PASADENA, Calif. — Though some people still think of him as the kid Zack Morris from “Saved by the Bell,” Mark-Paul Gosselaar is definitely grown up.
The divorced father of two kids, with more than 30 years in show business, Gosselaar has earned his suit and tie and, most recently, his law degree.
When industry insiders began to see him as a tall leading-man type, they started to cast him as a cop or a lawyer. This week, he co-starred in TNT’s new dramedy, “Franklin&Bash,” in which he plays an unorthodox attorney in cahoots with his zany partner played by Breckin Meyer.
It was TV producer Steven Bochco who first discerned the adult in Gosselaar, who’s been acting since he was 4. (He earned his Screen Actors Guild Card in 1982).
“ ‘NYPD Blue’ back in 2001 I would characterize as my first adult role,” said Gosselaar, folding his long legs under the table in a restaurant at a hotel here.
“I was 26, and that was a big step for me. It was difficult to convince people I was grown up. I didn’t try out for ‘NYPD Blue.’ I tried out for ‘Philly,’ which is the role that Tom Everett Scott ended up getting.”
Bochco was also the producer on “Philly.”
“I met with him and he said, ‘You’re fantastic, but I don’t think you’re right for this role. But let me know if you get another pilot. I’d love to work with you sometime.’ I thought that was a very nice thing for him to say, but he was just being nice. But within two weeks he called my representation and asked, ‘How would he like to do “NYPD Blue?” ’
“Are you kidding me? I’d never played a cop up to that point. But when you’re offered something I always feel the stress is more because THEY think you can do it, but you have to prove yourself more. So the day I walked onto the set with Dennis (Franz), no one knew whether I could play that role or not.”
He did well, as he did later in “Commander in Chief,” “John from Cincinnati,” “Raising the Bar” — all as guys old enough to shave and pay income tax.
Gosselaar’s mom is Indonesian and his dad is Dutch. He’s the only child of four who wasn’t born in the Netherlands, though he does speak Dutch. His nearest sibling is 11 years older than he.
And though he’s been acting nearly all of his life, he says he sought therapy for a while because he wasn’t confident in his chosen field.
While Gosselaar loves the rituals of performing, he’s not so fond of the other side.
“I like the process. I like meeting the producers, meeting the writers, initially looking at a script and envisioning what it could be and then actually getting on the set and doing the work as an actor. Without sounding too cliche, I like using my hands. I like to work. I think it was ingrained in me from a very early age by my parents to be a worker. My father was a very hard worker; my mother was a homemaker. Work was a big part of our life. I’m not a huge fan of the industry and everything that comes with it; I can do without that. I know it’s part of the game, part of the process, but for me it’s the work, the everyday driving to the set, getting there in the morning and putting in 16 hours. I enjoy it,” he said.
“People say, ‘Do you regret having been working at such a young age?’ Sure you can find regret in anything, but if you accept it, I’ve had a great life. I am where I am now because of my past. I have no regret for that.”
Still he admits that child stardom can be a burden for someone so young. “You haven’t evolved as an actor. I still, to this day, know I have more maturing to do. I’m 37 and have two kids, but every 10 years I feel like I have a rebirth and am starting over again.”
Last year, Gosselaar and his wife of 14 years, Lisa Anne Russell, divorced. That was the most difficult time of his life, he says.
“The divorce was a big turning point, another point where I had to step up and grow up. I had a relationship from the time I was 19 till I was 36, so I grew up with the individual but now I’m on my own and having to grow up on my own, and that’s completely different from being with someone that long.”
He and his ex share custody. “That’s never been an issue,” he said. “We both understand the importance of having both parents in their lives. The kids have nothing to do with us being unhappy with each other. We don’t have any animosity toward each other. We grew apart, and that happens when you get married at a young age. We were married 14 years. I didn’t feel I was young at that point. I had a great marriage and produced two kids out of it, but as individuals you change and you grow.”