The story behind Zack-Kelly split and the most ‘hated man in ‘Saved by the Bell’ history’

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In the early 1990s, Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski were one of the hottest couples on television. They were certainly the hottest couple on Saturday morning television, where “Saved by the Bell” became a pop culture sensation. They were relationship goals well before NBC’s online store began selling a shirt confirming they were relationship goals.

And then Jeff Hunter came along and messed everything up.

You remember Jeff — the college sophomore who hired Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen) as a server at the Max, swept her off her feet and became the reason she and Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) broke up. He is the “most hated man in ‘Saved by the Bell’ history,” Patrick Muldoon, the actor who played Jeff, told TODAY with a chuckle.

Zack and Kelly’s split played out in episodes that premiered 30 years ago this month. Why did the creative team behind “Saved by the Bell” decide to end Zack and Kelly’s relationship? How did Jeff enter the picture? And how does Muldoon feel about his memorable role all these years later?

In separate interviews with TODAY, Muldoon, “Saved by the Bell” producer Franco Bario and writer-producer Jeffrey Sachs shared their memories of the breakup — a storyline that draws strong reactions to this day. (Muldoon has seen your comments on social media, “Saved by the Bell” fans.)

Writing a new chapter for Zack and Kelly

A main storyline of “Saved by the Bell” during the early part of its run was Zack pursuing, and then dating, his dream girl, Kelly. By the time Jeff was introduced at the beginning of season three (or season four, depending on whether you’re counting the “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” episodes), Zack and Kelly were firmly entrenched as Bayside High’s star couple.

However, the show’s creative team, led in part by executive producer Peter Engel, saw an opportunity to grow and expand the Zack and Kelly characters. That meant Zack and Kelly growing apart as boyfriend and girlfriend.

“In any series the stories have to evolve, and I think Peter’s choice at the time was, what stories do we have left to tell with Zack and Kelly? And this was certainly going to be a big one,” Bario said.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen on
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen on

Steering the characters into a new direction also allowed fans to see how Zack and Kelly would handle a breakup — a situation that most real-life teens who fall in love have to face eventually.

“We were looking, I would imagine, back at high school kids and saying, well, you know, they tend to have these deep relationships, deep love affairs that last a week or two, not a lifetime. So would this be an opportunity for us to do something different and make it real and make it feel like this is what kids, how kids really live,” Sachs recalled.

Still, the decision to have Zack and Kelly move on from each other took the show out of its comfort zone.

“I know for all of us on the show, it was pretty dramatic for us, too, because we were very used to Zack and Kelly being together,” Bario remembered.

The show was taking a risk. Would its audience accept a “Saved by the Bell” in which Zack and Kelly were not together? Muldoon said Engel gave him a heads-up to let him know exactly what he was getting himself into.

“He told me, he goes, ‘Just so you know, for our fan base, this is going to be a big deal. We're taking a chance here.’ I remember Peter said that to me. And I, you know, slowly over these 30 years have realized what he meant,” Muldoon shared, laughing.

Creating and casting Jeff

Coming up with a new love interest for Kelly was a tall order — after all, Zack was a self-proclaimed “blond Tom Cruise.” Jeff may not have been blond, but he was attractive, and he was a college man.

“That was also a casting decision, that we wanted somebody who was young but still strong looking and a little bit older because that's always — or what we perceived at that time — that would have been interesting to a high school girl, and that also might be a little bit more of a challenge to a high school guy who happens to be the most liked high school prankster, for example, in the school and very good looking in his own right,” Sachs said.

“Well, here is some competition that he can't quite get past because this is a UCLA student and he's tall, handsome and all that kind of stuff. Somebody that posed a very interesting threat to Mark-Paul's character of Zack.”

While Jeff may have been an interesting threat to Zack, he was a safe love interest for Kelly, thanks to Muldoon’s performance, according to Bario.

“I think what we had to be careful because he was older, you know, is that we had been living in a world of high school kids, and so I think what Patrick did that was so special and unique is that he fell into that world without making it feel like there was some danger for Kelly, you know? I think that's why he in the audition process came up as such an ideal candidate for that role, because it still felt like something that could make sense for Kelly,” Bario said.

Muldoon described the dynamic between Jeff and Kelly in more blunt terms: “It never crossed my mind, like, Jeff is some high school predator (laughs). Like, that never crossed my mind. And I'm sure it never crossed the writers’ minds.”

Patrick Muldoon on
Patrick Muldoon on

At the time he landed the role of Jeff, Muldoon was a newcomer to scripted TV; “Saved by the Bell” was one of his first acting jobs. He’d previously crossed paths with Thiessen during his modeling days, but he didn’t really know much about “Saved by the Bell” before he filmed his episodes.

“I didn't really realize how popular it was, and I also really didn't realize how much people had an affection for Kelly and Zack and how serious they were about it,” Muldoon, 52, said. “I kind of discovered that, because it was a live audience, and I remember the recording of the show. The reaction from the audience was, like, not favorable, you know (laughs), and strong.”

Muldoon made his first “Saved by the Bell” appearance in the episode “The Last Dance.” As a new manager at the Max, Jeff took a chance on an inexperienced Kelly — who was in need of quick cash before the Bayside costume ball — as a server.

Sachs is credited as a writer of the episode, though he was quick to point out that the writing process for “Saved by the Bell” was a collaborative effort. The Jeff character was named after Sachs and his Brittany spaniel at the time, Hunter, a companion in the writers room.

The kiss and the breakup

Though Muldoon said the audience reaction to his character was not favorable, the studio crowd didn’t object to Kelly and Jeff’s first kiss, either. The moment came when the two were alone at the Max. The audience was silent when Kelly and Jeff first touched lips, but when they kissed again, those in attendance let out a familiar “wooooooooo!”

“I think the audience at first didn't quite know what to make of what was happening, the way that Kelly didn’t, the character, so, yeah, it was pretty quiet at that moment,” Bario said. “And I think, you know, when you're shooting the multicam and you do have a live audience you never really know for sure what reactions will be to things. And I think in a way, hearing the silence in that moment, you know, let us understand that like, you know, this audience was a little — there was some trepidation in what was going on there. And maybe the second kiss became the moment where they're like, all right, well, maybe this will be good for Kelly.”

“I know for all of us on the show, it was pretty dramatic for us, too, because we were very used to Zack and Kelly being together.”

What was not so good for Kelly: the ensuing awkwardness between her and Zack, which came to a head at the costume ball, where they ended their relationship with one last dance outside the school as Slater (Mario Lopez) and Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren) sang “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” a hit for Michael Bolton at the time.

“I don't know honestly what came first, the song or the writing of the scene. I know that Peter was a fan of that song and he felt like it was right for the moment,” Bario remembered.

Sachs believes the title of the song captures how the typical teen feels after a breakup.

“‘How am I supposed to live without you?’ Well, I think you'll do fine (laughs). It's the idea,” he said. “But in the mind of a teenager, it's everything. You know, when you were a teenager, you fell in love, that was the person you wanted, you know, and that was it. You couldn't think beyond that person.”

Related: Leanna Creel shared her memories of playing Tori Scott on "Saved by the Bell" in an interview with TODAY.

Bario recently rewatched the episode and got teary-eyed during the final scene.

“It's funny, Mark-Paul feels like it was, like, sort of a traumatic scene for them to shoot but it was really fast. But I think the whole moment of surrounding it with the song and Mario and Elizabeth singing in the background and it being a dance, you know, I think the song sort of tied all of that together, all those emotions, as opposed to them just stepping outside and having this quick conversation,” he said. (Gosselaar and Thiessen were unavailable for comment for this story.)

In that scene, Zack was accepting of Kelly’s decision to move on with Jeff, which wasn’t entirely in line with his reputation as a self-centered teen who often devised schemes to get his way. This was by design.

“We did want them to be friends. We didn't want Zack to get angry or be mean to Kelly, you know,” Bario explained. “I think it sort of was more indicative of the relationship they had prior to them ultimately getting together and then the one that they were going to have after. I think Peter was very protective of, like, no, we're not doing a show now about an angry Zack, you know, or some kind of, like, bad feeling between them because there were more stories to tell that ultimately put this behind them.”

As far as Sachs is concerned, both characters benefited from the breakup.

“Kelly and Zack, to my mind, were a cute couple and a great couple and obviously the audience loved them together. But they were better together, I think, when they were younger. Because it grew her up in a way to go out with Jeff. And it grew Zack up in a way to see him have to step away from that very comfortable relationship he had with his high school sweetheart,” he said.

The verdict on Jeff, 30 years later

Muldoon was told that his character would appear in three episodes, so Kelly’s relationship with Jeff was destined to be a short one. He returned in the episode titled “The Aftermath” (in which Zack struggled with his lingering emotions over the split) and again later in the season in the episode “Fake IDs,” in which Jeff was caught kissing another girl at a nightclub called the Attic. Kelly dumped him, and that was the last we saw of Jeff.

In a recent episode of his “Saved by the Bell” podcast, “Zack to the Future,” that featured Muldoon, Gosselaar came to Jeff’s defense. “I don’t know that he said they were going to go steady. I think Kelly, being Kelly, had it in her head that this was a relationship and Jeff’s like, ‘Look, I think you’re very special, but I’m just not ready to settle down, I’m not ready to go steady,’” Gosselaar argued.

How does Muldoon view the Jeff character as a whole? He knew when he accepted the role that “Jeff was going to be a bad guy right from the start.” However, looking back on Jeff’s story now, he told TODAY, “I just took it as Jeff was a ladies’ man, you know? I mean, Kelly is obviously gorgeous, and he was just a man about town. I didn't think Jeff had evil intentions. I think it just happened. He didn't have anything against Zack.”

When asked for his take on Jeff, Sachs said, “This is me just conjecturing at this late stage 30 years later, you know, we weren't trying to make him the bad guy, but there's a growing-up aspect. And who knows — I doubt he promised that he wanted to be, you know, exclusive with Kelly. I don't remember having those discussions. I think what we were doing was probably just trying to find a way for it to have its natural end.”

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen in
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen in

After the Kelly-Jeff story ran its course, Muldoon received flak from “Saved by the Bell” fans for the way his character handled the relationship.

“After it aired, right, I was surprised that everybody knew about it. My friends, my age, right? I think I kind of thought that ‘Saved by the Bell’ was like a morning Saturday kiddie show for, like, people my (younger) sister's age and the realization that that's not true, that, you know, of all ages people watch that show. And, like, I was early 20s and all my friends were like, ‘Dude, you dog, you dog, you stole Kelly from Zack, you piece of s---,’” Muldoon said, adding that it was all in good fun.

He’s still hearing it from fans all these years later, thanks (or no thanks) to social media.

“There's not a week that goes by that I don't get some grief for stealing Kelly from Zack — still, to this day. If I check Twitter, Instagram today, you know, there'll be something, usually something's in there saying, ‘I hate you,’” he said with a laugh.

Kelly has long since moved on; she rekind­led her romance with Zack and married him, and they now appear along with their son on Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot. (Peacock is owned by our parent company, NBCUniversal.) However, she did drop Jeff’s name in conversation during season one of the reboot.

Did the Jeff reference open the door for Muldoon’s return to the “Saved by the Bell” universe? Bario, an executive producer on the reboot, said there are no current plans to bring back Jeff, but Muldoon would be interested in reviving the character if the opportunity presented itself.

Muldoon recalled Gosselaar floating the idea of a Jeff appearance on the reboot.

“We were talking and he's just like, ‘How do we do this reboot without some kind of, you know — the big villain of the show?’ Which is the surprising thing since it was only three episodes, that it stuck with people that much,” he said.

He added, “Mark-Paul was like, ‘Yeah, we have to have a Jeff episode or something on the reboot,’ which I would love to do if they figure that out. It would be hilarious.”

What would Jeff’s life look like if he did return?

“There's not a week that goes by that I don't get some grief for stealing Kelly from Zack — still, to this day."

“Jeff doesn't seem to me like the intellectual type. I think if he's in that world, he would be in athletics. You know, maybe — yeah, I don't know. But football coach trying to relive his past,” Muldoon guessed. “He’d probably be — I mean, he had an ego to him, right? You know, he's a ladies’ man. So there'd be something of that still in him. And it might be funny because he thinks he still has swagger, but he doesn't anymore. That might be funny.”

Whether Jeff returns or not, Muldoon feels lucky to have played a part on a show whose popularity has endured for decades.

“I'm happy that people remember Jeff. It's not for a great reason. But I'll take it,” he said, laughing.

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