Peter Engel is a man with a truly unique story. He rose from humble beginnings to one of the most prolific producers in television with more than 1,000 episodes produced under his banner, and more than 50 years in the television industry. Most notably, he was the driving force behind the creation of the legendary teen sitcom “Saved By The Bell”. Every episode of the iconic 90s sitcom ended with the same four words: Executive Producer Peter Engel. He would also go on to create many other teen series, including ‘California Dreams,’ ‘Hang Time,’ ‘City Guys’ and ‘USA High.’ As if defining and conquering the teen arena wasn’t enough, Engel produced the iconic ‘Last Comic Standing,’ enabling the discovery of an entirely new, fresh generation of comedians.
With the November 15th launch of his captivatingly inspirational new memoir, ‘I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True,’ Peter opens up for the first time about his life, from personal and professional highlights to the serious challenges that shaped him. He explains how “a small boy with a big dream” got his start in the cutthroat television industry, his work as Executive Producer on “Saved by the Bell”, and his work with other TV successes. Peter also shares some of his most fascinating encounters with icons including John Lennon, Orson Welles, Bette Davis, and John F. Kennedy, to name just a few. The collection of stories assembled for ‘I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True’ is every bit as entertaining and heartfelt as the classic television content he created throughout his career.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Peter Engel to discuss his unique career path, the lesson he learned along the way, and the challenges of bringing ‘I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True’ to life!
I am very excited to speak with you today, Peter. I just finished your book, “I was Save By The Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True.” I have to say, it was a great book and a delightful read!
Thank you so much! It’s my legacy! It’s my life!
You have made an undeniable impact on audiences around the world with the television shows you created through the years. Going back to your early years, what shows had a big impact on you?
“The Milton Berle Comedy Hour,” “The Honeymooners” and all of the variety shows. I loved those variety shows!
You took such a unique path to get to where you ultimately ended up. Did you have any idea you would be working in television early on?
Well, I wanted to work in television but I was doing something different than anyone else in my family had ever done. In fact, I went to textile school at North Carolina State for a year and a few months! From there, I went to NYU film school. I made my break when I charged up to NBC and demanded to be a page. It’s funny because I’m doing a book signing at 30 Rock in the NBC Experience store on the 15th of November and that’s where I started! [laughs] Of course, I was also under contract with them for 20 years from 1986 to 2006.
Let me ask you about where we leave off with you at the end of this book with your retirement. It seems like you are a guy used to having irons in the fire, so what can you tell us about making that transition?
I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I do! [laughs] I am sitting here my living room and I’m looking at the ocean right now. I talk to you with the windows open, watching the waves break on the beach in Santa Monica and it’s wonderful! I was so hands-on in my career and I wrote 11 of the first 100 “Saved By The Bell” episodes. I wrote, produced, and supervised all of them. I also did 17 series! It was funny because E! Entertainment asked me a few years ago, “When will it be over?” I said, “It’ll be over when I know it’s over!”. The night I knew it was over was when “Last Comic Standing” came back for season 9, I owned half the show, and I was just going to be a passive observer. I was sitting here in my living room and watching the first episode without me physically being involved, even though I had my credit. I laughed for two hours and one of my associates who had been with me at NBC asked, “Are you sad?” I said, “No! I love watching this and being a fan! And I have other things in my life, like my book!” It is full of wonderful stories because I am a storyteller! I’m also trying to do the Broadway musical version of “Saved By The Bell.” I have written what they call the book, as opposed to a script, for the project. I will tell you another great story, if you want to hear it.
Absolutely! The more stories the better, in my opinion! [laughs]
We had been following Lin-Manuel Miranda for a long time with his success with “Hamilton.” He is one of the hugest “Saved By The Bell” fans of all-time! Of course, I wanted him to do the musical. In June, I was his guest at “Hamilton.” I was in the 6th row on the aisle for one of the most exciting evenings I have ever experienced! We met on the stage afterwards. To give you some context, I only appeared on one episode of “Saved By The Bell.” I was on “Last Comic Standing” a lot, along with many of my other shows. I played the NBA commissioner on “Hang Time” but I only did one “Bell.” That was in Palm Desert where I was a golfer on the golf course. I had one line and I was about to make a putt. So, Lin-Manuel comes walking toward me with his arms wide out and he say, “When I make this putt, you’ll owe me $1000 dollars!” [laughs] That was may line! I said, “You must have been studying this all day!” [laughs] He told me I had inspired him. You know, “Hamilton” has a black George Washington and he is Puerto Rican; it was all diversified. I said, “I won the first diversity award” and he said, “You inspired me!” I said to him, “In that case, I am really proud of you!” He started to cry! He said, “You’re making me cry on my own stage!” Unfortunately, he can’t do the musical and we are moving on. He will be happy to consult.
How does writing your own life story compare to writing you did for television?
It was much harder. My lifespan has so many great stories from JFK to John Lennon. I wrote it for five years and finally my son, who has his doctorate and is going to be literature professor, said “Why don’t we just do stories? You are a storyteller!” The hardest part was capturing my voice, but I love or we ended up!
Did you every have any reservations about sharing some of these stories?
I did! I absolutely did! Of course, I put nothing in the book that I didn’t want to put in it! [laughs] It was quite a process, especially working with my son, who kept pushing me to make it better. That is something done since he was two years old. I did have doubts at some point but I was really pleased once I got the key, which was just to tell all the great stories. For instance, I had lunch with Elvis once. That’s not a story, So it’s not in the book. However, the stories where I was with Jacque Cousteau, or at John F. Kennedy’s side every time he was in New York, or meeting with John Lennon, or going to The White House to meet President Clinton, all that stuff is in the book. You know something interesting? All of them had one thing in common. Each one of them made you feel more important than you really were!
Those are all great stories for sure! One of my favorites came from your family. I love the story about your sons, who were kids at the time, created your company’s logo.
And we have been on the cover of the book!
It goes without saying that “Saved By The Bell” was a huge part of your life. Tell us about the impact the show had on you both personally and professionally.
Ok. All my life I was looking for that hit, right? I have come close and had my heart broken. Time after time, there were shows that could’ve made it and should have made it, but didn’t make it for whatever reason. Then Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC, said he wanted me to do a live-action show on Saturday morning. Remember I didn’t interview for the New York Times when the show was in 85 countries and on seven or eight times a week every day. They asked me what I said to Brandon when he asked me to do it. They asked if I said, “What a great idea!” I said, “No! Get someone else! I don’t want to do a Saturday morning show!” [laughs] On the journey of trying to get a hit and trying to do something important, I didn’t think this show was it. It’s funny, you journey, you fight, you create, you have your heart broken and it comes out of a place you never thought it would come out of. People always say to me how great the writing was, along with the producing, but it was always about the kids! They were magical and wonderful but I didn’t know if anyone would see us because our lead in was “The Chipmunks” and our lead out was “The Smurfs.” We’re up against a rabbit, a bear and a raisin! [laughs] And never knew it would be the hit that it would become but I knew these kids had it and they were magic! The first time I had them together all in one room I knew it immediately! The first time they all came walking into the conference room, I said “These are The Yankees when The Yankees were The Yankees!” They never missed! In 5 years, 2 movies and a primetime show, they never, ever had a bad show!
At what point did you realize the show was more than a hit series and more of a cultural phenomenon?
I guess I have always felt it. When you’re in 85 countries and most comedies only go so far, to places like Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, etc. How far the show went was amazing. All of a sudden, I figured it out. You see, every kid goes to school somewhere and they all want to see how the California kids live. I know it was beyond anything I had ever imagined when we had that first mall tour in Miami. It was Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Amber Thiessen, myself and a teacher who traveled with us because they were so young. The police had to come in with Jeeps to get us out! At that point, we hadn’t been on the air that long! We knew with the ratings we had uncovered an unserved audience with kids 12-17 years old. We had more teenage girls watching on Saturday morning than “The Cosby Show” had on Thursday night, which was the number one show on primetime! Half of teenage kids we’re watching us on Saturday morning. Either they didn’t watch television or they were watching us!
“Saved By The Bell” was such a unique show that featured both amazing writing and amazing talent in a unique time period. Do you think we will ever see anything like it again?
People ask me all the time if I would do another “Bell.” No. it was a different time and place with a different feeling in the country. Remember, there has been nothing else for young people like that in the past. It was as they say a perfect storm. So, to answer you question, I don’t think so.
As you said, you came close to having other hits along the way. Was there another show you were a part of that you are surprised didn’t catch fire and become a hit?
I thought “Sirota’s Court” was one of the most brilliant shows ever done, especially with its timeliness after Watergate. We based it on John Sirica, who was a Republican who put all those guys in jail and essentially forced Nixon to resign. That show was my baptism of fire creatively. I was heartbroken when it ended. However, we were before our time. In 1977, we did a gay wedding on television. I must’ve been out of my mind! [laughs] I mean, come on, we’re talking about 1977! This gay couple had a marriage license and our Judge Sirota married them! We did things that were outrageous at that time and, quite frankly, NBC was afraid of it. We never got canceled, we just sort of faded away. When I look back on it, I think, “Wow! What was I doing?”. It wasn’t like I was David Kelly at that point or Dick Wolf! One of those guys can do essentially anything they want! That was the show that broke my heart the most!
Television has changed a lot through the years, Especially in the past few years. What is your take on the way people are watching shows today with the rise of things like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and so on?
I think television is doing some of the most wonderful things these days; FX for instance. John Landgraf used to be with us at NBC back in the day. I think they’re doing great stuff. It’s funny because the other night, I watched some CBS comedies with Kevin James and Matthew Perry. Those shows are emblematic of 1980s television and they do very, very well and they are very simple. Then you go and see some of the things they are doing on Showtime, Netflix, Amazon and what have you and they are remarkable. I think it’s almost too remarkable because there is so much chatter that it’s hard to find a shelf life. Some of it is overwhelming but I think television is making statements and doing things they have always done, that the movies have never done!
You have had the opportunity to work with some tremendous talents throughout the years. If we were to make you book into a movie, who would you like to see play Peter Engel?
Alec Baldwin! [laughs] It’s me! Alec Baldwin! In fact, Kevin Reilly, who is now head of Turner, was as the Kevin Reilly in that room when he was a young 23-year-old executive. One of the last pilots I wrote was for him at Fox called “Suddenly Single” and they couldn’t cast me even though it was about me! [laughs] A girlfriend of mine at the time said, “You’ve written this where your character is uncastable!” I would love Alec Baldwin to play me! [laughs] And he plays Donald Trump! [laughs]
I would assume there will be more than a few projects centering on Donald Trump in the near future!
I would assume so! [laughs] If you remember, we were both nominated for “The Apprentice” and “Last Comic Standing” in our first seasons! I was upset that NBC owned my show with me and they didn’t own “The Apprentice.” They took 900 ads and billboards for “The Apprentice” and none for us! So, I was upset with Trump, which had nothing to do with it! [laughs] He was just a better salesman than me! [laughs]
What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you that had a big impact on you?
If you can make a living at something you love, do it! If you love designing, writing, teaching, or whatever it is, if you can make a living at something you love, your life will be much fuller! I loved, especially once we had a hit, going to work! [laughs] “Saved By The Bell” was like having a party every Friday night in front of the audience. It was exciting! I once said, although I will take it back, that I would do this for nothing! I can’t believe they paid us for having so much fun! [laughs]
You talked about trying to bring a “Saved By The Bell” musical to life but what else is one your slate coming up in both the short and long term?
I don’t know. There will be a lot of signing of the book. We are going to New York first and then on to Chicago on the 18th to do a signing at the “Saved By The Max” restaurant! That’s going to be wild! You know, they were only supposed to pop-up for 3 months and they sold out the first morning! We own a piece of that and I had to approve the menu! I said, “I would never eat that but it’s fine with me! [laughs] Like I said, I would love to do the musical. I grew up in Manhattan and Broadway musicals were fantastic! Lin-Miranda Manuel can’t do it but I have a dinner meeting tomorrow night with someone we think might be able to do it! It’s pure “Bell” — the Zack/Kelly love story! That’s the arc of it. I would like to make a difference again in some way. As you know, I end the book with “Never, ever let anyone steal your dreams. Never give up, I didn’t. Remember, someday today will be a long time ago, don’t miss one minute of it!” In some way, I would like to translate the book into being a voice of hope for people. I want them to know that things don’t always work out, the road is bumpy and there are detours. I am so proud of the people who worked for us! Now, they are producing and doing this and that! In fact, three of my guys were responsible for the success at Disney with Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. They went over there and worked on those shows and I couldn’t be prouder of what they accomplished! Onward! [laughs]
I wish you continued success in all your endeavors! You book and your life story is amazing, so I couldn’t be more excited to spread the word!
Thank you so much, Jason!
Peter Engel’s ‘I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True’ is available on November 15th everywhere! Visit the official website at www.iwassavedbythebell.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.