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“I am now Dennis‘ [Haskins] age when we were filming Saved by the Bell,” chuckles Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played the smart-ass high school student Zack Morris opposite Haskins’ principal Mr. Belding on that classic 1990s sitcom, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Gosselaar has appeared on many other notable series over the years, but never before has he accrued as much Emmy buzz as he has now for his most recent one, Fox’s The Passage, a dystopian vampire thriller. (The show was canceled earlier this month, after we taped our conversation.)
“I still feel like a rookie,” says Gosselaar, reflecting on his roller coaster of a 35-year professional journey so far. “I really do. I look at my career, I look at my résumé, if I happen to glance at an IMDb thing and go down that rabbit hole, and I go, ‘I have so much more to accomplish, I have so much more that I want to do, I haven’t done everything that I want to do, I’m still learning, I’m still open to it, I still enjoy the process. It hasn’t broken me yet.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
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The youngest of two Dutch immigrants’ four children, and the only one born in the U.S. — the valley of Los Angeles, specifically — Gosselaar grew up speaking Dutch before English. A precocious kid, his mother’s friend landed him an agent for print modeling, which led to commercials and then acting opportunities. “I didn’t grow up saying, ‘I want to be an actor,'” he insists. “I didn’t even know that was possible. I did it because it was fun; it was sort of an afterschool activity, much like Little League.” Gosselaar’s real childhood ambition? “I wanted to be a Marine, to be honest with you,” he says.
Instead, he was cast as Zack Morris — first on the Disney Channel’s series Good Morning, Miss Bliss (1988-89), which aired in primetime for just one season before being canceled, and then again for NBC when the show was reimagined as Saved by the Bell (1989-93) and targeted the “tween audience” on Saturday mornings. Gosselaar was sold on Saved by the Bell from the start: “When I read the first script, I thought, ”I’m gonna play Ferris Bueller [the protagonist of the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off], this is awesome! I’m gonna play a smart-ass’!”
Many who grew up with Saved by the Bell — which unspooled in 86 episodes over five seasons, spanning, for Gosselaar, the ages of 13 to 19 — assumed that the actor was himself a cool and “preppy” kid, but Gosselaar insists the opposite was true. “Zack Morris was a character that I created from seeing the really cool kids in my school,” he emphasizes. “I was not one of those kids.”
“Every season, we thought we were canceled,” Gosselaar says of Saved by the Bell, which was not a ratings phenomenon, but was kept on the air because NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff‘s daughter liked it. A longer-term problem for the show’s six young stars was their compensation, or lack thereof, prior to the final season, The College Years. “Our deals — even our merchandise deals — are laughable,” he acknowledges. “It’s a shame, it really is. … You’d like to be compensated in the fashion that some of these other shows have been. Some people made some really poor decisions on our behalf.”
In part because of financial concerns, life after Zack Morris was a scary proposition, but Gosselaar knew what he wanted out of it. “After the College Years, I decided to become an actor,” he recounts — “and then it was dry for a good two years.” Thus, he was introduced to typecasting. “I was a character,” he says. “I was typecast, I mean, there’s no way around it.” Gosselaar adds that there was nowhere to run: “Back then, you were either a TV actor or a film actor; there really was no crossover, especially if you were a child actor.”
Following a number of straight-to-DVD films, his “first real job,” he says, was making a dark TV movie for NBC — “I went from playing Zack Morris to all of a sudden playing a rapist” — “and that was really the start of my career again.” Now an adult, he made the tricky decision to part ways professionally with his momager, who was collecting 10 percent of his earnings without doing much to earn it. “It was a very uncomfortable conversation,” explains Gosselaar. “It was rocky for a little bit, but then she understood. … I don’t think a parent should be compensated for just being a parent. … I don’t think you need 10 percent to sit on set, to basically chaperone your son and daughter. … That’s a conversation I had to have at the age of 19.”
Much of Gosselaar’s career since has been the result of the late Steven Bochco‘s confidence in him, which first manifested with the actor being cast as Sipowicz’s partner on the final four seasons of NYPD Blue (2001-2004). When the show wound down, Gosselaar says, “I actually thought that it [navigating the business] was gonna be a lot simpler and easier because I had put my time in — four years. It wasn’t, again. It was like Saved by the Bell all over again.” But he soon landed on several other Bochco shows — a season of ABC’s Commander in Chief (2005-2006) and two of TNT’s Raising the Bar (2008-2009).
Flailing after the cancellation of those shows, and at the urging of a new agent, Gosselaar went to New York and starred in his first stage play, The Understudy, for the acclaimed director Scott Ellis, earning him raves and re-energizing him about acting. He then returned to TV on TNT’s legal dramedy Franklin & Bash (2011-2014), which lasted four seasons, and then NBC’s sitcom Truth Be Told (2015), which lasted just one, before he seriously reconsidered his future. “I just thought, ‘I gotta do something else, I gotta get out of this business,'” Gosselaar admits. He even thought about going back to school to become a real-life lawyer.
And then came Fox’s Pitch (2016). Created by Dan Fogelman, who was simultaneously shopping around another new show (This Is Us), Gosselaar played a baseball catcher near the end of his career catching a female pitcher. “The material that we were getting every single day was some of the best I’d been given,” he says. “I was so proud of the finished product. I thought that that was the winning formula. I thought that that was it — ‘I’m gonna be on that show until I retire.'” And then, crushingly, Pitch was canceled, too. However, it may not be gone forever, a notion that clearly excites Gosselaar. “I think all of us would be in,” he says with regard to a revival. “We talk about it all the time.”
The Passage, for the same network, evoked a similar level of enthusiasm in the actor. Based on a trilogy of books and telling “a great story that had a lot of heart, surrounded by this genre,” Gosselaar plays a distinguished military veteran employed by the government to deliver citizens to a detention center, the purpose of which is not shared with him, but leaves him suspicious. When he is dispatched to bring them a child, he instead flees with the girl, and the two form of a parent-child bond while on the run. Bringing the show to fruition was “the longest process for a TV show ever,” in Gosselaar’s experience — the pilot was shot in June 2017 and the show’s first 10 episodes didn’t start rolling out until Jan. 14 of this year — but it was also “some of the most ambitious storytelling I’ve ever been a part of.”
Now, with The Passage off the air, while also still in Emmy contention, Gosselaar has some time to think about the future — and not just a possible reboot of Pitch. Might the generation that grew up with Zack Morris get to see him again? “I’m okay with never seeing a reboot ever again,” Gosselaar says — before leaving the door open for more Saved by the Bell episodes, “if it was a good product that I felt wouldn’t tarnish the original product.” It might surprise some that this possibility is not precluded by reported tensions between Gosselaar and Dustin Diamond, the actor who played Screech on the show, over a mean-spirited memoir the latter wrote in 2009. “The book was fiction,” Gosselaar says, and confirms that he hasn’t seen Diamond in 25 years — but, he also emphasizes, “I don’t take any of that stuff personally.”
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