Sam Bobrick, who created the enduring NBC high school sitcom “Saved by the Bell,” and whose play “Norman, Is That You?” reached audiences around the world after it fizzled on Broadway in 1970, died on Oct. 11 in Los Angeles. He was 87.
His wife, Julie Bobrick, said he died in a hospital two days after having a stroke.
Bobrick was already a television stalwart, having written for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Get Smart,” when he created and wrote the pilot for “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” a Disney Channel show about a teacher in Indianapolis, played by Hayley Mills, and some of her students, in 1988. After it was canceled a year later, NBC picked up the show, retained some of the cast (but not Mills), renamed it “Saved by the Bell” and moved it to California.
“Saved by the Bell” followed a group of loudly dressed teenagers who were mentored, and sometimes disciplined, by a principal played by Dennis Haskins. The show, whose cast included Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen, Dustin Diamond, Lark Voorhies, Mario Lopez and Elizabeth Berkley, portrayed high school with a lighthearted irreverence that appealed to young audiences.
New episodes of “Saved by the Bell” aired on Saturday mornings until 1992, and the show was widely syndicated after that. It inspired two spinoff shows, two TV movies, an off-Broadway musical and a pop-up restaurant in West Hollywood. A new “Saved by the Bell” series starring Lopez and Berkley as adult versions of their characters is slated to appear on Peacock, NBC’s new streaming service, next year.
Bobrick parted ways with “Saved by the Bell” early on to work with producer Grant Tinker on “The Van Dyke Show,” a sitcom that starred Dick Van Dyke and his son Barry. It was canceled after one season.
“In two years Grant Tinker is out of business,” Bobrick told The Kansas City Star in 2000. “Nothing worked for him, whatever the reasons. And ‘Saved by the Bell’ ran 10 years and created an empire. It’s in every country.
“So you know nothing. You never know what the right move is.”
That sentiment also applied to the plays Bobrick wrote with Ron Clark, whom he had worked with on the Smothers Brothers show. Their first Broadway collaboration was the 1970 comedy “Norman, Is That You?”
“Norman, Is That You?,” which was directed by George Abbott and starred Lou Jacobi, Maureen Stapleton and Martin Huston, followed a Midwestern dry cleaner who visits his son in New York after his wife leaves him, and discovers that his son is gay and living with a boyfriend.
“It seems to be one of those nasty, smug little plays smirking continually at recognition of their own cleverness, as if they had an in-built air of self-satisfaction engulfing them,” Clive Barnes wrote in his review in The New York Times.
“Norman” closed on Broadway after just 12 performances, but its run was far from over. It became a favorite in regional theaters in the United States, with productions that starred Milton Berle, Harvey Korman and Hans Conried, among others; ran for years in Paris and traveled to Spain, Scandinavia, Poland, Germany and Yugoslavia; and became the first feature film directed by George Schlatter, the producer of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The movie, starring Redd Foxx, Pearl Bailey and Michael Warren, was released in 1976.
A 1977 article in The New York Times reported that “Clark and Bobrick have earned about $500,000 each from ‘Norman’ — and no Broadway soothsayer ever thought that would happen.”
Samuel Bobrick was born in Chicago on July 24, 1932, to Jack and Minnette (Marcus) Bobrick. His father owned an Army surplus store, and his mother was a postal worker. In 1950 he graduated from a high school in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where his family said he had moved to stay with his grandparents after an anti-Semitic attack in his Chicago school.
He served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1955, editing the newspaper at a base in Wilmington, Ohio. In 1956 he completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
After graduating, Bobrick moved to New York, where he became a songwriter. His most successful song was “The Girl of My Best Friend,” which he wrote with Beverly Ross and which Elvis Presley recorded in 1960.
He began writing for radio and television and in 1962 moved to Los Angeles, where he worked on shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” “The Flintstones” and “Bewitched.”
Despite his long career in television, Bobrick considered himself primarily a playwright, and he continued writing plays until his death. In 2011 the Mystery Writers of America honored him with an Edgar Award for best play for “The Psychic,” about a struggling writer who poses as a psychic and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery with comedic touches. It was performed at the Falcon Theater (now the Garry Marshall Theater) in Burbank, California, in 2010.
He married Jeanne Johnson in 1963. They divorced in 1990, and in 2000 he married Julie Stein. In addition to his wife, with whom he lived in Los Angeles, he is survived by two daughters, Lori Donner and Stefanie Bobrick Owen; a son, Joey; a brother, Edward; a sister, Carole Swerdlove; and two grandchildren.
Bobrick and Clark collaborated on three more Broadway plays: “No Hard Feelings” (1973), which starred Eddie Albert, Stockard Channing and Nanette Fabray; “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” (1979), with Bob Dishy and Joyce Van Patten; and “Wally’s Cafe” (1981), with James Coco, Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, in her Broadway debut.
None of them ran for more than 12 performances, but all have since been produced on other stages.
“They all bombed on Broadway,” Bobrick said. “And they’ve all traveled around the world making money entertaining the people. I would rather have that.”