LOS ANGELES – Today’s child stars are much more aware of the entertainment business than those of the 1980s and ‘90s, says Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
“The environment they’re working in has changed,” he explains. “Social media is a big part of it. When I was going through it, I didn’t know what I was doing, honestly. When we were filming ‘Saved by the Bell,’ we went back to ‘normal’ school after we were done filming. Today they’re so much more aware of the business and what can be produced by being on television.”
Now playing a father in “mixed-ish,” the prequel to “black-ish,” Gosselaar says he didn’t really think he was an actor until he turned 19 and made a conscious decision to make it his career. “When I moved out of the house, I decided to become an actor. Up until then, it was just something I did.”
Money, he says, played a big role in continuing on. “It was financially lucrative for a 19-year-old, who was either going to get a job as whatever and start over, or continue on in the career he was in.”
Thanks to “Saved by the Bell,” roles were never difficult to land. Many played off the reputation he gained as Zack Morris, the scheming high school kid. Most kept him in the public eye until producer Steven Bochco showed interest. Looking for someone who could play off Dennis Franz, Bochco cast Gosselaar in “NYPD Blue,” the Emmy-winning ABC drama.
“I didn’t think I deserved it,” Gosselaar says of the role. “I thought it was absolutely crazy to hire two child stars (Ricky Schroder was the other) to play back-to-back Sipowicz partners. Internet message boards said I was going to ruin the show and I believed them in a certain sense. I grew into that skin and felt more confident. That really launched my young adult career.”
Since then, Gosselaar has been a series lead in “Franklin & Bash,” “Pitch,” “The Passage” and, now, “mixed-ish.”
The newest series (in which he plays the free-spirited father of Rainbow Johnson, the character Tracee Ellis Ross plays in “black-ish”) lets him look back at a period in time when life was likely a blur.
“We were operating in a bubble,” he says of the “Saved by the Bell” cast. “It reached a vast audience, but we didn’t know it because we didn’t have social media. I remember I was adored by 2,500 people at a mall once. But I had a core group of people who kept me grounded. They’d say, ‘You ain’t s---‘ and I listened. It helped me become the person I am today.”
Now the father of four, Gosselaar says he steers his older children away from the business because “there are other things they can do. My daughter does a lot of theater and dance and my oldest son and daughter are very good public speakers, but I’d like to see them finish school.”
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A college education, the 45-year-old admits, is the one thing he wishes he had gotten.
Now, though, he’s too busy working – particularly since there has been talk of a “Saved by the Bell” reboot.
For years, he says, producers tried to figure out how to do it, where to put the characters.
Zack, he says, would be successful. “Maybe he’s running a television network or, probably, he’s a producer.”
Like many of the other actors, he’d be game to go back to that world and see what it offers.
Meanwhile, “mixed-ish” is letting him play a younger version of the character created by Beau Bridges on “black-ish.”
“I tried to emulate some of the things Beau has done and look at my own experience,” Gosselaar says. “I grew up in a mixed-race family (his father is German and Dutch, his mother is Indonesian and Dutch), but my experience was wildly different from what I’m portraying.”
In time, he says, “I’ll kind of inject some of my own personal experiences.”
Meanwhile, he marvels at the way his own children view life. “I don’t know if they’re more sophisticated than I was, but they’re always on screens – they’re screen-agers. They watch television on a five-inch screen and I don’t know what that is. I feel like an old man saying this, but it scares me at times. I don’t know where that’s going to lead.”
Life, however, has shown him it’s often best to take one step at a time.