Back to School
From Fame's dancers to Square Pegs geeks, we catch up with TV's most popular class acts
Inspired by the 1980 film, the drama about a troupe of young actors, dancers, musicians and singers enrolled at what was then Manhattan’s High School for the Performing Arts “was a great place to get paid for growing up and learning,” says costar Nia Peeples. And although school let out 14 years ago, the kinship is still strong. “We’re all part of the same club,” says P. R. Paul. “Once you’re in it, you can’t get out.”
A pianist, Curreri faked his way through portraying singer Bruno Martelli by composing songs that disguised his vocal limitations. “It was almost talk-singing,” says Curreri, 40, who has a baby (and one on the way) with wife Sherry Dean Curreri, a TV producer. Today he plays to his strengths, composing scores for TV.
Gimpel, who played singer Coco Hernandez and sang the show’s theme, went on to act on stage, film and TV (she has a regular role on ER). Still, fans remember her name from Fame. “People tell me,” says the single Gimpel, 37, “Coco inspired them to follow their dreams.”
Landsburg (Doris Schwartz) hit a low point the night the show picked up an editing Emmy in 1985. “I was so drunk I fell out of my chair,” she says. “That was a wake-up call.” Now 43 and sober, she’s wed to composer James McVay (they have two children) and is directing. “But it’s okay that Fame is what people know me from,” she says.
Paul (actor Montgomery Mac-Neil) has had guest spots “on every bad TV show,” he says with a laugh. Now 45 and single, he’s producing a film. “If I act again, great,” he says, “and if I don’t, that’s fine too.”
The never-married Greenlee, 41, who played nerdy hall monitor Dwight Mendenhall, now mostly does voice-over work but says Fame taught him that the limelight isn’t everything: “You should want the work, you should want the process.”
Borrego (dancer Jesse Valesquez) still dances and acts (Con Air, ER) but misses the special ed Fame offered. “I studied with some of the best dancers in the business,” says Borrego, 39 and married to actress Valeria Hernandez, 27 (they have one daughter). “Fame was better than school.”
After a singing career and roles in TV series like Walker, Texas Ranger, Peeples, 39, mother of two and married to stuntman Lauro Chartrand, is now writing a TV script. “Fame was about pursuing dreams,” says Peeples (heartbreaker Nicole Chapman). “Everyone can relate.”
During auditions for the role of tender tough guy Danny Amatulio, Imperato, then 17, decided he didn’t want the part, before having a change of heart. “I purposely rehearsed my lines wrong,” he recalls. Now 38 and living in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with wife Angela and their three children, he’s still fickle about fame. Though he costarred in a film he developed with pal Scott Baio (Happy Days), he co-owns four Gold’s gyms and builds movie sets. “In show business,” he says, “you have to diversify.”
After two seasons as cellist Julie Miller, Singer left the show for films like Footloose. Now 43, the divorced actress (with son Jacques Rio, 10) stays out of the spotlight, living quietly in Manhattan. “She was a child star,” says her lawyer Barry Levin. “She wants to preserve her privacy.”
Gene Anthony Ray
“When he did his thing, people stopped in their tracks,” says costar David Greenlee of Ray, who played dancer Leroy Johnson both in the movie and on TV. But sudden fame led Ray to trouble with booze. “I found comfort in a gin and tonic,” he says. “Or six or seven.” Living in Italy for the past three years, the never-married Ray, 39, says he is now sober, earning money making public appearances. “They go absolutely crazy for me here,” he says.
Allen wasn’t an experienced mom during her stint as no-nonsense dance teacher Lydia Grant, but she felt like one. “It was like raising teens,” says the actress-choreographer, 51, mother to Vivian, 17, and Norman, 14, and married to sports agent Norm Nixon. Post-Fame, she directed and produced and last January opened a dance academy in Culver City, Calif., not far from where the show was taped. Says Allen: “It’s like being back on Fame.”
Gibb got an icy reception when she joined Fame in 1983 as rich kid Holly Laird. “I kept calling her Olivia Newton Puke,” says costar Valerie Landsburg. But Gibb—now 37 and living in L.A. with her husband, film producer Scott Kramer, and their 10-year-old daughter—soon won over both Landsburg and fans. “Fame was the best job anyone could have hoped for,” says the TV actress, who is expecting her second child in March. “It was exhausting but exhilarating.”
THE FACTS OF LIFE
You take the good, you take the bad, you take both and there you have The Facts of Life—a sitcom about four Eastland girls growing up under the watchful eye of Mrs. Garrett. Most of the cast has reunited for a TV film airing Nov. 18 (Nancy MeKeon declined), but the mood won’t be all nostalgia. Says Mindy Cohn: “I am in horror at the hairstyles!”
“Everywhere I go, it’s ‘Oh, Mrs. Garrett! I grew up with you!’ ” says Rae, who played housemother Edna Garrett. Says her 14-year-old granddaughter Carly Strauss (with Rae): “She always smiles and signs autographs.” Now 75, Rae, divorced since 1976, is still acting, mostly onstage near her homes in L.A. and New York City. But she admits no other project has had the lasting appeal of Facts. “Wherever I go, I feel this warmth from people,” she says. “I don’t think all sitcoms do that.”
Preparing for her Facts role at a Bel Air, Calif., school, Charlotte Rae came across seventh grader Cohn and suggested her for a role—the sweetly naive Natalie Green. “She had this laugh,” Rae recalls. “She was a natural.” The single Cohn, 35, who continues to act and has a production company in Venice, Calif., says making the show was “just a ball” and doesn’t mind being recognized from its reruns. “If my car were to break down,” she says, “I could knock on any door and they’d let me come in and use the phone because I was Natalie.”
After casting McKeon in Lifetime’s cop series The Division last year, producer Deborah Joy LeVine encountered the cult of Jo Polniaczek. “I went into Starbucks right after Nancy had been in there, and the cashier was crying,” she says. “She said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t take your order now, I just saw Jo!’ ”
But McKeon, now 35 and single, has distanced herself from her tomboy character. “I can’t say that I’m overjoyed to see myself in puberty in Facts reruns for the rest of my life,” she said in July. Says costar Lisa Whelchel: “She doesn’t want to get typecast. Her talent is unappreciated.”
Though she says she “couldn’t see much eternal impact” of starring on Facts at the time, Whelchel, who played Eastland rich girl Blair Warner, does now. Currently on a cross-country tour to promote The Facts of Life and Other Lessons My Father Taught Me, a book of essays about her Christian faith, Whelchel, 38, says her Facts fame “gives me the opportunity to reach a wide audience.” Married since 1988 to Steven Cauble, 51, a minister (with their three kids, Tucker, 11, Haven, 10, and Clancy, 8), Whelchel says she “can’t go anywhere without being recognized as Blair,” but has no immediate plans to act again. “If I didn’t have kids, I would definitely go back—it’s such a creative release,” she says. “But it doesn’t compare to being a mom.”
Cast at age 9 as roller-skating Tootie Ramsey, Fields has fond memories of growing up on Facts. Nancy McKeon taught her how to shave her legs; they all told her, well, the facts of life. But Fields, 32—who is divorced and lives in L.A.—still cringes when she sees herself as a teen on tape. “All that big hair and braces!” she says.
Fields, who went on to earn a B.A. from Pepperdine University and star on FOX’s Living Single, now directs for TV. In the upcoming Facts reunion movie, her character is called Dorothy. Why? “What grown woman,” Fields asks, “wants to be called Tootie?”
SAVED BY THE BELL
Buried between cartoons in an untraditional Saturday-morning time slot, the teen sitcom wasn’t expected to garner huge ratings. But the gang from Bayside High—and their innocent antics—won a loyal audience. “The first time we beat Bugs Bunny, we felt really good,” says Dennis Haskins, who played ever patient principal Mr. Belding on both the original show and the 1993-99 sequel Saved by the Bell: the New Class. (Dustin Diamond also continued, as Screech.) “And then we did a mall tour, and people chased the kids and ripped their clothes. That’s when we knew we were a hit.”
Playing heartthrob A.C. Slater for five years, Lopez, 28, should have learned something about male-female relationships. This fall he gets to show how much on NBC’s The Other Half, a new daytime talk show that aims to be a male counterpoint to ABC’s The View. He also recently produced a film starring girlfriend Ali Landry, 28-best known as the sexy Doritos girl. “I’ve always said I want to be the Bo Jackson of entertainment,” he declares. “I want to do it all.”
After Bell‘s demise, the Internet buzzed with tales about Diamond’s fate. “There were a bunch of rumors,” says the actor, who played supernerd Screech Powers. “My favorites were that I was actually Mike D from the Beastie Boys and that I’d died.” Alive and well and touring as a stand-up comic, Diamond, 24, also plays bass in his band Salty the Pocketknife, which recently recorded its first album. Now living in Orange County, Calif., with his girlfriend of three years, whom he’ll only identify as Jennifer, Diamond says that despite being “pigeonholed” by his Bell role, “it has been a great springboard for many things.” Among them: a film project he is undertaking with—who else?—Jaleel White, a.k.a. Family Matters geek Steve Urkel.
After six years as Bell‘s smart-alecky smooth talker Zach Morris, “I was struggling to get a job,” Gosselaar, the son of Dutch émigrés, told People in 1998. He eventually won roles in The WB’s short-lived 1998 series Hyperion Bay and a big-screen comedy of the same year, Dead Man on Campus. But his big breakthrough didn’t come until this year, when he was offered a new beat, playing cop John Clark on NYPD Blue. Wed since 1996 to actress Lisa Ann Russell, 30, Gosselaar, 27, who lives just outside of Los Angeles, is relishing his new acting challenge. Now when he reports to the set, he says, “I get to carry a pistol.”
Bell‘s studious Jessie Spano would have been shocked—shocked!—by Berkley’s gyrating G-strings in 1995’s cinematic-turkey-turned-cult-fave Showgirls. When the movie was universally vilified, Berkley, 29, saw her career prospects plummet. Nasty reviews aside, however, she certainly earned plenty of exposure. “After Showgirls I was left with this name and fame,” she told Newsday in 1999, “that millions of actresses work years for.”
Since then Berkley (with boyfriend Greg Lauren, an actor and nephew of designer Ralph) returned to the big screen in films like The First Wives Club, Any Given Sunday and this summer’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. The L.A.-based actress also went back to school, earning an English literature degree from UCLA. Post-Showgirls, she said, “I had to get past the hurt and get on with it.”
After Bell, Voorhies (clotheshorse Lisa Turtle) found her niche in soaps, first joining Days of Our Lives and later The Bold and the Beautiful. Offscreen life brought unexpected drama as well. After a brief 1993 engagement to actor Martin Lawrence, Voorhies, 27, wed L.A. sometime model Miguel Coleman, 27, in 1996. Today she runs her own film production company and continues to act, most recently in a film with rapper Method Man. “I thought she was a cute little girl on Saved by the Bell,” says the film’s producer Shauna Garr, “and when I met her she had the exact same quality, yet as a woman.”
As Bell‘s ultra-approachable principal, Haskins faced even the most outrageous student antics with a laugh. Fans won’t let him forget it. “Just last week someone said to me, ‘Let me hear your laugh, Mr. Belding!’ ” says Haskins, who remained on the show throughout its 10-year run. “That and the line, ‘Hey, hey, hey, what’s going on here?’ ”
Having recently grown a mustache to distance himself from his Bell role, Haskins, 50, hopes to land wider-ranging acting jobs, such as his guest-starring role last season as a psychiatrist on ABC’s The Practice. Divorced since 1996, he lives in Los Angeles and sometimes visits schools to give motivational speeches. “I talk to the kids and the teachers and principals,” he says, “and I say, ‘Follow your dreams.’ ”
An acting novice and former Miss Junior America, Thiessen was an easy pick for Kelly Kapowski, the wholesome-as-yogurt lass who beguiled all the Bell boys. “Tiffani was just that character,” recalls casting director Robin Lippin. But after her five years on Bell, Thiessen got the chance to show her wilder side. In 1994 she joined the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 as vampy Valerie Malone. This fall Thiessen, 27, will appear as a love interest of David Spade’s on Just Shoot Me. Now living in the Hollywood Hills with her boyfriend, actor Richard Ruccolo, 29 (the pair met last year on ABC’s now defunct Two Guys and a Girl), Thiessen has worked hard to shed her cutesy Bell rep. One possible step in that direction: Two years ago she dropped the “Amber” from her name.
The trials of Weemawee High’s ninth-grade nothings touched the misfit in every fan. But Pegs creator Anne Beatts imagines the girls grew into swans as glam as Sarah Jessica Parker‘s Carrie on Sex and the City—”without maybe so many of the sexual escapades.”
So perfect as Weemawee ubersnob Muffy Tepperman, Gertz, now 35, went on to similar roles in Sixteen Candles and on The Facts of Life. “She’s a really wonderful comedian,” says Pegs creator Anne Beatts. “We nicknamed her Rubber Face because she could contort her face in the most unusual ways.” Roles in dramatic films like Less than Zero, The Lost Boys and Twister followed, but Gertz, married since 1987 to stock investor Tony Ressler, 40 (they have three children: Oliver, 9, Nicky, 6, and Theo, 2), is playing a more important part in life these days. “I’m focused on being a wife and mom now,” says Gertz, who lives in L.A. and likes to work close to home. “My first question when I’m offered a part is, ‘Where’s it being shot?’ ”
Sarah Jessica Parker
Carrie Bradshaw, her stylish Sex and the City character, fits Parker, 36, as perfectly as her size 7 Jimmy Choos, so it’s hard to imagine how she was ever cast as Geek Queen Patty Greene. “I said that she was too pretty,” says creator Anne Beatts of Parker, then only 17. “But the casting person took a pair of cheap sunglasses, broke the lenses out and put them on Sarah and said, ‘Okay, now look at her.’ She still looked pretty, but she was just so good.” After Pegs, Parker won attention both for her acting and her love life, dating a string of famous men from Robert Downey Jr. to John F. Kennedy Jr. before settling down with Matthew Broderick, 39, whom she married in 1997. And with two Golden Globes for Sex and the City and fashion icon status to her name, even the biggest pair of glasses wouldn’t make Parker look square now. “She has blossomed,” says friend of 12 years and Sex assistant director Bettiann Fishman. “She’s a happy human being, and it shows.”
It wasn’t until after her Square Pegs stint that Wells, who played oh-so-cool LaDonna Fredericks, heard her true calling. Working as a voice-over actress, Wells, 41, most recently offered her talents to some fairies and goblins in Shrek and a robot in A.I. “She’s one of the top artists in Los Angeles,” says Mitch Carter, who runs a leading voice-over company. “She’s always my first call.” Divorced and living in L.A., Wells is still best friends with costar Tracy Nelson and remembers their time as TV pals with pride. “When I got that show, it was a big confirmation for me of my talent,” says Wells, now writing a one-woman comedy show. “It changed my life and gave me tremendous confidence.”
Wearing a cumbersome—and unflattering—fat suit for her role as Lauren Hutchinson didn’t bother actress Linker a bit. But a couple of years after her Pegs stint, “a casting director told me to lose weight, and it really disturbed me,” says Linker, now 35, That encounter, combined with four years of French studies at Wellesley College, sapped Linker’s interest in acting, although, she says, “I do feel grateful for the whole experience.” Now, after working in marketing, Linker has returned to the classroom, this time as a second-grade teacher. “Finally,” she says, “I’ve found a career I’m excited about.”
After playing, like, Jennifer DeNuccio in Pegs, Nelson, 37, recovered from a 1987 diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease and maintained steady appearances on the small screen (Father Dowling Mysteries, Melrose Place) for years. Now she’s concentrating on her role as a parent. Raising 2-month-old son Elijah with director beau Chris Clark (and daughter Remi, 9, with ex-husband Billy Moses), “I’ve been living off the money I made from TV,” says the L.A.-based Nelson. “You can’t do both brilliantly well, act and be a mom, so I downsized.”
21 JUMP STREET
Featuring four cool cops undercover as high school students, 21 Jump Street was the first series to deal with serious teen issues, says star Holly Robinson Peete. “Recently I heard someone say Beverly Hills, 90210 was, and I said, ‘Oh no, girlfriend! Jason Priestley guest-starred on our show.'”
As rebel-with-a-cause Tom Hanson, Depp “made a big effort to not be a teen idol,” says costar Nguyen. He’s still fighting that image. Now 38 and living in France with actress Vanessa Paradis, 28, and their daughter Lily-Rose, 2, Depp usually opts for films (Chocolat, Blow) as un-Hollywood as his life. “The great thing that France has given me is the opportunity to have a normal, simple life,” he said recently.
Since playing Judy Hoffs, Robinson, 37, has gotten used to being in the public eye, starring in the sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and marrying NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, 35, in 1995. But the actress, now Robinson Peete (with twins Ryan and Rodney, 4), still marvels at Jump Street‘s rabid fan base. “This was FOX in the first year,” she says. “Not everybody got it. It was Channel 99 with a coat hanger.”
Playing Harry Truman Ioki made Nguyen one of TV’s first Asian-American heartthrobs. No wonder that L.A.-based Nguyen, 39, who is engaged to Angela Rockwood, 25, is still known for that role despite a decade of other TV and film work. When he joined USA’s V.I.P in 1998, even star Pamela Anderson was impressed. “She kept telling me how nervous she was to be around me,” he says. “I thought that was hilarious.”
Here’s a Hollywood paradox: “During Jump Street I’m signing all these autographs at Kmart,” says DeLuise, 34, who played wisecracking Doug Penhall. “Then I’m losing jobs because I’m not a big enough name anymore.” So DeLuise (home in Vancouver with his fiancée, actress Anne Marie Loder, 32, and dog Maggie) moved behind the camera as a TV director, working on Showtime’s Stargate SG-1. The son of actor Dom DeLuise still enjoys poking fun at his Jump Street years, as when he directed an episode of Nguyen’s series V.I.P. in 1999 and gave himself a cameo. Brushing up against his ex-costar, he feigned a double take.