Zack Morris Better Slide Low In His Chair

Having logged a solid quarter-century on television now (scary, isn’t it?), Mark-Paul Gosselaar is back this week, starring alongside Breckin Meyer as the titular bad-boy lawyers of TNT’s “Franklin & Bash.” But try as he might, Gosselaar can’t escape his most famous role: teen Zack Morris on the cheesetastic early-‘90s relic “Saved by the Bell.” And to this day, Gosselaar can’t figure out why people are still so obsessed with the Bayside gang. In fact, he doesn’t think all that much of his TV launching pad: “It’s not a great show,” he admits.

“The writing is kind of hokey… it’s very much a piece of that time,” Gosselaar told us in an interview last week. But even though he might cringe a little looking back at “Bell” now, the 38-year-old actor says he learned plenty from his 1988-94 stint as Zack. “It taught me to have a strong work ethic, and to take it very seriously. Even though we had fun, the one thing the producers instilled in us is that this is a business. You can still have all your fun, but you have to do your job, and then you can reap all the benefits at the end.”

And those benefits include what now amounts to an admirable TV career for Gosselaar, who went on to star as Detective John Clark on ABC’s gritty cop drama “NYPD Blue” for four seasons, and now plays charming, often-nude litigator Peter Bash on “Franklin & Bash,” which kicks off Season 2 this week. Luckily, Gosselaar avoided living out the typical child-star sob story -- mostly because “Saved by the Bell” didn’t pick up serious pop-culture steam until years later, when it hit syndication. “We just thought we were doing a small little Saturday morning show and no one was watching,” Gosselaar remembers. “We were almost canceled every season. So we never got big heads.” (Good thing there was no TMZ around in those days, huh?)

Even if he doesn’t understand “Bell’s” enduring popularity, Gosselaar is happy to indulge in a little '90s nostalgia; he appeared on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” a couple years back in character as Zack Morris, complete with acid-washed jeans and a brick-sized cell phone. And he carries that sense of humor over into his current series; when asked jokingly which one he actually plays, Franklin or Bash, Gosselaar slyly replies, “I’m still not sure. You let me know when you find out, because I can’t tell. As long as I make more money than Breckin, I don’t care who I am. I could be the ampersand.”

“F&B’s” Jared Franklin (that’s Meyer, for the record) and Peter Bash practice a certain kind of law -- let’s call them “bro-ttorneys” -- specializing in winning over juries with outlandish courtroom stunts, like inviting an attractive witness to disrobe during her testimony. It seems like Franklin and Bash’s antics would get them disbarred -- and it turns out that just about happens in Season 2. “There’s a technicality this year that Bash is not allowed to practice law over the course of one episode,” Gosselaar teases, “so that’s pretty close to being disbarred.” But he actually wouldn’t mind having the boys represent him in court. “I tend to think they’re pretty brilliant. If my attorneys worked as well as these two guys, I wouldn’t mind paying the huge amounts that go towards their services.”

We’ll also learn a little more about Peter’s upbringing this season when TV veteran Jane Seymour guest stars as his free-wheeling hippie mom. “We get a sense of why Bash is, uh, uninhibited at times,” Gosselaar hints. “In the pilot, we started with Bash coming out of the hot tub naked, and Jane has a very similar scene in her episode.” (“Dr. Quinn” fans, set those DVRs now.) And that’s just the start of a very lengthy Season 2 guest star list: Cybill Shepherd, Chris Klein, Sean Astin, Martin Mull, Kevin Nealon, and Ernie Hudson are all slated to stop by the Infeld Daniels offices at some point this year.

In real life, Gosselaar is a father himself (he has two children with ex-wife Lisa Ann Russell), and though he grew up a teen heartthrob, being a parent has given him a new perspective. “When my kids watch Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, some of these shows and the topics they bring up… I don’t know if I’m getting old, but I’m like, wow. They’re talking about dating and kissing and this and that… and they’re young! But I guess we were doing the same thing.” (Yes, Mark-Paul, you were -- with a studio audience “woooo”-ing in the background.)

So after wearing a badge on “NYPD Blue” and trying cases on “Franklin & Bash,” does Gosselaar want to go for the TV drama trifecta and play a doctor one day? If he does, he’d be following in some pretty handsome footsteps. “Yeah, I want to do the doctor thing, because I want to be George Clooney,” he says. “Clooney did many, many, many shows, and then he played a doctor, and that was it. I forget when Clooney wrapped up ‘ER,’ but I think I still have some time.” Enough time for a few more seasons of courtroom hi-jinks, at least.