A review of Peter Engel’s life story-turned-memoir. From an advanced review copy.
80 years old on the release of his book, TV producer Peter Engel has embraced having brought the world Saved by the Bell as his legacy. I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True is more about the creator than his creations. Engel had spent his professional career trying to produce the hit TV show.
Yes, something, something, Jessie was originally on speed something, but who could forget Sirota’s Court? How awesome would a talk show hosted by either Bette Davis, John Lennon, or Orson Welles be? Engel pleasantly recalls his failures to be the next Lorne Michaels (SNL) or Normal Lear (All in the Family).
I’ll go into further discussion of Engel’s book and not just fan-gushing over Saved by the Bell. If you want to hear Peter Engel confirm that Jessie was intended not to take caffeine pills, check out my interview with at the 6:57 timestamp.
Before readers get into the Bell years, Engel had finagled his way into being an NBC page, worked with popular 1950s entertainer/variety show host Perry Como, campaigned for John F. Kennedy with little resources, rode with a reckless Army pilot, found and accepted Christ, and befriended carmaker John Delorean. As someone into TV and showbiz history, I find all this stuff fascinating.
But Bell fans looking for intimate backstage gossip will be sorely disappointed. Peter Engel himself told me not only that Jessie was to take Speed, not caffeine pills in the memorable episode, “Jessie’s Song,” the rest of the script was left unchanged. No one can resist any tidbit about Jessie’s addiction. It’s a memorable episode, but my living in a drug-infested environment and knowing that that girl on my TV screen will be fine in the next episode meant “Jessie’s Song” didn’t resonate anything profound for me.
I Was Saved isn’t the sequel to Dustin Diamond’s dirt-dishing Behind the Bell. In fact, Engel’s portrayal of Diamond is that of a silly goof; he spoke fondly of Diamond during my interview with him. From what I’ve learned from interviews and news from the cast and crew, many of whom are still active in Hollywood, I find it hard to believe anyone else on Bell desires to top Behind the Bell in delivering juicy gossip.
Engel’s reminisces about Bell are more discussing the nuts and bolts of TV production than calling out bad behavior. Saved by the Bell is a teen comedy that relied on the cast’s charm and chemistry with each other. It’s not full of intricate plots and explicit darkness that any broadcast network entertaining Alf or Smurf-loving kids would find unacceptable. Maybe we’re wanting for something that isn’t there.
That said, there are a few interesting tidbits such as when Engel recalls when Brandon Tartikoff wanted him to fire Lark Voorhies after two episodes of Saved by the Bell due to poor performances. Despite a lack of contact between Engel and Voorhies, she pulled through satisfactorily when it came time to shoot “Lisa’s Card.” The cast and crew of Bell would become Engel’s extended family and he was a fatherly boss who would enjoy the energy of the studio audience.
Also in the book, there’s an anecdote of how Diamond was almost swept away far into the Pacific Ocean and footage of his being rescued was used in Hawaiian Style.
There are more stories involving his TNBC shows, but Engel goes into detail about his personal life. He talks about his three romances-turned-marriages, his friendship with Pat Robertson, and also his relationship with his daughter and two sons.
Not every moment is filled with rainbows and sunshine:
- As Engel’s thrice married, he’s thrice divorced. His book details the moments when his relationships are built and broken down. He’s still on good terms with his latter two ex-wives, though.
Near the end of the book, Engel shares when he had a very tense argument with his son who was doing humanitarian work in the West Bank. While the argument is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict somewhat, Engel tried to persuade his son to stop out of fear his son might die in a dangerous area.
He shares his final moments with network exec-turned-Engel company president Linda Mancuso. He first saw her being playfully flustered seeing Mario Lopez. Sadly, she lacked much of her energy during that last dinner date before her passing due to breast cancer.
His final moments with collaborator and friend Leslie Eberhard. Eberhard, who was gay, wondered if Jesus would accept him into heaven. Engel, knowing Eberhard to be a good man, responded that if his friend doesn’t get in, he doesn’t get in either.
His break from evangelical Christianity after delivering the blistering speech on how “The Gospel of the Pentagon Is Not My Bible” at the 2006 National Media Prayer Breakfast.
Also, a “shrine” of his other son’s prestigious award placed between pictures of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is eerie to me knowing the results and aftermath of the 2016 election.
I highly recommend this book if you like famous people going through professional and personal transformations. During my interview with Peter, I was impressed at his vigor (he runs four miles on his home treadmill) and his willingness to answer my questions to best of his ability in the limited time we had. As a former TNBC fan, the man whose shows were TNBC’s foundation is someone I found to be a pleasant man with an incredible career.
Rating: ***** out of *****
See also: Six Things About Books from Saved by the Bell Alums.