, Sirota’s Court, which sought to use humor in examining hard issues of the day, including racism and homophobia. The series received critical acclaim and was picked up for a thirteen episode mid-season run on NBC in 1976. Sadly, the show wasn’t a favorite of big-wigs at NBC and it was quietly dropped after its initial run.
Part V: God is Nice
This is where a lot of the dark stuff comes in. Engel had poured his heart and soul into Sirota’s Court. It was cancelled shortly after Linda asked for a divorce in 1978. To top it off, Linda decided to move Lauren to New York, and this broke Engel’s heart. He found himself suddenly drawn to drugs, and lots of them. His contacts in Hollywood soon dried up and he found himself sinking lower and lower, to the point that he was gaining a reputation in Hollywood.
This is what I love about Engel. Unlike Dustin Diamond, Engel is not talking about his sordid past to say, “Hey, look how cool I was!” but to point out how low he’d fallen. This goes for his drug dealing and his cheating on his first wife in section four. Peter Engel was crashing, and he needed help.
He found it one night, in the midst of what he thought was a heart attack, when he had a mystical experience during which he says Jesus appeared to him. A few months later, he found himself at a party with Blazing Saddles actor Cleavon Little, where he met a Christian couple who lead him in a conversion experience. Engel turned his life around and soon met his third wife, Connie. They were married in 1981 and had two sons, Joshua and Samuel.
Part VI: Saved by the Bell
Now we get to why most people are probably reading this book: Saved by the Bell. Much of this story will already be familiar to people who have much familiarity with the background of the show, so I’m going to go through and list some of the new details I gleaned from this section:
- NBC had already decided not to pick up Good Morning, Miss Bliss when they aired the original pilot in 1987.
- Engel’s sons drew the heart that became the logo for Engel Productions.
- Engel’s daughter, Lauren, had Zack fever.
- Unlike other accounts, Engel says they always intended to have Jessie as a character; they just weren’t considering Elizabeth Burkley for her role until after she auditioned for Kelly.
- Dustin Diamond’s claims to the contrary, Linda Mancuso appears to have been smitten with Mario Lopez.
- Mark-Paul Goselaar was intimidated by the crowds of girls who wanted to meet him even before the show aired.
- Mark-Paul also would frequently visit Engel to make sure he had the “talk to the camera” segments where Zack Morris broke the fourth wall down.
- Lark Voorhies was almost fired by Brandon Tartikoff because she had an exceptionally bad performance during one of the early episodes. She was saved because she avoided Engel and Engel put off telling her she was fired. Lucky for her, “The Lisa Card” was the next week’s episode, and Tartikoff was impressed and endorsed her staying with the show.
- There’s no mention of the show having bad ratings in the first season. By Engel’s account, it was a hit nearly instantly.
- The mall tours led to an incident where Mark-Paul and Tiffani had to be whisked away by the police. In the process, they accidentally left their set teacher, Sydney Sharron, behind in a swarm of obsessed teenagers.
- One mall tour stop was moved from Manhattan to Long Island because it was feared a full scale riot would break out.
- Engel’s son, Stephen, then six years old, often helped him warm up the audience, and Engel himself loved the atmosphere of excitement the audience produced.
- In “Jessie’s Song”, Jessie was originally supposed to be on speed, not caffeine pills, which made a hell of a lot more sense. The censorial department at NBC vetoed this, though, and caffeine pills became the compromise. I’m actually inclined to forgive Peter Engel for this knowing this tidbit of information.
- Engel had never met Aaron Spelling prior to casting Tori as Violet. She was just so good in auditions she had the entire room in an uproar.
- Engel says Aaron Spelling told him he liked Saved by the Bell better than 90210.
- During Engel’s last visit with Aaron Spelling, after he’d already been diagnosed with cancer, they joked about different shows involving Screech they could make, like Screech as a brain surgeon, Malibu lifeguard, or pastor, like on 7th Heaven.
- Engel knew Zack Morris and Kelly would have to break up as Zack Morris was a much less exciting character while dating. The audience booed Kelly cheating on Zack Morris, and Mark-Paul and Tiffani begged Engel to change the script, but they went on.
- Engel admits there was on-set drama and cliques. He saw it as his job to break up the cliques and keep the actors on good terms. Dennis Haskins was often his on-set mole, alerting him to potential problems. One story he tells is that Mario and Tiffani started dating just before the Palm Desert episodes, and she would later find him kissing another girl in his dressing room, ending their relationship.
- Many of the Malibu Sands episodes were filmed during the “June haze,” when a thin layer in the air brought freezing temperatures to the L.A. beach. So, the actors had to work hard to make working in bathing suits look fun as they froze their asses off.
- During taping of “My Boyfriend’s Back,” Mark-Paul challenged Engel to an ATV race. Mark-Paul won because Engel couldn’t figure out how to shift the thing.
- Hawaiian Style had a small budget, even for a television movie, and it reflected in a break-neck shooting schedule and the fact that many scenes had to be filmed in California.
- The scene in Hawaiian Style of Screech being drawn out to sea on his inflatable dragon was real. Wind almost drug Dustin Diamond out to sea, and he grabbed the ankle of a random lifeguard hired to be a surfer extra at the last minute to keep from being pulled out. How unfortunate for us. In any case, Engel liked the footage so much he kept it in.
Part VII: NBC and Me
Engel’s first show after Saved by the Bell was California Dreams, and he got an instant deal on a number of episodes based on his success with the former. There was tension about a new kid on the block, though, and it really heated up when Engel decided to organize a softball game between the two casts. Fights ensued. Perhaps this is why there was never a crossover episode with California Dreams except for brief mentions of Pacific Coast High on The New Class.
Engel says that Tiffani and Elizabeth left after the graduation episode because they were just ready to say goodbye, and he didn’t want to stand in their way. This contradicts Behind the Bell, of course, but I’ve always thought Dustin Diamond was full of shit, so what’s new. Engel says he was quite happy with the Tori episodes and that Leanna Creel did as well as anyone could expect her to given the circumstances.
“School Song” was the last episode of Saved by the Bell to be filmed, and the cast kept messing up the final scene on purpose so they’d have to reshoot. They didn’t want it to end. The College Years had not yet been announced so, as far as anyone knew, this was it for the show.
NBC ordered The New Class as the first spin-off of Saved by the Bell. During a focus group for The New Class, a fifteen-year old girl exploded at the conveners as they tried to make her hate Kelly, saying this is stupid! She asked why they didn’t just send the original cast to college, and The College Years was born. Warren Littlefield, who succeeded Tartikoff at NBC, loved the pilot, but he became overconfident and put the show up against Full House and Rescue 911, which enraged Engel. He ended up being right, and The College Years wasn’t renewed for season two.
They did get an order for Wedding in Las Vegas, though, and, on the last night of shooting, Engel, Mark-Paul, and Mario all sat around reminiscing about their memories of the show. It’s kind of surreal as they knew this time it was it, and it kind of does bring a tear to the eye. I wonder if, even back then, they knew there would never be a true reunion with Engel at the helm.
The first season of The New Class, on the other hand, turned out to be a disaster. Rushed to find a cast because of a deal to have them on Kellogg’s cereal boxes, Engel went with a group of actors he wasn’t completely confident in. Engel asked Dustin Diamond to join the cast after The College Years ended so he could have someone funny on the show.
Shortly after, Engel, Dustin Diamond,and Dennis Haskins attended an NBC event at the White House. Dustin was recognized by Secret Service and suddenly swarmed by people who were supposed to be protecting the president begging for autographs. Diamond and Haskins were the hit of the party, and Diamond even got to sit in the president’s chair in the Oval Office, a sobering thought indeed.
One incident on City Guys involved the censors asking for a joke about dwarf tossing to be nixed. By then, Engel’s scripts were so squeaky clean, he rarely got comments on them. Engel didn’t care about the joke, but he and Linda Mancuso played a joke on NBC and pretended Engel was going to quit over the joke being censored. He ended up having to come clean when NBC executives took him completely seriously, with his friend, Don Ohlymeyer, president of the west division of NBC, responding, “I love you, Peter. But fuck you.”
Engel’s anecdote about Hang Time involved bringing Dick Butkus into the cast and finding out what a gentle giant he could be. One episode involved sliming Butkus, and the former football player insisted Engel stay and watch instead of going to a City Guys taping across the hall, with Butkus totally psyched to be slimed..
In 1998, with ten shows under his belt, Engel prepared to shoot his 500th episode with NBC. Variety ran a giant tribute to him include thanks from all six of his show runners and Linda Mancuso, as well as interviews with writers and former cast. A street on the NBC property was even named “Engel Avenue” in his honor.
Engel admits that, by this point, success had gone to his head and his shows were becoming about expansion and quantity, not quality. He gives, as an example, Malibu, CA, which he thought up in less than five minutes in a bathroom. It was sold on the reputation of Engel alone, but lost $52 million for the studio. Engel ends the section by admitting that stellar reputations can go down the drain.
Part VIII: Exile
The section starts with a beautiful tribute to Leslie Eberhard, the former Fraiser writer I’ve praised on this blog for writing the only episode of The New Class I truly enjoyed unironically, “What’s the Problem.” I wondered then how a guy of Eberhard’s caliber ended up on The New Class, and I have my answer here: he really wanted the job because he believed in Engel’s shows, even if Engel himself knew Eberhard could get any job he wanted.
Engel tells of how they sang songs from musicals together and how Eberhard helped him create USA High. The chapter ends with a conversation that moved me to tears. Eberhard was on his death bed, dying from exposure to asbestos as a child. As a gay man, he asked Engel, a right-wing Christian, if Engel thought he’d get into Heaven, even though he’s gay. Engel told him that, if Eberhard didn’t get into Heaven, he wasn’t going in either. And Engel softly sings musical numbers to Eberhard.
This is why I fucking love Peter Engel. The humanity in that encounter just speaks volumes to the kind of person he is. Try finding an account like that in Behind the Bell. You won’t find it.
By 2001, Peter Engel Productions had no shows in the can. TNBC was over. Engel’s sons, both in their late teens, took a cross-country road trip, during which he and his wife, Connie, separated and eventually divorced. Linda Mancuso was being treated for breast cancer and decided to leave for ABC Family. Engel was having another crisis of faith when he was asked to produce a reality show that eventually became Last Comic Standing.
In the midst of this, Pat Robertson asked Engel to become Dean of Communications at Regent University. Engel accepted because he thought maybe God was calling him to it, but almost immediately regretted his decision as he felt out of place politically and even had to endure Robertson defending a Liberian war criminal he was doing business with. Robertson mainly wanted Engel to try and legitimize his fake university, and Engel wasn’t enjoying it. And then Linda Mancuso died, leaving Engel devastated.
Engel’s unhappiness came out in an interview on The 700 Club after Last Comic Standing was nominated for a Primetime Emmy, and Engel told Robertson flat out, while taping, that he was homesick and wanted to go back to California.
Part IX: Totally a Happy Man
Engel didn’t win a Primetime Emmy for Last Comic Standing and he wasn’t expecting to. What’s worse, NBC fucked with the schedule and aired a rushed third season only eighteen days after the end of the second. They cancelled the show unceremoniously and, even though he didn’t have a show, Engel quit Regent and flew back to Los Angeles.
Engel started touring colleges, ending up back at NYU. He also completely broke with the Christian right in a fiery speech to the National Media Prayer Breakfast in which he denounced the Bush administration and Christians’ blind support of Republican policies. At this point of the book, I truly think I misjudged this guy…
Much of the rest of the book is about his family: his pride at walking his daughter, Lauren, down the aisle at her wedding; his son, Stephen, living in Palestine and changing his Zionist views; his son, Joshua, graduating Northwestern and woring in India; and his reconciliation with his second and third wives, Linda and Connie. Last Comic Standing was resurrected and is now in its eighth season, though Engel has little day-to-day involvement in it nowadays, and he’s produced other reality shows since then.
He says, though, that Saved by the Bell is still his crowning achievement. After numerous failures with Kennedy and Sirota’s Court and his marriages, Saved by the Bell gave meaning to his life, and he still considers it his crowning achievement. It even gave him the approval from his mother he’d always sought. And our book ends with Engel saying he has no regrets about the way his life has turned out and he encourages readers to never let seeming failure bring them down.
I really like this book, a lot more than I thought I would. I figured I would like it more than Behind the Bell, but that’s a rather low bar to set since I can say that about Atlas Shrugged as well. What really surprised me is how good, how compelling it is, and I heartily recommend it whether you’re a hard-core Saved by the Bell fan or not.
And, I have to admit, I misjudged him. I knew about his past as dean at Pat Robertson’s university, his Christian faith, and the shit Dustin Diamond says about him. I assumed he would be a man I would strongly disagree with politically. Turns out I totally misjudged him based on my own preconceptions. For that, I am sorry.
What’s amazing is how well Peter Engel humanizes his life without coming off as whining and pretentious. He doesn’t shy away from the negative in his life, but he doesn’t focus on it as well. He tells negative stuff about people–such as mentioning Mario Lopez’s cheating in Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, not to put down Mario Lopez, but to show that, no, things were not perfect in the Saved by the Bell kingdom.
In many ways, Peter Engel’s life has been shittier than Dustin Diamond’s. The big difference is Peter Engel doesn’t act like a victim. He could have been bitter about his three failed marriages or the cancellation of Sirota’s Court and Last Comic Standing, or NBC’ s mismanagement of The College Years. He could have failed to see his own complicity in the declining quality of shows towards the end of his run at TNBC. He isn’t angry, though. He comes through as a man who’s loved his life and has no regrets. He’s a man of integrity, principle, and, yes, faith.
I would hang out with Peter Engel any day. And I hope he continues to enjoy his life, feeling like a totally happy man.
So, as hard as it is to believe, this is my final review for this blog. Next week I’ll have one final post: a recap of this blog and the franchise in general. So, come back next week and let’s do it one more time!